Is Anger Over Health Overhaul Jim Crow 2.0?

Kai Wright, senior writer for The Root, says the outrage and anger on display at health care town hall meetings is more about economic and social anxiety than health care overhaul proposals. Wright tells Guy Raz what he thinks is really driving the anger.

GUY RAZ, host:

We're back with ALL THINGS CONSIDERED from NPR News. I'm Guy Raz.

The anger at recent town hall meetings across the country has, at times, drowned out the debate on how to overhaul health care.

(Soundbite of shouting)

Unidentified Man #1: Everybody back up. Everybody back up now.

Unidentified Man #2: And you guys are undermining American exceptionalism.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman: At this point in my life, I have never seen my America turn into what it has turned into. And I want my America back.

(Soundbite of applause)

Unidentified Woman: And I don't think the representatives and senators are going to be able to do it. I'm scared.

RAZ: There's a lot of confusion and misinformation out there on the various plans for changing the health care system. And an essay on the website theroot.com argues that the rage isn't really about health care at all. The author, Kai Wright, says it's really about the anxieties of a whole segment of America that increasingly feels shut out.

Mr. KAI WRIGHT (Senior Writer, The Root): We're seeing the manifestations of an anxiety amongst poor and working class white folks about what is my place in a vastly changing culture and a vastly changing economy. Those are real and meaningful anxieties, and we're seeing a group of folks trying to exploit those anxieties.

The fear of Barack Obama not being a citizen, to these notions that people would have to stand in front of a death panel and defend their right to live. We've seen a handful of folks, both in corporate media and in the Republican Party try to elevate those ideas in effort to exploit those anxieties.

RAZ: It's almost impossible to sort of do an empirical study on, you know, on who is going to the meetings, who is expressing anger. How can you be sure that most or many of the demonstrators are poor or working class?

Mr. WRIGHT: Well, you can't. What we do know, and there has been some reporting on this on where the ideas are coming from. And they do seem to be coming from the militia movement. When you trace some of who the leaders are, particularly amongst the Birthers, they're folks who have a history in the militia movement.

It's pretty clear who they are speaking to. And these protests, to my mind, are speaking to poor and working class whites who are feeling alienated in today's economy and in today's culture.

RAZ: So your argument is that the anger and the rage of many people who are expressing it now is just being channeled in the wrong direction.

Mr. WRIGHT: I'd say it's being exploited more than channeled. The GOP I think in particular is trying to exploit it. And Glenn Beck is trying to exploit it. Rush Limbaugh is trying to exploit it.

RAZ: Kai Wright, let me just play a brief clip of Glenn Beck from Fox News. This is from about a month ago and here's what he said.

(Soundbite of TV program, "The Glenn Beck Program")

Mr. GLENN BECK (Host, "The Glenn Beck Program"): This president, I think has exposed himself as a guy, over and over and over again, who has a deep-seated hatred for white people or the white culture, I don't know what it is. But you can't sit in a pew with Jeremiah Wright for 20 years and not hear some of that stuff and not have it wash over.

RAZ: How much of this - of what is happening now, in your view, is about the discomfort among a chunk of the American body politic with an African-American president?

Mr. WRIGHT: I think it's more than just an African-American president. I think the African-American president is a wonderful embodiment of the concern. But what it's about is saying to folks who are feeling anxious about their place in the world, okay, you're feeling left out? You're feeling concerned about where you're going to go? Here's a place for you to direct that anger.

While Glenn Beck and the Republican Party are speaking to that anxiety, the Democratic Party has steadfastly avoided speaking to that anxiety. And...

RAZ: And to the point where you argue the Democratic Party is ignoring this, what you describe as an angry and poor white segment of the population.

Mr. WRIGHT: Not only ignoring it, it's become something of the third rail of Democratic politics. So you know, 2004, Howard Dean tried to bring it up. We have to start reaching out to these guys that wave the Confederate flag and tote guns and he got smattered for it.

2008, Barack Obama, admittedly clumsily, tried to bring it up and we had the great "bitter" debate. The only person who has brought it up successfully is Jim Webb, and that's probably because he's one of a few Democrats who can make a credible claim to having some relationship to this part of the country.

RAZ: Who brought up this idea that this is an ignored segment of the American population that the Democratic Party has to pay more attention to.

Mr. WRIGHT: That's right. Webb's point was that there is a natural coalition between working class and poor whites who are anxious about the changing face of America and the changing economy of America and Democratic politics. I think the phrase he used was that blacks and poor whites are tortured cousins, so...

RAZ: This is Jim Webb?

Mr. WRIGHT: This is Jim Webb.

RAZ: Senator Jim Webb from Virginia.

Mr. WRIGHT: Senator Jim Webb. And I think that he was onto something there. And his stance was that if we can figure out how to fold those two parts together, we can have - for the Democratic Party - a lasting majority and real change in America. But the Democrats are terribly afraid of having that conversation.

RAZ: Kai Wright is a senior writer for theroot.com. He joined us from New York.

Kai Wright, thanks so much.

Mr. WRIGHT: Thanks for having me.

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