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Friday, September 20, 2013


All of us who are compulsive consumers of the latest political news have been mesmerized by the fratricidal in-fighting on the Republican right over competing plans to defund, repeal, or otherwise neuter the Affordable Care Act [the ACA], familiarly known as Obamacare.  The hysteria surrounding the ACA is genuinely astonishing, and I think it is worth taking some time to figure out why.  [Note, by the way, that Social Security, established in 1935, is never referred to as the Roosevelt Dole, nor is Medicare, enacted in 1965, called JohnsonCare.]  In this post, I am going to suggest a reason for the otherwise incomprehensible passions stimulated by the ACA.  This will require me to reach way back into America's history, and will involve rehearsing some things I have said before, most notably in Autobiography of an Ex-White Man and my multi-part tutorial on Afro-American Studies.  However, no-one has read the first, and relatively few have read the second, so perhaps you will forgive me for repeating myself.

The emotions aroused on the right by the ACA are quite mysterious.  It is not at all surprising that large numbers of people in the United States have intense feelings about abortion or same-sex marriage.  I may find those feelings reprehensible, but I am not surprised by them.  Nor does it surprise me that many people feel strongly about taxation, or about America's military involvements.  These are quite naturally subjects of controversy, and though we may grow angry at those who disagree with us, we ought not to be surprised by the disagreements.  But medical insurance?

Medical insurance is a bit like highways, supermarkets, or television -- a familiar part of life that we more or less take for granted.  Most of the time, those of us who have medical insurance [which is to say, eighty percent of Americans, or more] use it without giving it a great deal of deep thought.  I go to the doctor, present my insurance card to the receptionist at the front desk, perhaps pay a co-pay, see the doctor, and forget about it.  There are of course problems -- with caps, uncovered procedures, pre-existing conditions, and so forth -- many of which the ACA is designed to address.  But because the entire health care sector of the economy and society is so huge and impenetrably mysterious to most of us, it is very hard to develop passionate feelings about it.  Indeed, I suspect that we feel about health care very much as we feel about the Congress -- we have a low opinion of the system, if we have any feelings at all, but like our own doctor.

And yet, there is now a sizeable fraction of the American public, and a considerable number of Representatives and Senators, who say that they consider Obamacare an assault on everything they hold dear, a fatal blow to the American Way, a Socialist plot to destroy life as we know it, an evil so great that it is worth bringing the government to a halt and threatening the world financial system to defund it or even slow marginally the pace at which its provisions go into effect.

What on earth is going on?  The answer, I think, is actually rather simple, although unpacking it will take me more time than I usually devote to a blog post.

To put the answer in just four words, the real, underlying reason for the hysteria engendered by the ACA is:  Because Obama is Black.

All right, this is going to take a while.  North America was colonized by European adventurers looking for available land on which to grow crops that could be sold into the European market.  They seized land on the Atlantic coast and brought in indentured servants to do the real work -- men and women either transported after being convicted of crimes or else attracted by the possibility of eventually getting a piece of their own land.  The entrepreneurs bearing patents from the English king tried impressing the Native Americans into their labor force, but the effort was a failure, principally because it was too easy  for the Native Americans to run away into the woods and make their way back to their home villages and peoples.  Eventually [starting in Virginia in 1619], they hit upon the device of enslaving West Africans and bringing them to the New World as a labor force.

For well over a century, the most widespread condition of the newcomers to the New World was some form of bonded labor.  Freedom, as we now understand that condition, was reserved for a very small fraction of those of European descent and for virtually no one of African descent.  Bound laborers, White or Black, enjoyed few liberties.  They could not choose where they lived, for whom they worked, what they were paid, or whom they married.  And the extremely harsh conditions in the New World took a fearful toll.  Many, in some cases most, of the indentured servants did not survive to work off their seven year indenture.

The English brought with them the Common Law, in which there was a good deal about bound labor but nothing at all about chattel slavery.  Over the century and a half between the earliest settlements and the American Revolution, a slow and complex process took place.  Little by little, by custom, by colonial legislation, by legal decisions, and by cultural evolution, two contrasting social and legal statuses crystallized out of the complex of bound labor.  On the one side, there emerged slowly the status of hereditary chattel Slave.  On the other side, there emerged the status of Freeman.  Each of these new statuses was defined in terms of the other, and over time, they became firmly associated with visible racial traits, principally of skin color.  Although there were exceptions, some of which persisted for another century until the Civil War, it came to be understood in law and in the collective consciousness that to be White was to be a Free Man [not yet a free woman -- that took a good while longer], and to be Black was to be a Slave [despite the existence of Free Blacks up to 1865.]  The situation was captured in a catchphrase that was quite common when I was young:  when a man wanted to say that he could do as he pleased, he would say, "I am free, white, and twenty-one."  To be free was to be White, which is to say, not Black.  To be a slave was to be Black, which is to say not White.  For reasons having to do with the quite common rape of slave women by white owners and with the economic value of slaves, the English Common Law principle that the status of the child follows that of the father was reversed, so that the children of Black slaves raped by White owners were, like their mothers, slaves.  As the slave girls born to Black women and White owners grew up and themselves were raped, the "one drop" rule came to define the status of a slave, so that even someone visibly indistinguishable from a White person was classified as a slave if any of his or her forebears had been a slave.  The two contrasting statuses were written into the Constitution of the new nation, with a full panoply of legal freedoms assured to White men and the status of slave confirmed for people of African descent. 

During the three-quarters of a century between the establishment of the United States and the end of the Civil War, the relations between slaves and their owners was quite intimate -- not happy or cordial or friendly, God knows, that was a myth perpetrated by the Planter School of post-Civil War historians -- but intimate.  How could it be otherwise?  Slaves waited hand and foot on their owners.  They were raped by their owners  They wet nursed their owners' babies.  They traveled with their owners in carriages and train coaches so that they could be available to serve.  This physical closeness in no way threatened to obliterate the absolute difference between them in status and condition, because that difference was inscribed in law.  A White boy could grow up playing happily with a Black boy and then, when they had become men, sell his boyhood playmate down the river without a second thought.

During the slavery period, only well-to-do Whites owned slaves.  An adult male slave in 1850 cost as much in the slave markets as a year's wages for a free white northern worker.  There were millions of poor Whites, especially in the South, whose principal claim to self-esteem was the simple knowledge that they were not Black, not slaves.   With the end of legal slavery, things changed dramatically.  The same men and women whose presence, even physical closeness, posed no threat to Whites now became anathema.  To sit in the same train carriage with a Black man, to use the same facilities as a Black woman, to walk on the same sidewalk as a Black child very quickly came to be experienced by Whites as a threat to their safety, security, very being.  Black labor, needed by plantation owners to raise and bring in the cash crops, was beaten into submission by Black Codes and the renting out of convict gangs and the threats of lynch mobs.

Thus a new relationship emerged between free and bound, between White and Black, a relationship encapsulated in Jim Crow laws.  Whereas previously, White women expected to be served in every way by Black women, now these same women, or their daughters, found it intolerable to be served in department stores by Black clerks, so that for a long time Black women could not find even low-paying service jobs that might bring them into direct contact with Whites.  Residential segregation, which of course was impossible under slavery, when slaves had to live close to where they were required to serve Whites, produced a sorting out of the two populations and the creation of all-Black ghettoes.  The segregation was officially enforced and written into Federal and State law by means of covenants restricting the sale of properties.  During all of this time, it remained the case that poor Whites, exploited and oppressed by White capitalists, could tell themselves that they were free, White and twenty-one, that they were, at the very least, not black.

The Civil Rights Movement, launched by African-Americans half a century ago, threatened, and eventually began to break down even these legal, customary, residential, and employment barriers.  It was at this time that the old familiar political rhetoric about "working men and women" also began to change.  The new rhetoric spoke of "middle-class Americans," which, although no one acknowledged it, was a thinly veiled code for "not Black."  As economic pressures mounted on those in the lower half of the income pyramid, Whites wrapped themselves in the oft-reiterated reassurance that at least they did not live in the Inner City []which is to say, Black neighborhoods], that they were "Middle Class."  All of the political discourse came to be about the needs, the concerns, the prospects of the Middle Class, which to millions of Americans, whether they could even articulate it, meant "not Black."

All of this crumbled, frighteningly, calamitously, disastrously, when a Black man was elected president.  "Free, white, and twenty-one" ceased to be the boast of the working-class White man.  Statistics do not matter, trends do not matter, probabilities do not matter, income distribution differentials do not matter.  If a Black man with a Black wife and two Black children is President of the United States, then a fundamental metaphysical break has occurred in the spiritual foundation on which White America has built its self-congratulatory self-image for three centuries and more.

Hysterical Whites tried every form of denial.  Obama's election was theft.  Obama is not an American.  Obama is a Muslim.  Obama is a socialist.  Obama's election was a one-time proof that we are not racist, to be followed immediately by restoration of the status quo ante bellum.  When Obama was reelected, vast numbers of Americans went into terminal denial.  They seized upon the ACA simply because it was, as everyone knew, Obama's signature domestic accomplishment.  To repeal it, to defund it, to make it as though it had never existed, would be in some measure to deny that he had ever been President.  The actual details of the ACA matter not at all.  Neither do the actual felt medical needs of those driven insane by the very fact of Obama's tenure in the White House.  None of that has anything at all to do with the real cause of the hysteria.  Why are millions of Americans driven beyond hysteria by the ACA? 

Because Obama is Black.

Does Barack Obama know all of this?  That is too foolish a question even to be asked.  Every half-way sentient Black man and woman in America knows all of this, and has known it from childhood.  It is only well-meaning sensitive White liberals who need to be told it.



Howie said...

Your analysis sounds plausible. I do think the Republican right is wrestling the country to the ground like a rodeo clown. Their tiff is stronger than Othellos

alan wertheimer said...

There is another explanation in addition to that offered by Professor Wolff, namely, that the ACA is one of the largest downward redistribution policies to have been passed in some years. Although that would not explain the vitriol associated with the right's attack on ACA, it makes some perverse sense of it. The Republicans have slashed food stamps for the poor while maintaining farm subsidies for high income folks. Also witness continued support for medicare, as many recipients are well-off while opposing ACA. Race, yes, but also class warfare.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Hi, Alan, welcome to the blog. You are surely right about the element of class warfare in the hysteria over the ACA. I think that reinforces the racial component.

Jerry Fresia said...

I'm not sure I agree with Alan; I have seen no studies that the ACA is "one of the largest downward redistribution policies to have been passed in some years." On the contrary, other voices seem to think that the ACA is quite consistent with the interests of monopoly capital. Apart from being a gift to the private insurance and pharmaceutical industries, American manufacturers, such as auto (Chomsky), urged the adoption of health care reform because they believed it would help them in their competition with foreign corporations whose production costs were greatly reduced by various national health care programs. Further, Dean Baker has reminded us that our "debt" problem would vanish were we to adopt single payer; so the ACA was also a mechanism to reduce the debt. Let's not forget that it was a Republican plan to start with. And perhaps most important, the ACA blocked single payer. (Some have argued, and I believe Chomsky has, that the adoption of the ACA had more to do with the interests of capital than the skills of Obama.

I think it is important not to see the attack on the ACA as left vs right or top vs bottom or Repub vs Dem but Tea Party vs a bipartisan coalition that represents the interests of capital. Therefore, it is very much about race, more so than class, and helps illustrate how race as a dynamic can't be reduced to class.

Wonderful blog.

Chris said...

Jerry is absolutely right. The bill is a wet dream for the Rx and health care insurance industries. The redistribution of wealth is from those without insurance, to those companies providing insurance.

Chris said...

By the way, I'm of the far socialist left, and I hate Obamacare too. And it has NOTHING to do with race.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But Chris, the question is not whether the ACA is good or bad, or even whether it is better than what preceded it. The question is, Why do so many people focus hysterical, unthinking hatred on a big, complex bill whose vices and virtues [if it has any] are not of the hot button sort. I think you need to get past you anger and try to understand the world. At a minimum, it will make you are more effective politicval actor.

Chris said...

I have reasons. I've listed them before. It's not a visceral reaction. My reasons evolved with the evolution of the bill, how it was negotiated, who helped draft it, what was left out, what was added in. The whole process was deeply disturbing.

I support a single payer system, and am willing to accept a public option.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Chris, I am not suggesting that you lack reasons for your opposition to the ACA. I share them, I think. I am sughgesting that it is really important to understand what is motivsating tens or scores of mikllions of Americans if we want to change the world, however difficult and unlikely to occur that may be.

Nick said...

Have you read Ta-nehisi Coates' article Fear of a Black President?

And I'm not sure about class warfare in opposition to the bill since poor, etc. often seems to be code for black (despite their being more whites than blacks on welfare, etc.).

Chris said...

The thing that interest me a bit further than converting the racist, is how do we convince the libertarians - who have principled reasons and not racist reasons for rejecting the bill - to understand that positive liberties and conceptions of freedom are superior to their negative liberties and conceptions of freedom?

Robert Paul Wolff said...

Nick, thank you for the link to the Coates piece. I have just read it. It is a fine and very powerful essay.

Galen said...

I don't buy it (i.e., "Because Obama is black."). Hillary's attempt to reform healthcare aroused lots of opposition too, and there was plenty of hate directed at President Clinton.

Galen Cawley

Robert Paul Wolff said...

But not of the same sort, Galen, surely.

Unknown said...

The South has an honor culture; the white Republicans feel a scathing wound to their honor that a black man is running their country
It is a dis they can't bear and only a public lynching can quench their wounded rage.
So I find your case very plausible.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I think that is right. What is striking is that it has little or nothing to do with policy,not even with religiously based convictions. It is a mortal insult to their amour propre that must somehow be avenged.

The Kinetic Peripatetic said...

I think the idea that this type of sustained and extreme hysteria can only be explained by something much deeper psychologically than disagreements over healthcare policy. There is something about Obama that he cannot get a break with many white men the way Clinton could. I was in the gym locker room (in Alaska) and overheard two 55ish professional white guys bashing Obama over the government shutdown. They said he should stop blaming people and be a leader. On the flip side, when he does get out in front, he is a tyrant. There is this mindset of finding fault come what may that can only spring from some irrational fear or insecurity.

Robert Paul Wolff said...

I quite agree. Clinton was hated by many on the right [the Vince Foster conspiracy theory, for example], but the nature of the hysterical loathing of Obama is really quite different.

Anthony Tsontakis said...

Robert, I would be curious to hear what you might think of a counter-hypothesis formulated along these lines--one that does not make reference to racism to explain the hysteria. Here is an outline of the counter-hypothesis (very roughly formulated): The hysteria can be explained by a fundamental philosophical disagreement between, say, Republicans and Democrats, or the political right and the political left. On this theory, three things would be relevant about the ACA: 1) It effectuates a large-scale redistribution of wealth; 2) It effectuates a large-scale intervention by the government into the economy; and 3) It rearranges social relations on a fairly massive scale. I think what I mean by (1) and (2) is fairly straightforward. What I mean by (3) is that the ACA rearranges relations between individuals and state governments, individuals and the federal government, individuals and employers, individuals and health insurance companies, employers and state and federal governments, and between the state and federal governments themselves (and perhaps more). I think (1), (2), and (3) are fair descriptions of at least some of the major things that the ACA does, speaking, of course, in very broad and general terms. If that is right, then I would think it natural for people ideologically disposed to the right-wing of the political spectrum to be vehemently opposed to the ACA, because the ACA violates philosophical principles that are profoundly important, if not outright fundamental, to the political right.

Unknown said...

Anthony I don't think the ACA does (1) (2) OR (3).

Cynthia Pols said...

Robert -- great post -- I do agree that the opposition to the ACA is primarily about racism that is deeply embedded in a frighteningly large part of the population. But those who argue that the ACA does not redistribute income are wrong. The ACA redistributes wealth through the large expansion of medicaid and the hefty subsidies for insurance for many others. People are getting stuff (health care) through the government that they were not getting before. That's a straightforward proposition. That one prefers a more radical restructuring of the healthcare industry (as do I) that would bring about much more redistribution of income does not change the fact that the ACA does redistribute income to those who either went without health care or paid more for it . Many of us know that more redistribution is probably in order (the health care insurance industry does little more than siphon money out of the health care system) but we see how extreme the opposition is to the modest redistribution associated with the ACA.

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