Both my parents, black and white, are/were doctors. Before my mother married my father, she recently told me, she had privileges at a hospital in South-eastern Michigan that did not accept black patients. This was in the late-1960s/early-1970s. In “the North.” When one of her black friends, a doctor, tried to send a black patient there, he was told over the phone, by a staffer who assumed a doctor must be white, that they couldn’t possibly accept a black patient: what would the other patients think?
The idea of a black doctor was simply unthinkable.
Another time my mother told me about a black ob/gyn, perhaps it was the same doctor, who was allowed to deliver babies, but neither mother nor newborn could stay in the hospital overnight. And the room he had to use? A closet.
As a lifelong advocate of socialized medicine, I am not exactly thrilled by the compromised plans currently wending their way through Congress. I wish I could honestly believe that some reform is better than no reform, but truthfully, what I am most astonished by is how deeply the prospects of any reform is being sabotaged by racism. Let me just focus for arguments sake on personal attacks/parodies of the president (and yes, I will address the question of whether these are all necessarily racist in a moment). Ads for those irritating “polls” featuring Obama in scrubs pursue me everywhere I go on the internet, even here in Germany. And the Obama-as-Heath-Ledger-as-the-Joker tag, which I saw plastered on 8th street in NYC on my last day in the US, made me want to vomit right there in the street.
The Obama-in-scrubs “poll” drives you to a rightwing website, where the various legislation working its way through Congress is of course prejudged and dismissed as “Obamacare.” Such manipulation and ridicule is par for the course, but the Joker tags truly stopped me in my tracks. Seriously? Health-care for more Americans at maybe a cheaper price is a wicked plot, and he who concocted it can only be compared to a psychotic serial killer who creates mayhem for the pure thrill of it?
The idiot who dreamed up this latest monument of American stupidity has the single merit going for him of having not originally intended it as a critique of health-care reform. He gallantly described himself to the L.A. Times as Democrat-leaning on foreign affairs, and Republican-leaning on domestic ones. As if that were not politically incoherent enough, he added that he didn’t actually vote last November but would’ve chosen Dennis Kucinich if he could. In other words, he is a typical ignoramus, with just enough knowledge of the world to do horrendous damage to it out of impulsive boredom.
Not all personal attacks on Obama are racist, of course. But all do occur in a nation that has been held back by its historical and structural racism from achieving so many of its most progressive objectives. The segregated South torpedoed health-care in the New Deal era, and as my Mom’s story suggests, tacit assumptions that healthcare should be separate and unequal was maintained well into the 1970s, and is arguably still with us today. But of course, you can’t provide healthcare for everyone without also including blacks and other minorities, so as long as the nation was unprepared to fully commit to that, it couldn’t have the kind of universal guarantees that are not considered controversial in other countries.
Once residential and educational segregation is erected, and serious efforts to overthrow it have been stymied as “reverse discrimination,” then racist and unequal distribution of wealth and services can reproduce themselves without conscious acts of overt racism. Of course, those conscious acts of overt racism never go away fully while “race” is there as a self-evident aspect of reality.
Opponents of health care for all Americans don’t need to rely on pistol-packing nut-jobs or non-sequiturs from a former newscaster from Alaska to win their case. The view from the other side of the tracks is often enough to get voters riled up against “my tax-dollars being spent” on the black or brown folk whose presence, far from being a value worth preserving, is much more frequently experienced as a dangerous hazard and threat.
Freaks like the Joker displace real social anxieties about urban dystopias onto fantastical film joyrides, where a shared dedication to chaos blurs the edges between vice and virtue. The other villain of the recent Batman film was named “Two-face” (pictured above), and had he been a more broadly recognizable villain I could easily see Obama smiling face morphed onto his instead of the Joker. The moral universe of the “Dark Knight” goes from ambivalent to pitch black: there is no shining hero (especially not Batman). Evoking this world as a juvenile way of protesting the hero worship of Obama as “the One” is all well and good (I’m for revoking messiah status too). But it forgets that such allegories reflect back on the real world with an influence all their own. Because the moral darkness of escapist thrillers like Batman is conveniently racially “colorblind”, it blinds any who adopt it as a template for the contemporary political landscape.
What Americans seems to fear most about “socialism” is the use of federal authority in the interest of the disadvantaged, amongst whom the black disadvantaged have always been the most threatening. The spectre of “death panels” is, in a way, as old as post-Civil War hysteria about freed slaves gaining political supremacy and riding roughshod over the master race. Black soldiers and congressmen then, black doctors and presidents today. Actual racial equality, as opposed to its presence as a dangling carrot for the privileged few, has never been an easy pill for America to swallow. As the loony fringe at the town halls this past month illustrates, that pill is especially bitter now.
Obama (sadly) doesn’t want to make the U.S. more socialist. But he does hope to make it less racist, and that is an equally momentous and difficult task.