Exploring the Eclipse of Equality

Howl of the Haoles: Health as a Civil Right

In Domestic Politics on March 24, 2010 at 7:53 am

Perhaps the most interesting thing to emerge from the fight over the health regulation bill that was passed in the House Sunday night was the linkage between health insurance and race. I had the chance to watch the fight while away in the Midwest and the tight connection between race and insurance was made more clear to me in that setting than it might have been here inside the Beltway. To put things simply: the bill itself has little to do with race, but the opposition to the bill is very likely inspired by some degree of racial anxiety. The important thing about this most recent incarnation of race consciousness is that it pits white people not against black, which was most common in the civil rights era. Instead the changing demographics of the country pits Middle America against demographic diversity itself. While hardly new, the changing context of ethnic confrontation makes it different this time and demands a different approach to conflict resolution.

For some of you, there will be no need to establish the link between health and race.  I often hear that this is all about race. There is the comparison Newt Gingrich made between the Civil Rights bill of 1964 and the Health Rights Bill of 2010 and  the use F and N word slurs at the DC rally. While not enough in themselves to suggest that Republicans and Tea Party supporters oppose the bill because of race, it is enough to suggest that there are connecting associations between race and the extension of benefits that play on old and tired stereotypes of blacks. Clearly some supporters of the anti-health movement are motivated by race anxiety while others like Gingrich class it with the programmatic spirit of the civil rights era.

A few choice images are not enough to make an interesting case. Instead, let’s pull some evidence from Nate Silver over at fivethirtyeight.com. In a post worth remembering, he speculated on the reasons behind the decline in Obama’s approval ratings. Using a signature style that makes this one of the must-go places on the web for following the American political science scene, Silver manages to produce a story that points to Obama’s declining poll numbers falling in step with, among other things, Sonia Sotomayor’s confirmation hearings.

So perhaps that nomination, while appealing to Obama’s base, gave him some problems among men — particularly white, independent men, an important swing demographic that has since turned against Obama. And there may have been something of an echo several weeks later when the Henry Louis Gates story hit on about July 23rd.

This piece of evidence based speculation is quite useful in making sense of the health care imbroglio. The reason being that there is no other good reason that explains the degree of animosity of the bill that polls so poorly as a package, while the individual elements are generally popular. Read this another way: people like the bill, they just don’t like this bill. The only explanation is a collapse of trust in the plan,  which just happens to correspond to the decline in trust for the president. The decline begins in a period framed by the Sotomayor hearings and  the Henry Louis Gates event that he engaged as he was announcing the health care plan. At the time of the so called beer summit, I was inclined to believe that it would be a major political event, because it would be read by many white men as the president taking sides in a largely symbolic confrontation between an African American professor and a white police officer. You can see my musings here.

We can make sense of the Sotomayor confirmation effect in the same way, in that conservatives attacked her decision on firefighters in New Haven as it related to affirmative action. In both high profile cases, Obama found himself in a situation in which his associates were placed in opposition to white cops and firefighters. I don’t have data on this for the demographic, but my sense is that white male confidence in police and firefighters is through the roof. In a recent Gallup poll, we find police just above organized religion and the presidency. Firefighters probably would do even better. The confrontations in the public story line between the President and these front line defenders bear the key features of what Nancy Fraser has called a recognition struggle. Many of those white men (and women as well) had to be coaxed into their vote by the promise that Obama would not take sides in such struggles during the 2008 campaign, and my surmise is that many reacted to the mid-summer events negatively. Fair or not, they feel he took sides against them.

If I am right, we have the heart of an explanation for the conditions that have made it possible for some unruly members of the Tea Party to shout racial expletives at civil rights leaders. The white men of Middle America have decided in large numbers that Obama is not post-racial enough for them (see Glenn Beck’s contemporaneous comments on Obama’s “racism” for more confirmation). They are feeling emboldened to release their ethnic id.

Most Middle Americans have little reason not to like the profoundly centrist health reform bill on its merits, but many do not trust Obama now and this helps the right to frame his universalist initiatives in terms of recognition and particularism even to the point of false consciousness. What Ginsberg said of his contemporaries might be said of some the “Kill the Bill” faithful who descended on DC for the vote–“destroyed by madness, starving hysterical naked, dragging themselves through the negro streets at dawn looking for an angry fix.”

This brings me to the point of the Haoles. If you don’t know, Haole is a somewhat pejorative term for whites in Hawaii, which was developed to provide a common identity to the minority population of European origin in the territory that would become the 5oth state. While it will be quite a while before the U.S. becomes a majority-minority nation anything like Obama’s native Hawaii, white men are rebelling in a pattern that cannot be productively characterized with traditional accusations of racism. The sad fact is that the meritorious rise of varied ethnics like Sotomayor, Gates and Obama is often seen by these, the disenchanted, as cause for circling the wagons (image chosen intentionally) in defense of a lifestyle that made America great. Not simply racism, nor even the coded racism of the Reagan era, this  is a populist producerist movement that is signaled to its followers by lifestyle characteristics–hence the rise Sarah Palin.

Although many of my readers may be understandably unsympathetic to the recognition demands of the European American majority, these demands represent a force that could lead to profoundly destructive conflicts as they have in the past.  Many felt that the nation was ungovernable in 2009, and there is a reason for this. If American governance crises were a song, it would have an ethnic tune, but the lyrics would be about class.

After these lean times, to avoid future enervating ethnic bloodletting, we will need terms for American ethnic conflict that have more bite. People are no longer checked when they are accused of racism as they once were (See the movie Farmingville for the best example I can find of this, but also the libertarian cult film Fall of the Republic), and whatever the objective nature of ethnic influence in the U.S., the arc of the universe may bend more quickly toward justice if our conflict language keeps pace with the times.

Most of the racialized interpretations of progressive policy are shockingly unfair, but they are as consequential as they are baffling. Now that it has passed, I have a verdict on the mass opposition to the health care bill; it is the howl of the Haoles, and that, little pig, is the sound of the wolf…at your door.

p.s. the picture for this post is of a musical group called the Haole Boys. They were in no way chosen for their ideological views.

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  1. […] racial conflict in the country. I have written a few times about these issues on this site here and here, and my view is that the ethnopolitics of the country are changing, not always in salutary […]

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