What's The Role Of Race In Health Care Fracas?

Is race the subtext for some of the attacks on the Obama administration's attempt at a health care overhaul? Or is that a misleading argument? Melissa Harris-Lacewell, African-American Studies professor at Princeton, and Tony Blankley, who was press secretary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, discuss the subject with Melissa Block.

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MELISSA BLOCK, host:

As the president and members of Congress circulate around the country talking about health care, questions of race are circulating, too. Is race the subtext for some of the attacks on health-care overhaul? Or is that a facile, misleading argument.

For a discussion of this, I'm joined by two guests, Melissa Harris-Lacewell who teaches politics and African-American studies at Princeton, welcome to the program.

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (African-American Studies, Princeton University): Nice to be here.

BLOCK: And also by Tony Blankley, who was press secretary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. He's now in public relations. Hi to you.

Mr. TONY BLANKLEY (Executive Vice President, Edelman Public Relations): Hello.

BLOCK: And Melissa Harris-Lacewell, I'd like to start with you and talk about something you wrote in the Nation. You said this: The current opposition to health-care reform has all the hallmarks of a race-card campaign, with racial code words to stoke racial anxiety. Tell us where you are seeing or hearing that.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Sure. So in this case, one of the things that I'm hearing from people at the town hall meetings is anxiety about illegal immigrants coming in and taking over. The other thing I hear a great deal is this question of the public option somehow keeping Americans from taking responsibility for their own health-care provision.

And what we know over the past 25 years is that language of personal responsibility is often a code language used against poor and minority communities.

BLOCK: Well, Tony Blankley, if Melissa Harris-Lacewell is hearing sort of a subtext to some of this language, what are you hearing as she discusses that?

Mr. BLANKLEY: These must be dog whistles; I don't hear any of it.

BLOCK: The pitch so high, you can't hear it.

Mr. BLANKLEY: Yes. The idea that the concept of personal responsibility articulated constitutes racism, I can't comprehend how to talk about a free society without the concept of personal - personal responsibility is used by most people who counsel children and teenagers about how to deal with their responsibilities. It is a completely race-neutral term. I really think you're trying to conjure up a problem that doesn't exist. And particularly, I have to say, in a country that has just done what America has done - elected the first black person president - it just strikes me as even less plausible than in the past that racism is at the heart of this.

BLOCK: Professor Harris-Lacewell, what about that argument that America did just elect an African-American president? Tony Blankley there saying: I don't hear racial language in here. I think this is a race-neutral debate.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I obviously don't mean that anytime one says you should take personal responsibility, that it is racist. In fact, I'm the mother of a 7-year-old. I certainly talk about personal responsibility. That said, clearly the language of welfare reform, reform around the social safety net, has often been framed as a question of government responsiveness versus individual responsibility. And that's a frame that in many ways, misses that poor people, that black and brown people, that urban people are in fact deeply responsible for themselves - that in fact, they often carry greater responsibility than middle-class folks who have lots of opportunities around them that kind of shore up their reality.

So, in everything from crime reform to welfare reform, deploying black people and brown people as the enemies of Americans is a pretty typical way that race is used as an unconscious - or as an implicit wedge issue. And I see similar things going on here with health-care reform.

BLOCK: Let me just jump in here for a second. I'm curious how both of you would hear one message that has percolated at some of these town hall meetings. People saying, I want my America back.

Mr. BLANKLEY: Yes, I think that what people mean by that is what we judge to be a largely free market with personal responsibility. America, which we've been from our founding and not wanting to turn into sort of a European, quasi-socialist state.

And in fact, there's been plenty of statements by the president himself that he has a vision of America that is not the traditional one. And that's what we're talking about. Once again, nothing to do with his race, everything to do with the words he uses and the policy he aspires to.

BLOCK: And Professor Harris-Lacewell, when you hear, I want my America back, do you also hear a racial context to that?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I certainly know that progressives and liberals often used very similar language during Bush's administration. As we saw the erosion of civil liberties, we often use the language of wanting our America back. I think it has something to do with how Americans project their own world views onto the broader American context.

I do worry about whether or not, at least for some of those opponents of health-care reform, that part of what they're saying is a reflection of an anxiety about: I want an America back where African-Americans, where Latinos, where women were truly second-class citizens rather than first-class, equal members with a full right to govern.

I'm not saying that every opponent believes that. I worry about the ways in which there may be a resonance of that anxiety that emerges.

BLOCK: Tony Blankley, what do you think?

Mr. BLANKLEY: Yeah. I mean, that may well have been a true statement if you'd ask somebody in 1964, 5 or 7.

But in 2009, I don't know anybody who thinks that way. I mean, this is out of the history books. This isn't out of life. A lot of my friends are very conservative. I have liberal friends too, but - a couple of communist friends as well. But nobody thinks that way. I mean, this is trying to bring up an old problem that has largely disappeared.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I appreciate your sort of personal narrative about the world that you live in where no one's racist, and I think that's fantastic. And for the most part, my friends aren't either. But the realities of continuing racial inequality on everything from health indicators to housing to wealth to education - really, there's almost no social or political or economic indicator where we don't continue to see major gaps.

And I agree that we can have these tremendous inequalities, even without individual racist actors in the system. But the idea that race is a non-issue, I think is just willfully naive.

Mr. BLANKLEY: Well, look, look, I'm confident that most Americans who listened do not think that they're opposed to this because they're racist. But they're opposed to this because they're not socialists. And so, it undercuts the defense of the program if you're trying to make a case to people who don't buy your underlying assumption of. And so, I mean, I think the more that this argument is made, probably the worse for the initiative because I think it undercuts credibility.

BLOCK: We'll have to leave it there. Thank you very much to you both.

Mr. BLANKLEY: Thank you.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely, thank you.

BLOCK: Melissa Harris-Lacewell teaches politics and African-American studies at Princeton University. Tony Blankley was press secretary to former House Speaker Newt Gingrich. You can also hear Tony Blankley weekly on member station KCRW's Left, Right & Center.

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