The N-word and Health Care: How Far Have We Come?

I am in Montgomery sans laptop power cord, but I wanted to share this and ruminate on it some because it feels important. Tracey S on Facebook shares an article from The Nation: Health Reform Foes Scream N-Word at Civil Rights Icon. Should I have to warn you that the article is heart breaking?

Here are a couple of quotes:

The man whose skull was fractured when he was attacked during a 1965 civil rights march in Alabama said, “I haven’t heard anything like this in 40, 45 years. Since the march to Selma, really.”

* * *

“This is incredible, shocking to me,” said Clyburn, who added that he thought the true character of the anti-reform campaigners was being exposed. “I think a lot of those people today demonstrated that this is not about health care,” he explained. “It is about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful.”

And here’s a separate but not unrelated fact: Twenty-nine years ago today Michael Donald—whose body had been beaten with tree limbs, whose neck had been been strangled with a rope pulled so tight it left a ligature two inches smaller than his neck, whose throat was cut just to make sure he was really dead—was found hanging from a tree in downtown Mobile. Why? The Klan was enraged that blacks could serve on the jury of a black man on trial for murdering a white man. Though Donald himself was selected randomly as a victim, his murder was designed to terrorize a community and to deprive them of their civil rights.

Clyburn is absolutely right that this is “about trying to extend a basic fundamental right to people who are less powerful.” However, I doubt that many of the rank and file of the Tea Party think that on a conscious level. That’s the thing about a such mob mentality: it draws on deeply unconscious fears and irrational fantasies about the other and pulls them to the surface in a moment of communal rage. I’m pretty sure that on their own most Tea Party members are well-meaning individuals who don’t go around consciously plotting how to keep the disenfranchised down. Heck, I suspect that a lot of rank and file Tea Party folks are themselves working or lower-middle class and that the fantasy of the undeserving poor getting for free what they work so hard for is enhanced by the usually unstated assumption that this undeserving poor is largely black and othered.

So I have a couple of points on the N-word and health care: First, hate speech matters because it indexes a whole structure of feeling—and I mean something like Raymond Williams’ coining of “structure of feeling,” with a particular emphasis on how individuals’ feelings and personal impressions and beliefs are ideologically structured—that persists and continues to shape how we think and feel about race. Second, hard work ain’t enough, and “luck” is something like opportunity, and this opportunity isn’t random chance but is related to a whole series of social relationships folks are born into. Hard work works when you’ve got a basic foundation of opportunity. No, you can’t legislate luck or opportunity at every degree, but we’re not talking about luck, we’re talking about people, and you bet I’m going to play the children card. Because no one disagrees that children are blameless for their circumstances, and yet we have a hard time agreeing that those circumstances are self-perpetuating since they also often relate to the distribution of education and opportunity. However, we can legislate a basic foundation of opportunity by fairly distributing health care and education. I’m not talking internships or jobs or wealth but exactly the foundation that would make hard work work for the underprivileged.

Moreover, I suspect the revival of public hate speech is not unrelated to the color of Barack Obama’s skin. Sure, folks can say we have a black president, so now we’re all post-racial and he’s proof anyone can make it (as if because some do means that all who try can). But he’s also a black man leading efforts to offer basic health care to everyone, including the “undeserving poor” who are often assumed to be non-white other. This must feel like an apocalypse to any whites who fear that their own hard work will be meaningless if others are freely granted what they themselves have worked so hard for. There must be a secret if not altogether unconscious fear that they themselves will become the new underclass.

How far have we come? We’ve come far enough to be adept at maintaining a surface civility, but the old fears are still there. And those fears are powerful. When cultivated, they make us capable of any of any number of horrors.

Where do these fears come from? Yesterday, as I was driving from Tuscaloosa to Montgomery on US-82—from the site of the United Klans of America’s former national headquarters to the home of the Southern Poverty Law Center, which took the UKA down—I was thinking about the distribution of ideology over geographic areas. How does where you’re from influence what you believe?

Last night, lying in my painfully hard cheap hotel bed, I read from the 1938 edition of History of Alabama for Junior High Schools. Thumbing through, I was drawn to a bold-faced heading “Ku Klux Klan” in a section on the Civil War, following sections titled “Alabamians Humiliated” and “Carpetbaggers and Scalawags.”

Ku Klux Klan. The native whites of Alabama found themselves with practically no way to defend themselves against the organizations of the Reconstruction. Out of all this came a movement which was started by the native whites to try to get some consideration for themselves. Almost all efforts of this sort had to be secret; otherwise, any man might be called in by the Freedman’s Bureau and turned over to military authorities.

One of the most famous of all organizations thus developed by this movement was the Ku Klux Klan. This organization rode at night. Sheets and pillow cases were usually the uniform. These men knew the negroes well enough to know how to frighten them. In this way the whites were able to give themselves some little protection, which they could not secure through government channels.

In 1938, my grandmother would have been 13. In 1939, had she made it to the 8th grade, she would have read History of Alabama for Junior High Schools, which presents the Klan as a noble defender of native whites against an unfair federal government. The textbook’s rhetoric, though more civil in tone, doesn’t differ substantially in content from that of the health care debate—or really any debate about more fairly distributing opportunity.

Here’s more:

Alabama Soldiers Return Home. It is hard to picture the conditions of the country to which the Alabama soldiers returned. Fences were down, fields unkempt, and houses falling into disrepair. The slaves were freed, and at one stroke the Alabama planter lost his fortune.

. . . .

Alabamians Humiliated. The war had been a fair and honorable contest; and, when Alabama lost, she tried to take the verdict in this spirit. The Reconstruction was another matter. Probably no country has seen greater misrule than Alabama had for about six years. No Confederate soldier could take part in the government. The state was forced to accept amendments to disqualify her best and then to give the vote to recently freed slaves.

Carpetbaggers and Scalawags. . . . . These two groups used the vote of the newly-freed negro to promote their own interests. They were extravagant in the extreme, both in state and local government. Public money was squandered and stolen. Some officials held as many as six jobs although, in many cases, they were not qualified for any of them. Many negroes were elected to the legislature, and here they were given many favors in order that the Carpetbaggers could accomplish what they wanted. Many local governments had negro officials; Selma had a negro city judge. A good many cities have only in recent years completely paid off their Reconstruction debts.

The movement of ideas from sentence to sentence is revealing: the advancement of “negroes” is clearly related to poor federal government and is framed as coming at the expense of whites. Here’s an 1866 poster from the wikipedia that calls the Freedman’s Bureau “an agency to keep the negro in idleness at the expense of the white man”:

History flows through us even if we don’t know it. “Kill the bill, n—–!” isn’t far from “Kill the n—–!” The resurgence of publicly overt racism has a clearly observable lineage, and it isn’t pretty.


2 thoughts on “The N-word and Health Care: How Far Have We Come?

  1. This is such an insightful and timely post. It’s so sad–these people would have so much in common, yet poverty and race continue to be such stigmatic identifiers that the very people who would benefit from this sort of reform go against their own best interest in order to separate themselves from “the other.”

  2. Yet, what is interesting, I have found, in discussing the health care bill with many people who are against it, is that theser are people who, much of the time, are not in power at all!
    I take for instance someone who is of very modest means, had been out of work for quite some time, and believes that the bill ‘takes away from our constitution.’ I don’t understand that in the least. This woman I had always thought to be educated, fairly intelligent, and works a normal job. Her job now provides health care coverage, but I bought up to her how I, as a woman of very modest means was laid off from my job a few years ago, and if I had not been able to afford my own coverage (and beleive me, it depleted alot of savings) I don’t know what would have happened, as I wound up having to have an unexpected heart surgery to fix my mitral valve.
    What is rather puzzling, and somewhat scary is the fanatisicm of these folks. They aren’t wealthy, and many live below the poverty line themselves. But they are defending a political party that keeps them down.
    Go figure.

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