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The Race to Race

September 23, 2009

Recently, political pundits and (especially) liberal bloggers have advanced the idea that much of the sometimes-raucous opposition to President Obama’s health care proposals stems from latent racism. Maureen Dowd went as far as to imply that Joe Wilson’s ill-advised outburst during Obama’s prime-time health care address was reminiscent of  a plantation owner in the South, or at least some scary white old guy down there. (You’ll have to forgive her: Poor Maureen once called John Roberts’ and Sam Alito’s lack of minority-ness a “disgrace,” so naturally she should have a hard time seeing anything but the KKK in a white guy losing his temper).

But even someone as thick-skulled as Loud Dowd should have a little more gray stuff in between her ears than to conclude this:

“But Wilson’s shocking disrespect for the office of the president — no Democrat ever shouted “liar” at W. when he was hawking a fake case for war in Iraq — convinced me: Some people just can’t believe a black man is president and will never accept it.”

This latest bit of absurdity from the New York Times’ resident red-headed bombshell reveals more about the weaknesses in the liberal (not necessarily Democratic) approach to the health care debate than perhaps any other statement or action over the past few months. At its core, Dowd’s assertion betrays a narrow-minded reliance on stereotype that threatens to tarnish the legacy of a legitimate and historic social movement while forsaking any chance at real debate on critically-needed health care reform.

Allow me to explain. I think what Maureen and a lot of other liberals see in Joe Wilson is not a Congressman frustrated with the lack of public input in the crafting of health reform legislation, but rather Orval Faubus. Piecing together a half-assed, whole-bias biography of Wilson ripped entirely from the “Controversies” section of his Wikipedia page, Dowd and her ilk have created a narrative that positions Wilson as the anti-civil rights, minority-hating Southern relic against the infallible and unassailable black President valiantly fighting for progress. Screaming Southerners remind them too much of riots at Ole Miss and the Southern campaign of Massive Resistance waged by Faubus and others in an effort to keep the South from having to adhere to the 14th Amendment. Scared that this could happen again, they reflexively attempt to discredit any Southerner (or any white person, really) who stands in Obama’s way by labeling them a racist.

Wilson was wrong to address the President the way he did – he disrespected the office of the President, and he deservedly was censured by the House for it. Massive Resistance was wrong, as it stood in the way of real equality in American society. But the problem with the parallels between the two is that they’re only skin-deep. Leaving aside the ultimate irony that Faubus himself (along with most of the Massive Resistance movement’s leaders, in fact) was a Democrat, the only similarity that ties these two ideas together is that angry white people are involved in both. But if you’ve ever talked to a white person about sports (or even American Idol), you’ll know what Maureen doesn’t: that (legitimate) anger comes from a lot more places than racism.

And that, in essence, is the problem. Dowd thinks conservatives are the ones trying to distract attention from a reasoned debate on health care. In fact, by trying to bring race into the complicated issue of health care reform, it’s she who distracts attention from the core discussion. Again, perhaps, we should forgive her for her deception; intellectual dishonesty seems to run rampant on the NY Times editorial pages. Paul Krugman’s favorite trick seems to be to take the inviolable greatness of the public option as given, not seeing the need to justify more than $1 trillion in new spending over the next 10 years with actual evidence. Dowd and Krugman are examples of the broader trend of Democrats refusing to address the central questions that many Americans have on this issue.

If, as Krugman asserts, the public option will help lower costs by being a “price-setter” in the market, how can we take Obama at his word that the government plan will be only one plan among many, when good economists know very well the crucial element of price-setting is significant market influence? They can’t have it both ways, yet doing just that seems to be the crux of their argument for the public option (and the non-profit cooperatives, for that matter). Why does Obama continue to declare that 47 million people in the U.S. lack access to health insurance despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary? The number is closer to 5 million, and at the very least should be more like 35 million if Obama is actually telling the truth that illegal immigrants won’t be eligible under his plan (which, coincidentally, is the issue that got Joe Wilson all riled up).

Perhaps because they have Prof. Cutler and the rest of Harvard’s faculty behind them telling them Obama’s solutions to health care are the best, liberals feel less of a need to justify their plans to the American public. But their hubris in this case is severely damaging. Not only do they refuse to consider external ideas for reform (including eliminating barriers to purchasing insurance across state lines or the removal of the tax exemption on employer purchase of health insurance), but they also miscast opponents of reform as misinformed rather than what is more likely: that they’re overinformed on this issue, so much so that the flaws of the Obama health plan being discovered by conservatives are outpacing Democrats’ ability to defend them.

And the real, long-term potential damage of this strategy is to reduce the well-deserved respect with which we regard those opponents of the real Massive Resistance, the whites and blacks who combined in the civil rights movement of the 1960s. By persisting in playing the race card in the face of opposition of any kind that happens to be coincidentally borne by white people, playing up every opponent of Obama’s policies as a racist, liberals disrespect the memory of civil rights leaders like Martin Luther King and Earl Warren, who fought against real racism in pursuit of a goal of equality in society, the epitome of which is the election of Barack Obama himself.

Liberals may scream and cry about a “right” to health care, and they can try to parlay this rhetoric and their ignorant accusations into seeing themselves as the Civil Rights Movement II. But no matter how hard they try, they’re not, and never will be. And if it takes the Republican Party to tell them that, then they’ve ceded the memory of the true victory in civil rights back to the GOP.

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