The question of racism among those attacking Barack Obama was raised again when Obama appeared on Late Night with David Letterman. Not surprisingly, Obama tries to play this down but this issue has been raised repeatedly due to the many signs of racism from the far right.
Sometimes the question is posed as by questioning whether racism is the main reason for the form of opposition to Obama we are seeing from the far right. I’ve felt that the question is not this simple as the authoritarian right has many reasons for its views on Obama and it is impossible to separate out race. While not all conservatives are racists, racism has been a major component of American conservatism. A conservative movement which would already oppose the actions of any liberal Democratic president is going to be even more extreme when faced with a black liberal Democrat.
Marc J. Hetherington and Jonathan D. Weiler, authors of Authoritarianism & Polarization in American Politics, have looked at the correlation between opposition to Obama’s health care proposals and racial attitudes. They found that racism is a factor, but only one factor in the opposition to health care reform coming from the authoritarian right:
As evidence of the link between health care and racial attitudes, we analyzed survey data gathered in late 2008. The survey asked people whether they favored a government run health insurance plan, a system like we have now, or something in between. It also asked four questions about how people feel about blacks.
Taken together the four items form a measure of what scholars call racial resentment. We find an extraordinarily strong correlation between racial resentment of blacks and opposition to health care reform.
Among whites with above average racial resentment, only 19 percent favored fundamental health care reforms and 57 percent favored the present system. Among those who have below average racial resentment, more than twice as many (45 percent) favored government run health care and less than half as many (25 percent) favored the status quo.
No such relationship between racial attitudes and opinions on health care existed in the mid-1990s during the Clinton effort.
It would be silly to assert that all, or even most, opposition to President Obama, including his plans for health care reform, is motivated by the color of his skin. But our research suggests that a key to understanding people’s feelings about partisan politics runs far deeper than the mere pros and cons of actual policy proposals. It is also about a collision of worldviews.
Viewed through that lens, it is not at all surprising that Rep. Joe Wilson blurted out “You lie!” following a reference to illegal immigrants, another object of grave concern to the more authoritarian.
Beneath the arguments about government intrusion into the health care market, death panels, and such, a much more emotionally-laden dynamic is at work. Views about race along with a suite of other visceral matters are linked to people’s opinions about health care reform, which likely explains why the present debate has caused a much stronger uproar than it did in 1994.
Interesting data. Considering all the misinformation being spread on health care reform, it is important to point out that, while the studies might have considered the question of government run health care, this not what is being proposed in the current health care reform legislation. Despite this, the data is relevant to the current debate.