The picture, as the saying goes, was worth a thousand words. A beaming President Trump stood behind the podium, flanked by his allies in Congress, as he declared a long-awaited legislative victory: passing the American Health Care Act, a bill to “repeal and replace” the Affordable Care Act, through the House of Representatives. President Trump, a man who rose to political prominence by questioning the citizenship of the first black president, had taken a step closer to erasing that president’s signature domestic accomplishment. In doing so, he’d also taken a step closer to stripping millions of people—including his own voters—of their health care coverage. He relished the moment. The inhumanity of the image is overshadowed only by its overwhelming whiteness, which, in the context of American health care policy, is not coincidental.
When President Harry Truman proposed a national health insurance program that would guarantee universal coverage, his effort was thwarted, in part, by Southern Democrats who opposed the integration of their hospitals. For many white Southerners, it was preferable to die of illness than to face the humiliation of rooming with a black person.
President Obama’s health care bill became mired in similarly racial politics. “This is a civil rights bill, this is reparations, whatever you want to call it,” Rush Limbaugh said. The law framed as a punishment for white America and a handout to nonwhite Americans. “Everything that is getting pushed through Congress,” Glenn Beck said, in 2009, “including this health care bill…are driven by President Obama’s thinking on one idea: reparations.” Protesters held signs depicting Obama as an African witch doctor. The law was dubbed “Obamacare”—forever tying it to the black man who would sign it—and described as something no self-respecting white American would ever use.
The racialized opposition to the Affordable Care Act was not accidental; it was part of an intentional strategy devised by opponents of universal coverage. Throughout American history, expansions of the safety net that would affect the racial status quo have generally been opposed—often viciously, even violently—by forces hostile to civil rights. If a reform is framed as a handout to an undeserving minority, it meets furious pushback from white Americans, even when those very Americans stand to benefit.
Such is the function of American racism: any program that will help the nonwhite population is taken as an affront to the privileged position of white Americans, and is therefore resisted with all the terror of a people at risk of losing their identity.
The Affordable Care Act passed without a single Republican vote. While the bill disproportionately benefited nonwhite Americans—for historical reasons, the people most likely to lack coverage—Americans of all races reaped the rewards. Upwards of 20 million people gained access to coverage; others became more secure in theirs. Lives were saved. But, with the central problem of American politics left unaddressed—the problem of race—the foundation wasn’t safe from the surging white identity that was rearing its head. Republicans around the country chose Donald Trump as their party’s standard-bearer, and white populism became the central feature of the party’s platform.
At Trump rallies around the country, white people jeered at the mention of President Obama. Trump promised to look out for the “forgotten man,” the white man. When Trump vowed to repeal and replace the Affordable Care Act—“Obamacare,” he would sneer—his white crowds would roar. It was less a promise about health care than it was a promise to erase President Obama, which was precisely the point.
But these cheering crowds had no idea what their belief in their whiteness would cost them.
The American Health Care Act reflects not the priorities of a man, or a party, that cares for people, white or otherwise, who need health care. It reflects the priorities of an ideology whose only loyalty is to greed. It takes funding that is now going toward health care—Medicaid funding and subsidies for families to buy private insurance—and sets it aside for an eventual tax break. The wealthy will be further enriched; the already afflicted will be afflicted further still, with the medical bankruptcies and preventable deaths to prove it.
The country arrived at this moment through the vehicle of racism. It’s a story that the country has been telling for hundreds of years, with no clear sign of stopping, or even a desire to stop; the election of Trump suggests the opposite. But the lie of white supremacy destroys more than its intended targets, and the forces that would deny the humanity of some will eventually deny the humanity of all.
To see the smiling faces of President Trump and his allies is to see this truth made plain. In debasing and assaulting the most vulnerable, they reveal themselves. It is tragic, indeed, to see people so removed from reality, so divorced from their own humanity, that they would rejoice in punishing their own voters. But that’s where we find ourselves—and it is only through recognizing this truth that we may one day be released from it. The fight is now.
- Paul Waldman, “Yes, opposition to Obamacare is tied up with race,” The Washington Post. May 23, 2014. https://www.washingtonpost.com/blogs/plum-line/wp/2014/05/23/yes-opposition-to-obamacare-is-tied-up-with-race/?utm_term=.3b84628c918f
- Ashley Fantz, “Obama as witch doctor: Racist or satirical?” CNN. September 18, 2009. http://www.cnn.com/2009/POLITICS/09/17/obama.witchdoctor.teaparty/