THE BLOG
03/18/2010 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Did the Senate Forget to Discuss Health Care and Race?

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As the battle over health care reform hits the Senate floor for debate, I'm wondering how long it's going to take for the issue of race to pop up.

Oh, it won't show itself as blatantly as it has at town hall meetings and conservative rallies. I hardly expect one of the Senators to set up an easel with one of those pictures of President Obama dressed as a witch doctor. No, it will be far more subtle than that. Instead of shouted, race is likely to be whispered and alluded to in the form of comments about "those people" who take advantage of big government and who make it harder for the good, tax paying Americans. You know "those people"--they're the same ones who hang out with the welfare queens, standing on the corner eating candy bars that they purchased with their fraudulently obtained food stamps.

Possibly, race may show up in a slightly more direct way, perhaps in relationship to health coverage for immigrants. Remember, that's the same issue that propelled Rep. Joe Wilson into stardom after he called the president a liar.

Honestly, I'm not exactly sure how race will show up, but I promise you, it will. The only question is whether or not we'll have the courage to actually talk about it. Judging from the reaction to Jimmy Carter's comments--comments that correctly pointed out the role of race in the vitriolic opposition to health care reform--my guess is we'll be neither willing nor able to discuss the issue.

Of course, I've been saying Carter was correct ever since he made the comments, but until recently I haven't had any actual data to support that belief, other than the common sense that God gave me. But thanks to professors Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, that's no longer the case. The two professors recently analyzed a survey which documented people's attitudes towards health care reform as well as their attitudes towards Black people. According to their Washington Post article:

We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform. Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.

Interestingly, the professors state that there was no such racial correlation during President Clinton's health care reform efforts.

I wonder why.

Anyway, while some of the racial resentment directed towards health care reform stems from attitudes about President Obama, I have no doubt that some of the resentment is more ambiguous. Instead of being focused on one person, the racial attitudes have more to do with perceptions of who will benefit from health care reform.

Research shows that when asked about the racial makeup of assistance programs, most people assume far higher percentages of people of color than is actually the case, and these perceptions impact political support. In short, when White people that think "others" will benefit disproportionately from government programs, many of them simply aren't as likely to support those programs.

Well, right now I don't know who will end up benefiting the most from health care reform, but it's pretty clear who needs it the most, and that's people of color.

One government report on Health Disparities documents how people of color have higher rates of disease but reduced access to care. Another report, Unequal Lives, produced by the coalition Health Care for America Now, also documents the differences in insurance coverage. However, the most troubling findings involve outright discrimination; the findings apply even when people of color have similar coverage and income as Whites. The report shows that even in those scenarios, people of color still have less access to standard tests, less access to life-extending high-tech procedures and a higher likelihood of undesirable (and avoidable) treatments (such as amputations).

Now, having presented these statistics, let me be clear, my point is NOT that it's okay for White people to be without health care. I happen to believe that health care is a human right and that in the richest country in the world, no one should be without proper health care. I despise all poverty, and I agree with Dr. Martin Luther King that at some point we need to stop feeling good about giving beggars some change and start changing structures that SYSTEMATICALLY produce beggars.

Some say that such change require universal solutions, such as social security, FHA loans and the G.I. bill. But we often forget that these universal solutions were far from race neutral, they actually broadened the gap between Black and White. Similarly, generic health care reform that fails to address the racial disparities listed above could very well have the same effect.

With that in mind, the Congressional Black Caucus, the Hispanic Congressional Caucus and the Asian Pacific American Caucus worked hard to make sure that the House bill included programs and funding to address the racial disparities. According to an article at Politico.com, the House bill "calls for a $12 billion increase over the next five years in funding for community health centers." The bill also includes funding for community health workers, school-based health care clinics and cultural/language training for health care providers.

While the House bill is a step in the right direction, the question remains whether the targeted funding will exist in the Senate version. More importantly, will there even be a Senate version? If these questions are to be answered in the affirmative, then Black, Latino and other marginalized communities are going to have to step up our involvement.

A coalition of organizations, including the NAACP National Voter Fund, the National Council of La Raza, PowerPAC.org and others, has come together to sponsor an ad campaign aimed at mobilizing communities of color. The ads are focused on states with large populations of people of color AND which have Senators on the fence regarding the Senate bill. Senators Lincoln (Arkansas) and Landrieu (Louisiana), the last two holdouts on bringing the bill to the Senate floor for debate, are covered by the campaign.

At the end of the day, the ads may need to be expanded to other states, so that a wider audience of people of color can be mobilized. Although they may not be able to influence the targeted Senators with potential votes, their potential campaign contributions flowing towards a more progressive challenger may be motivation enough. Either way, the time has come for us to act like our lives are on the line... Because in reality, they are.

Cross-posted from Race-Talk.

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