Wednesday, September 30, 2009

No Coloreds Allowed in Healthcare

An Alabama native considers the role the South and race has played in shaping the debate around universal healthcare.

I came across a tweet – that’s twitter speak – on my cell phone the other day and I have been hard pressed to shake its message. My friend, Brentin, a brilliant wordsmith who has mastered twitter in ways I can only dream, sent a message that said, “I am wondering where the “universal” has gone in the healthcare debate?” Simple question and certainly to the point, where did universal healthcare go?

Having spent many years in Washington, DC and working around the country on political campaigns, I know the kind of brokering that takes place around the issues we care about and one thing is always true, in the end, someone always gets shut out. In a lot of ways Americans, especially those who are most in need, have come to expect this type of wheeling and dealing and have numbed themselves to the reality that they will never get what they need, let alone what they want.

To say “business as usual” is the reason why universal healthcare has drifted out of the debate would actually oversimplify the issue. After all, healthcare is tangled up in a promise to “life, liberty and a pursuit of happiness” -your life and the corporation’s life. When these two entities ability to pursue happiness is threatened “compromise” becomes the word du jour. Even as you read this, your elected representatives and senators are working on a “compromise “ on healthcare where some people get what they need and some do not. Wait, isn’t that what we already have?

Healthcare power brokering on Capitol Hill is a minefield of double entendres and code words that send us messages such as “Americans do not trust government to provide its healthcare” even when we know that millions of Americans use Medicaid, Medicare and Veterans Heath Services, which are all public health systems. It also sends us messages that tell us that the sole reason why universal healthcare is not possible is because of the economics of the country – we are capitalists - and while I know that this is true, simply relegating the healthcare debate to being just an economic issue ignores our ugly truth– the lack of universal healthcare is about race.

In 1946, President Truman had an idea for a national healthcare system that would help heal a country still recovering from the Great Depression. The New Deal created Social Security and unemployment insurance and universal healthcare would have helped secure the lives of millions of low-wage workers. Public opinion was strong for the new national health system all around the country except for the Southern U.S

In the South, where many people couldn’t afford health coverage, the argument about healthcare became clearly a fact of whether or not this new system would force the integration of hospitals in the South. Instead of providing healthcare to the droves of uninsured poor whites in the South, the Southern delegates to Congress asserted that keeping black people out of white hospitals was more important than allowing healthcare to all people. Because of the South, universal healthcare failed and current system was solidified.

Yes, the lack of healthcare coverage hits all people no matter their skin color and it feels like it would be easier to argue the healthcare issues on the basis of class and income but our problems in this country are more than poverty issues, they are about race. The Republican argument is that the healthcare debate revolves around smaller government and privatization. Conversely, the Democratic argument is that our failure to ensure universal healthcare is about insurance companies continuing to make money at the expense of poor people. Neither argument speaks to the heart of this matter. Our failure to understand and legitimately address racism will mean that any “compromise” that is made around healthcare will only continue to keep people of out the system based on their race.

I suppose the “universal” part of the healthcare debate has been swept under the rug, much like addressing race.

Submitted by: Jessica Norwood

The ideas and relayed in this opinion piece are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the Emerging ChangeMakers Network or its membership.

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