Race is not the issue in health care debate

[First published on Mercatornet.com] When Barack Obama's health reform program ran into serious trouble, a number of people triumphantly threw the race card onto the table. It promptly skidded off onto the floor.

President Obama gets some credit for this wholesome outcome. Having refused to run as the "black candidate" in 2008, he has good-naturedly brushed aside such cries of racism over health care in 2009.

It is a pity others could not do the same. Instead, the stakes were dramatically raised when Jimmy Carter told NBC's "Today" show "I think an overwhelming portion of the intensely demonstrated animosity toward President Barack Obama is based on the fact that he is a black man... because of a belief among many white people, not just in the South but around the country, that African-Americans are not qualified to lead this great country."

It is tempting to dismiss Carter as a mean-spirited old fool who never forgave Americans for voting him out after a single disastrous term. As the Wall St. Journal's "Best of the Web Today" wrote last year, "President Carter has turned himself into an international nuisance who aspires to be a menace." But his aspiration to be a menace on the subject of race and ObamaCare deserves attention even if the effect is merely to be a nuisance. For depicting opposition to the plan as primarily driven by bigotry risks blinding supporters of the plan to its real defects, maligns the electorate and, given the deep racial wounds in American history, attempts to poison the well of policy discourse.

Most opponents of the president's health care plan are not bigots. Moreover, most bigots who oppose the plan do not oppose it because they are bigots. In saying so I make no attempt to deny the obvious. Race continues to matter in American politics and on Election Day 2008, millions of votes were cast based on it. Curiously, most went to Barack Obama because almost anyone inclined to vote against him on the basis of race would have voted against a white person with his attitudes and policies as well. Even if they were thinking the ugly word starting with "n" as they voted, it didn't determine their vote. Remember, correlation is not causation.

It was not always so. As recently as the 1960s most white supporters of either major party were unreflectively racist. The most committed white supremacists were then Democrats, but either party would have suffered a catastrophic defeat if it had nominated a black person for president and race would have been the reason. By now, most of the dwindling number of serious white bigots have moved to the Republican camp though not always for racist reasons.

I am not mud-slinging here. Though no bigot, I would be a Republican if I were an American. But I must face the sad truth that some hard-core Republicans turned out to vote against Barack Obama because he is black who would otherwise have stayed home rather than support the maverick John McCain. But not many, because to the extent that they are hard-core Republicans they would have showed up to vote against any clearly liberal candidate anyway. It doesn't excuse their bigotry, but it neutralizes it as a factor in politics.

Moreover, their numbers were clearly dwarfed by the wave of first-time or reluctant voters, of both races, who turned out to vote for Mr. Obama precisely because he is black. Some were Black Panther wannabes and other left-wing lunatics with racist views as ugly as, if less immediately dangerous than, those of white supremacists. Others were inspired by the historical significance, within living memory of the "long hot summers" of the 1960s, of peacefully electing a black man who did not even dwell on race. As race-based votes go, those were pretty benign. But they were still race-based.

All these considerations also apply to the health care debate. Just as almost everyone who voted against Barack Obama because he was black in November 2008 would also have voted against him because he was a liberal Democrat, almost all those who might in principle object to his health care plan because he is black would have objected to it anyway on substantive grounds. They didn't like HillaryCare, which one might in desperation label sexist. But they'd have hated ObamaCare if Edward Kennedy had sponsored it, and they're not rabidly anti-Irish. Meanwhile quite a few people support the plan at least partly because they fear that its opponents are bigots.

This is no mere quibble. For one thing, if all non-bigoted opposition could be made to go away, the residual protests would be tiny and ineffective so racism is not the key factor. For another, to suggest that this sort of mass movement could spring up based on bigotry is to paint a false and slanderous picture of the American electorate.

After formerly obscure Republican Joe Wilson apologized to the president for shouting "You lie" during his over-hyped address to a joint session of Congress, House Democrats were inclined to let the matter be until the Congressional Black Congress insisted on action, at which point a party-line vote disapproved of the heckle. Hank Johnson, a black Democratic Congressman from Georgia, said "I guess we'll probably have folks putting on white hoods and white uniforms again, riding through the countryside intimidating people. That's the logical conclusion if this kind of attitude is not rebuked." But if that were not appalling nonsense, black men would not win Georgia Congressional elections or compel their colleagues to pass such resolutions.

The very fact that the charge of racism is so politically potent proves it is a spent political force. In years gone by "bigotry" was a cry of frustration not a war cry. Now the U.S. has a black president.

It also has an increasingly unpopular and very poorly designed health care reform plan. But the two are unrelated. Correlation is not causation, and it is not 1888 out there. Put that card away, and keep it there.

ColumnsJohn Robson