For weeks the media have been covering "racism in health care reform opposition." For the most part I’ve found this political moment to be an interesting opportunity to discuss the meanings of race, the history of racial exclusion and violence, and the ongoing realities of racial inequality in America.
But I have also been a little baffled as to why so many liberal white Americans are shocked about the sometimes explicit, but far more often, simply implied racial bias that has infected some of the opposition to the Obama administration. My scholarship and teaching center on issues of race, blackness, and African American politics, and while I believe "racism" is interesting and important; it is not exactly breaking news. Clarence Page of the Chicago Tribune laughingly suggested that he was telling his white liberal friends who were aghast at the vitriol aimed at President Obama, "welcome to my world."
My surprise that "racism" has dominated the news cycle for so long turned to tangible anxiety when President Clinton appeared on Larry King Live. Former President Clinton made a compelling case for health care reform and when asked about the racial motivations of the opposition he said:
"I don’t believe that all the people who oppose him [Obama] on health care — and all the conservatives — are racists. And I believe if he were white, every single person who opposes him now would be opposing him then."
I agree with Clinton that the opposition to President Obama’s plan is about health care reform, not about race. Any Democratic president who introduced health care reform was going to be met with vicious, organized opposition. No one knows this better than the Clintons whose own health care reform efforts were effectively shut down by organized efforts on the Right.
The opposition is about policy and profits, but the frames, the tone, and the strategies of that opposition are always unique to the opponent. When the Clintons introduced health care reform they were not called Witch Doctors or monkeys. Racialized language and images are used to help frame arguments against Obama in particular.
But the part of the interview that worries me comes next, when President Clinton said,
"While I have devoted my life to getting rid of racism, I think this [health care] is a fight that my president and our party — this is one we need to win on the merits."