Using Fear to Fight Health Care Reform: Obama Video Address: July 25, 2009

When I was in college, I was a bit of what you’d call “a worry wart”. I always analyzed all the ways things could go wrong before I took action. My roommate used to call these “imaginary horribles”. As I look at the public reaction to health care reform, I see lots of imaginary horribles floating to the surface, stoked by Republican opposition.

One great instance was when Obama was at an AARP forum and he was asked by a phone caller whether it was true that under the new health care reform, government officials would visit every medicare recipient to discuss how they wanted to die. This would be funny if it were not so sad and pathetic. Innocent people being snookered into believing nightmare scenarios by obstructionist Republicans. In this week’s video address, Obama discusses one concrete measure that the reform will provide which will make matters better for small business.

And now the President of the United States of America:

The regular appearance of bogeymen has made me pessimistic recently about the prospects of health care reform but fortunately the blue dog democrats are coming along. This interview with Senator Sherrod Brown talks about what is in the various versions of the bills, without all the bogeymen.

I’m also glad to see Obama finally getting a bit pissed publicly about this and warning folks that Republicans “are just trying to scare you”.

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Obama is Not an Expert … On Being Black

No one is. Being black is an individual experience shaped by the events of an individual’s life. There is no universal “black experience”. There are blacks who for one reason or another have emerged from the “adventure” of being black in America relatively unscathed. There are others for whom life has been a living hell and the extent to which their race contributed to that hell is imprecise at best.

Many blacks, myself included, have encountered well meaning whites who think that just by virtue of our being black that we are an authority on all things African-American. “Rutherford, that Puff Daddy sure is talented isn’t he?” Well, actually, I don’t listen to Puff Daddy (or P Diddy or whatever he’s calling himself right now). “Rutherford, which do you like better, the writings of Toni Morrison or James Baldwin?” Eh, I haven’t read either of them.

I’m beginning to think our first black president is falling into this trap and is no longer acquitting himself admirably.  After contributing to an over 200 comment thread on this very blog and after watching a week’s worth of coverage I am having somewhat of an epiphany concerning Barack Obama and race. Let me explain.

Had police Sgt. Crowley arrested Professor Henry Louis Gates last year while George W. Bush was President, W would never have been asked his opinion on the matter. This is a hypothetical upon which I’m 99% positive (I’ll grant my opponents a 1% margin of error). So what possessed Chicago writer Lynn Sweet to ask Barack Obama about this local police matter at the conclusion of a press conference that had NOTHING to do with local politics or local police behavior? It is simple. The Crowley-Gates throw-down was swimming in racial controversy and it goes without saying that our black president MUST have an opinion on it. Obama, who has mistakenly taken on the roll of social science teacher-in-chief took the bait. Not only did he use the moment to remind us about racial profiling (which incidentally did not happen in this case), he shared his opinion of the arrest as though he was our enlightened educating black best buddy.

Obama, at least this past week, seems to have forgotten what made him such an appealing presidential candidate. With the exception of the “Race Speech” which had to be made to explain away Reverend Jeremiah Wright, Obama ran a basically race-neutral campaign. While it was clear that if he won, he would be our first black president, he did not run as the black candidate. He ran to be president, not the black president. Obama got himself in hot water this week because he allowed himself to be cornered into being the black-expert-in-chief. The proper answer to Lynn Sweet should have been, “Lynn, with all I have on my plate right now do you really think I’m going to weigh in on a Cambridge, Massachusetts arrest? For what it’s worth, Skip Gates is a friend of mine and I wish him well. Next question.”

I think the time has come for Barack Obama to become ice cold when it comes to race in America. Being black does not make you an expert on being black. Obama is a smart man who likes to show his expertise on a number of subjects but race need not be one of them. If Obama wants to “teach” us about being black, let him do it simply by example. To my knowledge, Obama has never screamed at a police officer to the point that the officer was sufficiently offended to arrest his ass. That alone should be evidence of what Obama really thinks of Gates’ behavior in this incident.

So to Obama I say, stop teaching us and continue leading us. To the press I say, Barack Obama knows no more about being a black man in this country than any other black guy. Stop asking him race related questions thinking he somehow owes you an answer. He’s not your social science experiment. He’s the leader of the free world. Treat him that way.

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The Cancer of Racism

There is nothing new about the racism as cancer metaphor and I could even be charged as being trite by even going there. There is a perspective on this metaphor that I don’t usually see and I wanted to examine that today.

My wife’s girlfriend is a cancer survivor, cancer free for 10 years. Her course of treatment included the usual combo of chemotherapy and radiation, the latter of which can really play games with your cellular biology and set you up for other cancers down the road. Recently, she found a bruise on her breast which she couldn’t trace back to any particular cause. She immediately thought the worst and got a mammogram and sonogram as soon as she could. The blood tests and “grams” laid her fears to rest. The bruise was simply, a bruise.

Cancer survivors, because of their history, no matter how healthy they might be today, live under the cloud of a potential recurrence. For the more paranoid of them, any irregularity sends off alarms.

And so it is with racism. The history of racism, not just in this country but around the world, raises doubts about the true nature of the conflicts we find ourselves in. The recent case of Henry Louis Gates Jr, a professor at Harvard brings this problem front and center. In a world without racism, this is the way the scenario would have played out:

Woman sees man trying to break into a house. With no racial bias whatsoever, she calls the police, never thinking that the man might be locked out of his own house. The police arrive to find the man inside the house and they begin to interrogate. Because this is a world without racism, the man completely understands why the way he entered his own house might have looked suspicious. He gladly offers the policeman proof of residency and then he and the policeman have a good chuckle about the misunderstanding.

Now let’s replay the same scenario in a world with racism:

White woman sees no reason why a black man should be trying to jimmy his way into a house in a predominantly white neighborhood so she calls the police. The policeman arrives on the scene and based on his experience with a large number of black criminals, he assumes the worst. The black man, having experienced discrimination in the past, assumes the worst of the policeman. His hackles go up at the very thought that his belonging in this neighborhood should even be questioned. He shows the policeman his identification but he does so with an attitude. He’s angry. Based on his experience, he should be. The policeman, who faces insolent thugs on a regular basis, has a visceral reaction to the black man’s anger. Before you know it, the black man is in cuffs on his way to the police station, not for breaking and entering but for “disturbing the peace”.

Look at the variables at play here. The woman who made the 911 call may or may not have been making a racially based assessment. Gates could have assumed the best of the police officer and had a chuckle with him. Let’s face it, anyone trying to break into a house looks suspicious. Had Gates reacted with a laugh, would he have wound up arrested? Had the police officer not had more than his share of run-ins with nasty perps (of any race) would he have been so prone to arrest Gates?

One commentator said that there was no way a man as famous as Gates could have been arrested without racial bias. Well for starters, Gates is only famous among intellectuals. The average joe has no idea who Henry Louis Gates is … hell, the average joe can’t name the Secretary of Defense, Robert Gates. The only thing we know for sure about this incident is that it was one big misunderstanding. Gates’ intent was misunderstood by the 911 caller. The policeman’s intent may have been misunderstood by Gates. Gates’ reaction may have been misunderstood by the police officer.  The true intent of all the participants was colored by this cloud of racism that hangs over our world.

That is the true sad consequence of racism. We never know from one  day to the next when a bruise is a malignant tumor or when a bruise is just a bruise.

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