Master race baiting

Question: What is the most worrisome aspect of the health insurance reform proposal?

Answer: Obama’s birth certificate.

Americans are famously, and in many ways purposely, a forgetful people. We forget that deregulation and speculation lead to financial turmoil. We find ourselves incapable of resisting the charming huckster’s pitch, which has elected many presidents and amassed untold sums of money, even when we keep getting burned.

We are especially good at forgetting the most unpleasant national memories. The Kennedy assassinations, 9/11, World War II are all painful, yes, but they are not shameful. Precious little time in American schools is devoted to the eradication and removal of the indigenous tribes, or the sorts of exploitation of cheap labor that went on until the Progressive Era instituted long-overdue reforms. Even after decades of improvement, the roles of women and minorities in pre-20th Century America  are still underrepresented in history instruction manuals.

Hopefully, though, even through that characteristic fog of hindsight that obscures our collective memory, we can recall that an ongoing evil was systematically perpetrated on this soil from early colonial times to a few decades ago, and even still today it lingers. The history of African slavery, the Jim Crow South, segregation and the War on Drugs constitute an indelible blot on the American experiment, and most Americans are on board with the idea that every reasonable effort must be made to eliminate all remaining vestiges of race-based injustice and subjugation, though they may disagree over what is reasonable.

The aforementioned vestiges, however, are of a different mind. They count the surrender at Appomattox a national disaster, though paradoxically claim a higher patriotism than those who think sedition is un-American. They think the United States is the property of white Protestants, and everyone else is just renting. They produce works like this:

At least half of Republicans think this is funny
At least half of Republicans think this is funny

It perhaps should be no surprise that race is as large a component of the national discourse as it is right now, but it is still disappointing, and alarming. The Huffington Post had a poll from Public Policy Partners that showed 42 percent of Republicans do not believe President Obama was born in the United States. That number is unchanged from a similar poll in July from Research 2000. Also of note: while 10 percent of respondents believe our president is the Anti-Christ, 11 percent are “not sure,” which is a fair position to have (who can really be sure?).

Race is the best tool to stop progress and tear down good ideas. Promulgating racial hatred was always a preferred method of the Southern power elite and union busters in the North to keep the workforce divided. As long as laborers were seeing some of their coworkers as “the other,” they weren’t seeing their common economic interests.

Now, we have health insurance reform, a behemoth issue of nearly unprecedented scope, which should be fostering reasoned dialogue and consensus-building. Instead, we’re talking about skin color. The timing of the race discussion is not coincidental.

Mainstream America is not overtly racist, or even racist to a significant degree in usual cases. However, this is not so with the talk radio audience and right-wing blog readers, and the providers of the fuel for their hate know this well. That is why it seems every time we make progress on the health care discussion, we find ourselves right back talking about race.

Think back a few weeks, to the flap over the arrest of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates, Jr., a black man, by a white Cambridge police sergeant, while Gates was entering his own home. Many remember this, but far fewer recall that the news conference that sparked the national attention was when President Obama was unveiling the health insurance reform plan.

On July 22, the President went on prime time television and said a condensed version of the speech he repeated, at times almost verbatim, to the joint session of Congress on September 9, regarding his health care proposal. He then fielded questions from the national and international White House press corps for the better part of an hour to better explain it.

Reading the transcript, that night roughly 8,000 words were spoken on health care, the biggest domestic policy question in a generation. After speaking and answering questions for that topic for fifty minutes, on national televison, the president was asked about Gates and devoted about three minutes to it, less than 500 words. This would become known, one hopes ironically, as “Gates-gate.”

Yes, the president acted stupidly by saying the Cambridge police acted stupidly. But he, as most of us would, hoped the nation had bigger fish to fry. He assumed we would see self-evidently that if you are a cop, and you arrest a man who is on his own property for telling you to get off his property when you no longer had a reason to be there, you are acting stupidly. Especially if you’re a Cambridge cop and he’s a Harvard professor who’s, you know, friends with the President. 

In the wake of the speech, the health care debate dominated the coverage at 25 percent for the week of July 20 – 26. However, the Gates controversy was tied with the economic crisis at 12 percent for the same period, well ahead of the Apollo moon landing’s 40th anniversary.  Also, note that Obama’s press conference was held on the night of the 22nd, which means that the percentage was higher from the 23rd through the 26th. The next week Gates still garnered 8 percent, which was more than the death of Michael Jackson. That’s hard to believe, but the numbers are from the Pew Research Center, which sounds impressive enough to us.

The bloggers are interesting to note too. Again from Pew, the chatter about the Gates arrest was about 7 percent of blog activity for the period from the 20th through the 24th of July – again, meaning higher during the last two days of the period. The next period really tells the tale. Fourteen percent of blog activity was Gates-related, but another 7 percent was about Obama’s birth certificate! Combined, one-fifth of all blog posts during that week were about race as relates to the president. This was second only to discussions of a new vitamin supplement and gardening techniques. And it was touched off by the health care address.

September 9, Obama addressed a joint session of Congress. This is usually reserved for extraordinary occasions, and certainly, given the near-turmoil of the summer and the enormity of the debate, no one questioned its appropriateness.

The President spoke flawlessly, delivering a clinic on oratory. He was clear, he was forceful, and he was persuasive, as the rebound in his and his plan’s approval ratings indicate. Obama recaptured the momentum.

It was not long, though, before the drumbeat against ACORN hit the ears of the mainstream media, and now, as Congress is back in session, we are discussing pimps, hos and community organizers. As a reader of TNR already knows, we think ACORN dug its own grave, but a lot of the moral high ground Progressives occupy was pushed in after it. ACORN is now handy, acceptable shorthand for “black people” when you want “black people” to carry a negative connotation.

At least the spotlight is moving onto the dark substance behind much of the teabaggers’ complaints (quick syllogism: Many teabaggers are birthers, all birthers are racists, many teabaggers are racists). Back to Pew one more time, we find that last week, Obama’s race was directly addressed, comprising 6 percent of the discourse. Obama, with his characteristic humor and charm, has brushed off the race issue, but the drumbeat continues on talk radio and right-wing blogs.

Ultimately, this behavior is going to isolate the hard core opposition rather than serve their purposes, but the idea that perhaps a third of the country so unapologetically embraces racial hatred and considers the president illegitimate because of his name and the melanin content of his skin should be a wakeup call for those of us in the sane sector of the nation.

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