On the steps of the U.S. Supreme Court Thursday morning, black and yellow signs with ‘I heart Obamacare’ shimmered in 80 degree midmorning heat and echoed the thoughts of many, including one health care advocate who’d come, like a thousand others, to await the SCOTUS decision on reforming the country’s health care system.
“Before today I hated the term ‘Obamacare’,” said Judy Lubin, “and never used it because it was loaded with negative connotations of the opposition and seemed to signify the racialization of a policy that really impacts all U.S. citizens, not just people of color.” Ms. Lubin is a Huffington Post blogger, PhD candidate in sociology and an African American woman who doesn’t think it’s thin-skinned to consider the term more than just the snarky slang of political detractors.
Health care reform has been on presidential agendas of both GOP and Democratic presidents, including Presidents Eisenhower, Nixon, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter and Clinton. The 1990s brought us HillaryCare and on both sides of the aisle, the term Romneycare is getting airtime. But it’s being argued that only the current president has seen his name used as pejorative shorthand on the subject. Lubin says there is significant analysis to reveal the racial understory here. In her Huffington Post blog June 28, Lubin wrote about an analysis of data from the American National Election survey, and research by two Vanderbilt researchers “whose findings support a theory that President Obama’s racial identity cues racial attitudes that spill over onto policies associated with him.” She writes:
“These attitudes are activated despite the Affordable Care Act containing no explicit or implicit racial cues. Vanderbilt researchers Monique Lyle and Syndey Jones argue that because racial groups can activate strong, automatic emotional responses, such reactions to the health care law are believed to be triggered by cognitive associations that link Obama’s racial identity to negative perceptions about African Americans.”
Ronald Reagan in his 1976 presidential campaign provided a similar example of how race can be used to activate negative perceptions when he spoke of a ‘Welfare Queen’ from “Chicago’s Southside” to describe a person receiving government welfare funds fraudulently. It was a cornerstone of his campaign. The term quickly became a catchphrase, shorthand for “bad” and incorrectly generalizing the face of all poor, as the face of the black single mother on Welfare. In similar fashion, Obamacare has been viewed by its critics as a “bad” program that would unequally benefit the wrong people, the them, not the us.
Damned if he does, Damned if he doesn’t
President Barack Obama has been accused often of not readily bringing his racial identity into the public political discourse. Political analysts, academics and historians will debate the reasons and impact for years to come. But as the first African American president of the U.S., Mr. Obama is getting the opportunity to write his version of the playbook, ‘How to govern “all” the people, all the time’. He cannot seem too black, nor un-black. He must always consider who he represents, and so racialization will always be a card that will get played in this presidential game. Looking out over the sea of demonstrators in front of the Supreme Court Thursday, Lubin commented, ”Obama did not talk about the disparities in health care facing racial ethnic minorities – if he had, more of us would have engaged in this fight. This is really our fight.”
But perhaps instead, President Obama is himself trying to move the country from racism to relationships, by leaving the racialization card on the table untouched. Perhaps he’s picking up where Dr. Martin Luther King left off, steering us to seriously consider as Dr. King stated, “That of all the forms of inequality, injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhumane.” Perhaps it is time for citizens of the U.S. to consider language that does not demand that one loses so another wins. “We have to learn a new language about equity and access for all,” said Lubin. “This need for health care is for all Americans. It is a moral issue.”
But what does any of this have to do with being a United Methodist? How often do we let our language activate negative perceptions and couch it by saying, “well, they said it first.” And what does our “method” of being Christian have to do with it?
Back at the beginning of 2009 a man named Mark DeMoss, alarmed by the increasingly harsh tone of public discourse got together with former Clinton White House Council Lanny Davis and together the two friends launched the Civility Project. The Republican and Democrat wrote to all 50 of the country’s senators, all 435 members of the House of Representatives and every state governor, asking them to sign a pledge promising, “I will be civil in my public discourse and behavior…I will be respectful of others whether or not I agree with them.” Two years later with only three signatures, DeMoss and Davis closed their project. Would it have faced a better outcome had they based their request on Christian core values? In his letter to some new Christians, Paul advised the Colossians that it was imperative to “set your mind on things above, not on things that are on earth.” He counseled them to set aside the habits and manners that they used to have, in Colossians 3:8 telling them to “put aside anger, wrath, malice, slander and abusive speech from your mouth.” And to replace it with humility, gentleness and patience; bearing with one another and forgiving each other, whoever has a complaint against anyone; just as the Lord forgave you.”
In the first few months of this year, United Methodist news headlines have carried reports of our clashes over the “I”-word, over homosexuality and general conference decisions. If we are to honor God in our politics, be it church or societal, scripture reminds us that the outcomes cannot matter as much as the way in which we treat each other along the way.
By Jeneane Jones, Team Leader, Communications GCORR