In order to move forward in the push for national health care reform, what we need is less pointing out racism and more flattering whites. At least, that’s what some are arguing.
The racial politics around President Obama and the health care debate continue to rage on without an end in sight. Political conservatives remain stalwart in their assertion that the vitriol directed at President Obama would be hurled at any president who advocated such reform, regardless of race; while many liberals continue to assert that the sharp rise (400% by at least one report) in death threats against President Obama have less to do with health care reform and much more to do with the color of his skin. There does seem to be a growing consensus – or perhaps, weary defeat – among white liberals that efforts to call out the racism among health-care-reform-naysayers is futile.
Here are a couple of examples of what I’m talking about. Lincoln Mitchell, writing at the Huffington Post, calls the whole thing “pointless” :
My point here is not that the attacks on Obama are not racist; it is pretty clear that some are racist. However, it is far less clear what supporters of the president gain from making this argument. It is extremely difficult to convince somebody that racism exists when they don’t want to see it. Moreover, nothing would change if this effort were successful. The right wing and much of the Republican Party have made it clear these last few months that they will stop at almost nothing to cripple the Obama presidency, which indicates that even if they were persuaded that they were racist, they probably wouldn’t stop.
In another instance, Hastings Wyman, in a piece at the Southern Political Report (via @BlackInformant), writes that President Obama declines to point out racism because he is politically savvy enough to know that “white voters like to be flattered, not accused.” Wyman goes on to say:
Whether it’s making a heart-felt address to the nation on race as he distanced himself from his long-time preacher, Rev. Jeremiah Wright, or backtracking on black Harvard Professor Henry Louis Gate’s dispute with a white Cambridge police officer, Obama has consistently taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved. Who knows what his opinion is about such issues in the deepest recesses of his soul, but his political skills are very much in tact. He knows that getting the left — including African-Americans — highly and publicly incensed about white racism is a losing strategy, at least in terms of current political battles.
What both Mitchell and Wyman seem to be saying here is that whites – who obviously hold the power in this society – are put off by being called out on their racism, so better not do that if you want to win their votes or persuade them to support health care reform. A better strategy is to soft-pedal the mention of racism, even flatter whites for their magnanimous support of an African-American president, and then we can get on with other business.
It’s important to point out that this sort of strategy from Mitchell and Wyman (and others) is rooted in the white racial frame that Joe has detailed in his recent book, and that Joe and Adia discuss in their new book, “Yes We Can? White Racial Framing and the 2008 Presidential Campaign.” When Mitchell talks about “Americans” he’s referring to “white Americans.” When Wyman refers to Obama has having “taken the high road where charges of white racism are involved,” he is subscribing to a white point-of-view. The high road, within this frame, means not calling out white racism when it exists, but instead deflecting, ignoring, minimizing. The key to all this is, as Wyman notes earlier in this piece, flattering whites. That need for flattery, that desire to always be right when it comes to matters of race and never be responsible for wrong-doing, that too is a kind of white racism – classic white liberal racism.
Jeremy Levine, writing at Social Science Lite, makes the sociological point that:
To discuss and analyze race is not to revert to an either/or, racist/not racist false dichotomy. Race matters as an everyday reality of inequality, yes, but it’s not as simple as the White Racist Meme suggests. Race matters because it’s always mattered. But racism matters in increasingly complex ways.
Indeed, racism matters in increasingly complex ways in the current era. But, I would argue, that it does not make whites any less culpable for perpetuating – and benefitting from – systems of racial inequality. And, if that makes some whites uncomfortable, well so be it.
Critics like Mitchell and Wyman seem to be making an old point: “sure, there’s racism, but what can you do about it?” As if racism were like gravity – a law of physics that cannot be altered by human behavior.
This is simply false.
Racism was created by human beings (relatively recently in human history), and it can be dismantled, done away with, abolished. But not if we keep ignoring it and flattering those who perpetuate it.