Whether Gates or Health Care, Race Matters

In his recent column "Class, not 'Race,'" in The Nation, Eric Alterman attacks Professor Gates for playing the race card, arguing that "nothing that took place on his property that day gave him cause for this suspicion." This observation reveals more about Alterman's lack of understanding of race than anything else.

As a white person, one of the greatest privileges I experience is the confidence of knowing that when I get pulled over for speeding, it is because I was driving over the speed limit. I never have to wonder, for even a moment, whether it is due to my race. African-Americans do not have this privilege.

That is why reducing the experience between Gates and Officer Crowley to a discussion of what actually did or did not occur is near-sighted and irrelevant. Given the high rates at which blacks are pulled over for DWB, or asked what they are doing or where they are going when strolling upper middle class neighborhoods, they can never simply assume that race is not a part of the picture. One of the greatest burdens of three centuries of institutionalized, structural racism, is that African-Americans and many other people of color have learned that assuming race may always be a factor is essential to survival. Not long ago, black folks were lynched for "insulting a white person." (Check out: http://www.withoutsanctuary.org/main.html and see how easy it is for you to forget about race). When it comes to housing loans, jobs, wages, and all of the myriad experiences of daily life (the quality of service one receives in restaurants, what neighborhood or town one can safely drive through) our nation has taught blacks that they can never forget about race.

It is the sum of our knowledge and the experiences of a lifetime that shape our responses and interpretations at any given moment. Alterman complains that "everyone, white or black, with whom I spoke or e-mailed assumed the same racialized context." That is because the racialized context that matters is not simply the details of the moment, but the broader context of race in the US.

Much of the time, race matters; and the rest of the time, it has the potential to matter.

Alterman suggests we move on to more important discussions: "it may be a moment to secure universal healthcare, restore the Bill of Rights and stimulate genuine income growth for workers of all colors if we can somehow move past this nonsense."

A number of astute political analysts are warning that race is a signficant subtext to many of these issues, however. Talking about this "nonsense" is not a distraction; it is key to the broader progressive agenda.

According to Erik Ward of the Center for New Community:

The recent disruptions at local town hall meetings discussing the Obama administration's health care proposal has less to do with health care than who gets access (people of color need not apply). It's not surprising that many of the comments made by those disrupting these public events quickly turned to anti-immigrant rants and conspiracies about whites facing martial law. Again underlying the protests was not opposition to health care but the belief that "white America" is under attack.

And in his recent Huffington Post blog "On Health Care Hearings: A Little Perspective, Please" Leonard Zeskind, author of the recent tome Blood and Politics: The History of the White Nationalist Movement from the Margins to the Mainstream, argues similarly that the recent health-care town hall protests are a part of:

something new, the ultimate shape of which has not yet been established. It looks now like an opposition "bloc," with many different political elements...[including] white nationalists of both the citizens councils and the Stormfront national socialist variety...This bloc has been in formation step by step since the inauguration. First, the anti-tax Tea Parties in April began energizing white people in suburban and ex-urban communities...Then Judge Sonia Sotomayor's nomination allowed the white people-are-a dispossessed majority-crowd to grab the platform and explicitly re-introduce racism into the discussion. For the angry middle Americans who are the spine of this opposition, this debate is not really about specific legislative policies. For them the issue is whose America is the real America. Is it Sonia Sotomayor's or Sarah Palin's? Is it Barack Obama's or is it Pat Buchanan's?

Discussions of race are not merely a distraction from more important matters; they are essential to understanding political mobilization around many of the significant policy issues facing us today. The failure of the Left to address race and racism head-on will continue to prevent the kind of class-based coalitions Alterman dreams of.