By Brian D. Smedley, Ph.D., Vice President and Director, Joint Center Health Policy Institute
Was race a factor in the health care reform debate? Most Americans would wholeheartedly reject this proposition given that race relations in the United States have improved dramatically over the last 50 years, to the point where we’ve elected an African American President. But it’s hard not to understate the degree to which race is a significant backdrop to health care reform. Indeed, I doubt the degree of pushback from the Right would have been as intense were President Obama white.
Over the weekend, we saw the ugly reality of racism played out with use of the “N” word hurled at African American members of Congress as they walked past Tea Party demonstrators on their way to the House floor to vote. U.S. Rep. Emanuel Cleaver (D-MO) was spit upon. (In addition, openly gay congressman U.S. Rep. Barney Frank (D-MA) was harassed with anti-gay epithets.) U.S. House Majority Whip James Clyburn said that he hadn’t seen anything like what he experienced Sunday since he was trying to get from the “back of the bus to the front of the bus in South Carolina.” Ironically, many of these members, such as U.S. Rep. John Lewis (D-GA), have done more to insure that low-income and working-class whites can access health care than the health reform legislation’s opponents.
I remember the atmosphere in the 1993 Clinton health care reform debates; I was a young staffer in a U.S. House member’s office. Then, the debate was intense but civil. No one dared attack the President or any member of Congress personally. But the debate of 2009-2010 became ugly because of a clear mandate to a newly-elected African American President to fix our broken health care system. This mandate, coupled with the fact (and documented by careful research) that large shares of Americans are opposed to social programs such as health care reform because of their fear that “undeserving” people of color will disproportionately benefit, suggests to me that the health care struggle has been more difficult than anyone anticipated because race was the unacknowledged elephant in the room.