When Racism Stands in the Way of Universal Healthcare

09/21/2009 05:12 am ET Updated May 25, 2011

At first sight, Barack Obama's health care plan may look like a worthy, though minimal, effort to stop insurance companies refusing to help people who are sick, but there is a sinister hidden agenda. A driving passion underlying all his policies, which he is hiding from you. This insight, like so many, comes from FOX TV host Glenn Beck, a man who gives a voice to right-wing crazy. Says he:

"Everything that is getting pushed through this Congress, including this health care bill are [sic] transforming America. And they are all driven by President Obama's thinking on one idea -- reparations". (Followed by comic impression of person calling him a right-wing extremist)

Reparations! Obama's plan to take revenge on white people for slavery.

For the innocent, Glenn Beck is a TV and radio demagogue semi-famous for such oratory as the I-hate-9/11-and-Hurricane-Katrina-victims speech, currently using up his 15 minutes to spectacular effect on FOX as a 21st century Father Coughlin. The angry mobs showing up to scream in public meetings at Democratic congressional representatives and advocates of reform regularly cite Beck as a reference.

Beck's view that Obama "has a deep-seated hatred for the white people" is the fervid projection of a paranoid mind which looks at the mildly liberal policies of a mixed-race president and sees the spectre of Mao/Hitler and a black man coming to get him simultaneously. (If you think that's exaggerated even slightly, you haven't watched his show).

Yet crazy as it is, it is not original crazy, but a kind that has deep roots in American society. It's the usually unstated idea that public welfare itself is a devious system for taking money from whites and giving it to blacks. Beck's verbal turd is a variant of a highly successful pincer assault on public support for low-income Americans that has used white racial resentment shamelessly to powerful effect. And it has held low and middle-income Americans - both black and white - back for generations.

As Nobel-Prize winning economist (doesn't that still have a good ring to it?) Paul Krugman explains in his book, 'The Conscience of a Liberal', racism has previously wrecked a major effort to provide universal health care in the US.

After the Second World War, President Harry Truman, like most of the post-war governments of developed countries, tried to create a system -- against opposition from industry -- to guarantee public access to medical treatment regardless of ability to pay. But unlike Britain, France or Canada, the United States of 1947 had a peculiar feature -- a large, Apartheid state in the South which since the aftermath of the Civil War had sought to deprive the newly-freed black population of their rights through discrimination and terror.

Southern politicians figured that Truman's proposals for national health insurance would mean federally-funded hospitals where black patients would be treated alongside whites, something their tiny-minded worldview could not allow. Alongside the scorched-earth campaign against Truman by the American Medical Association which fired doctors who backed national health insurance, racism helped to sink the plan, and everyone lost out -- including southern whites.

Racial politics in America moved in a new direction with two major developments -- the Great Migration and Civil Rights. With few prospects in the South and the birth rate bulging, many African-Americans had been leaving for the cities of the North and West. Large numbers of young, black men ended up in run-down, overcrowded slums from LA to Chicago to Baltimore, where they and their children were disappointed anew. They too often discovered discrimination and police racism afresh, while also finding that as manufacturing started declining in the 60s, the major growth industries actually open to them were in organized crime.

The scene was set for both unrest and a major crime wave across America's cities which would serve to bolster white prejudice. The liberal reformers of the Johnson White House who worked round the clock to extend black voting rights and end segregation in the South were caught out by the unintended consequences of bad city planning and discrimination outside it. President Johnson watched the L.A. Watts riots of 1965 with disbelief.

Just as the civil rights movement changed the balance of power in the South and promised a new era of justice, so a deceptive new racist narrative began to take hold -- that black people had been given everything they could reasonably ask for, only to respond with violence and further demands.

The Republican Party of Richard Nixon looked on and smiled. Nixon's famous Southern Strategy successfully used white racism to win the South from a Democratic Party that had finally rejected segregation. The party of Abraham Lincoln won southern hearts, at the price of its own.

But a more general strategy for the emerging conservative movement was to exploit racial resentment across the USA, and use it to attack the New Deal which had remained untouchable since the 1930s. It was a scheme explained by the Karl Rove of the '80s, Republican strategist Lee Atwater in 1981:


"You start out in 1954 by saying, "Nigger, nigger, nigger." By 1968 you can't say "nigger" -- that hurts you. Backfires."

Progress up to a point -- but with Plan A aborted, they're on to Plan B...

"So you say stuff like forced busing [of white children to black schools], states' rights and all that stuff. You're getting so abstract now you're talking about cutting taxes, and all these things you're talking about are totally economic things and a byproduct of them is blacks get hurt worse than whites. ... You follow me -- because obviously sitting around saying, 'We want to cut this,' is much more abstract than even the busing thing, and a hell of a lot more abstract than 'Nigger, nigger.'"

Abstract can do it. Ronald Reagan launched his presidential campaign in 1980 in Philadelphia, Neshoba County, Mississippi -- the site of the police/Klan murders of 3 civil rights activists in 1964 in 1964 (for which Edgar Ray Killen, Klansman and Baptist minister, was convicted a solid 51 years later). Reagan for the first time chose to speak there about the importance of "state's rights" -- the rallying cry of racism demanding the freedom to oppress without federal interference since before the Civil War.

Before the 1960s, many black people were simply blocked from receiving government support they were legally entitled to. As this discrimination ended, the number who took government help rose dramatically. And no one did more than Reagan to make an issue of welfare rolls swollen by previously denied black recipients. He did however, with the odd slip, keep most of his attacks on welfare "abstract" to avoid direct racial animosity, as Atwater advised.

Atwater himself, trying to defeat George Bush I's opponent Michael Dukakis in 1988, opted for less abstract when he plastered the face of the black murderer Willie Horton, who committed a further assault and rape on a weekend furlough during a lifetime prison sentence, on Republican pamphlets across America in the hope he could "make Willie Horton his [Dukakis'] running mate".

Glenn Beck is not known for the abstract nature of his thought and his attempt to make out that all government spending on welfare and health care is an attack on white people by a Black president has all the subtlety of a burning cross:

"He [Obama] believes in all the "universal" programs because they "disproportionately affect" people of color. And that's the best way, he feels, to right the wrongs of the past. These massive programs are Obama brand reparations..."

Yes, Glenn, programs to help the less well-off will help non-white minorities disproportionately, because... they are disproportionately less well-off. Just like hospitals disproportionately help sick people. Consider the level of a mind that regards this as sinister.

The embarrassing confirmation hearings of Supreme Court Justice nominee, Sonia Sotomayor, and the prominence of those who insist Barack Obama is a secret Muslim/Kenyan citizen has already made it clear that the conservative movement in America cannot escape its roots in fear and suspicion of non-whites.

What is important is that these hackneyed divide and rule tactics don't stop the rest of America's working people getting the healthcare and public services they need any more.