May 23

Is opposition to Obamacare really about race? That’s the highly charged question that has bubbled up in the last day or so, starting with a Senate hearing and then bursting into the news media. I won’t keep you in suspense: The answer is, “Yes, but . . . .”  Not all opposition to the Affordable Care Act, and not from all people, and not at all times. But two things are clearly true. First, some conservatives with large megaphones have worked hard to use the ACA as a tool of race-baiting, encouraging their white audiences to see the law through a racial lens. And second, a growing body of evidence demonstrates that race plays a role in many people’s opposition to the law.

Before we get into details, this is coming up now because of an exchange between senators Jay Rockefeller (D-W.Va.) and Ron Johnson (R-Wis.) at a hearing. Here’s how it started:

“It’s very important to take a long view at what’s going on here. And I’ll be able to dig up some emails that make part of the Affordable Care Act that doesn’t look good, especially from people who have made up their mind that they don’t want it to work. Because they don’t like the president, maybe he’s of the wrong color. Something of that sort,” Rockefeller said. “I’ve seen a lot of that and I know a lot of that to be true. It’s not something you’re meant to talk about in public, but it’s something I’m talking about in public because that is very true.”

Senator Johnson reacted angrily, saying that because he was the only Republican in the room, it looked like Sen. Rockefeller was accusing him of being racist — a not uncommon reaction to this kind of accusation.

This morning, MSNBC host and former Republican congressman Joe Scarborough said:

“I must say, I have been behind closed doors with thousands of conservatives through the years. I have never once heard one of them say in the deep south or in the northeast or in South Boston, ‘Boy, I really hate Obamacare because that black president’ — no, I’ve never heard anybody come close to saying that,” Scarborough said on MSNBC’s “Morning Joe.” “And I have spoken to some wildly right wing groups. I have never heard it once.”

There are many reasons why a person might oppose the Affordable Care Act, and there are many people who are opposed to it. You can oppose it for reasons having nothing to do with race. You can oppose it and not be a racist. Heck, I suppose you can even be a racist but oppose it for non-racial reasons.

But let’s return to the two other truths I mentioned up top, that at least some of the opposition to the ACA is tied up with race and that there has been an unusual amount of race-baiting from the right during this presidency, both in general and on the issue of health-care reform.

On the first question, there is a growing body of evidence that people’s implicit or explicit ideas about race affect how they look at the Affordable Care Act. Let me quote from the abstracts of studies done by political scientists and psychologists over the last few years:

  • “Using a nationally representative experiment over two waves, I induced several emotions to elicit anger, fear, enthusiasm, or relaxation. The results show that anger uniquely pushes racial conservatives to be more opposing of health care reform while it triggers more support among racial liberals.” [paper here]
  • “Controlling for explicit prejudice, implicit prejudice predicted a reluctance to vote for Obama, opposition to his health care reform plan, and endorsement of specific concerns about the plan. In an experiment, the association between implicit prejudice and opposition to health care reform replicated when the plan was attributed to Obama, but not to Bill Clinton — suggesting that individuals high in anti-Black prejudice tended to oppose Obama at least in part because they dislike him as a Black person. In sum, our data support the notion that racial prejudice is one factor driving opposition to Obama and his policies.” [paper here]
  • “This study argues that President Obama’s strong association with an issue like health care should polarize public opinion by racial attitudes and race. Consistent with that hypothesis, racial attitudes had a significantly larger impact on health care opinions in fall 2009 than they had in cross-sectional surveys from the past two decades and in panel data collected before Obama became the face of the policy. Moreover, the experiments embedded in one of those reinterview surveys found health care policies were significantly more racialized when attributed to President Obama than they were when these same proposals were framed as President Clinton’s 1993 reform efforts.” [paper here]
  • “This study investigates the relationship between individual-level support for the 2010 Affordable Care Act and nativism, the perception that a traditional American culture and way of life needs to be protected against foreign influence. The results of an analysis of a 2011 public opinion survey demonstrate that nativism was an independent and significant predictor of opposition to health care reform and that this effect held for both Republicans as well as Democrats, although the relationship is stronger for Republicans.” [paper here]

What this demonstrates is that when we approach a policy issue, none of us looks at it in a vacuum. We bring to it the ideas and opinions we associate with the people and parties advocating the various positions, among other things. Now add to that the fact that since Barack Obama took office in 2009, conservatives have been told, over and over and over again, that Barack Obama is coming to do them harm precisely because of their race.

No one who pays any attention to conservative media can honestly deny that this has been the case. The idea that Barack Obama is leading an army of black people coming to exact revenge on whites for past sins has been a staple of conservative rhetoric since the beginning of his presidency. Often, this is framed in terms of reparations for slavery: whatever policy Obama happens to be advocating at the moment, including health-care reform, conservative audiences are told that it is an effort by Obama to take their money and give it to black people to right a historical wrong for which they are blameless. In a 2009 discussion about the stimulus bill, Rush Limbaugh told his listeners, “Obama’s entire economic program is reparations!” Not long before, Limbaugh said this:

“The president of the United States? We’re talking now about a Supreme Court justice? The days of them [racial minorities] not having any power are over, and they are angry. And they want to use their power as a means of retribution. That’s what Obama’s about, gang. He’s angry, he’s gon’ cut this country down to size, he’s gon’ make it pay for all its multicultural mistakes that it has made, its mistreatment of minorities. I know exactly what’s going on.”

And yes, that was a little black dialect Rush threw in there, just to be clear. About the ACA, Limbaugh said, “This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it.” Or another time: “I think I’ve finally figured out why Obama it is pushing so hard on this health care bill. He just wants us to have the same health care and plan that he had in Kenya.” In early 2012, Limbaugh said this:

“Obama has a plan. Obama’s plan is based on his inherent belief that this country was immorally and illegitimately founded by a very small minority of white Europeans who screwed everybody else since the founding to get all the money and all the goodies, and it’s about time that the scales were made even. And that’s what’s going on here. And that’s why the president is lawless, and that’s why there is no prosecution of the Black Panthers for voter intimidation, because it’s not possible for a minority to intimidate the white majority. It’s not possible. It’s always been the other way around. This is just payback. This is ‘how does it feel’ time.”

Rush Limbaugh has the largest talk-radio audience in the United States, and he is admired and lauded by one Republican politician after another. But it isn’t just him. Bill O’Reilly told his viewers, “I think Mr. Obama allows historical grievances — things like slavery, bad treatment for Native Americans and U.S. exploitation of Third World countries — to shape his economic thinking. . . . He gives the bad things about America far too much weight, leading to his desire to redistribute wealth, thereby correcting historical grievance.” Almost any domestic policy choice, whether it involves taxes or budgets or health care, can be characterized as an act of racial vengeance exacted upon whites for the benefit of blacks.

Glenn Beck has been another prominent advocate of the reparations theory. “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress, including this health care bill,” he said in 2009, “are transforming America. And they are all driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations.” When the Shirley Sherrod story broke (that is, when Andrew Breitbart deceptively edited video of a speech the Agriculture Department official gave to make is seem as if she were confessing to treating white people unfairly when she was actually saying the opposite), Beck said, “Have we suddenly transported into 1956 except it’s the other way around? . . . Does anybody else have a sense that there are some that just want revenge? Doesn’t it feel that way?”

Intimations of actual violence to come are rare, but they’re out there. Beck once said the New Black Panther party was part of Obama’s “army of thugs.” Conservative science fiction novelist Orson Scott Card, author of “Ender’s Game,” imagined a future in which Obama seized dictatorial powers and mobilized “young out-of-work urban men” into a brownshirt army. “Instead of doing drive-by shootings in their own neighborhoods, these young thugs will do beatings and murders of people ‘trying to escape’ — people who all seem to be leaders and members of groups that oppose Obama.”

This is the rhetoric in which conservatives have been marinating for five years. Given that, it is not at all surprising that for some of them — I repeat, for some of them — ideas about Obama’s policies, including the Affordable Care Act, are inextricably bound to their feelings, whether conscious or unconscious, about race. It would be irresponsible and unfair to say that all or even most opposition to the ACA is rooted in racism. But it would be blind to deny that race has had a role in keeping that opposition so fervid for so long.