White Anger Fueling Health Care Debate

Mike Swift and Josh Richman, San Jose Mercury News, August 22, 2009

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{snip} Many say the tempest over health care has its origin in the new administration’s breathtaking pace of change and in the long-term social and demographic trends that helped put the nation’s first African-American president in the White House.

But there is also a powerful social catalyst: The recession has savaged whites and middle-aged men to a degree unseen in most people’s lifetimes. And that has helped make many in those groups desperately, angrily anxious about change.

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Surging emotions

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Nationwide, there have been other signs of the Angry White Man phenomenon. The numbers of racial hate groups and anti-government citizen militias are surging. Guns sales appear to be climbing. Complaints of racial discrimination in much of the Bay Area and across the country are running higher than they have in at least a decade.

Even the Berkeley-based Sierra Club’s Internet comment boards recently erupted in a debate by members, hardly a conservative group, over whether the club was attacking whites, after it posted a member newsletter about its diversity program with the headline: “Yep, We’re Too White.”

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Last week in San Jose, near an appearance by Sen. Barbara Boxer, predominantly white “tea party” protesters chanting, “USA, USA!” held up signs superimposing Obama alongside Adolf Hitler. One sign said Boxer should be bounced from office because she is “condescending to black people.”

“Some of it is not about health care, let’s face it,” said Richard Czik, former vice president of governmental affairs for the National Association of Evangelicals, a health care reform advocate who is organizing a moderate Christian association called the New Evangelicals. “Some of it has to be about an obvious rejection of Obama’s legitimacy as president. You wouldn’t get this anger, represented by the hate-mongering you see. Some of it is directed against the president, with some pretty deep-seated attitudes.”

Not about race

Some Bay Area opponents of health care reform acknowledge many of their supporters are over 50 and are white, but they argue that their sole concern is preserving quality health care.

“It’s not a racial issue,” said Bridget Melson, a Pleasanton psychotherapist who helped organize a protest Saturday outside the district office of Rep. Jerry McNerney, D-Pleasanton.

Some experts say one reason why so many health care protesters have been white is that, at least until now, Latinos, blacks, American Indians and Asian-Americans have had a much higher risk of being uninsured than whites.

“I think the people who are probably most concerned about any changes relating to health care reform are moderately satisfied, willing to keep the status quo in place,” said health economist Stephen Zuckerman, a senior fellow at the nonpartisan Urban Institute’s Health Policy Center in Washington, D.C. “And it is the case that minority populations tend to be uninsured, so they have more to gain from reform.”

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“But we’re not.”

Still, the economy has given many whites and middle-aged Americans legitimate reason to feel angry, fearful or threatened. This recession has taken a far larger share of jobs from older men, particularly white men, than earlier economic downturns.

During the six decades since World War II, the unemployment rate for men aged 55 and older averaged 3.7 percent, and reached 7 percent in only a single month–February 1950, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

Then came 2009.

So far this year, the monthly unemployment rate for men over 55 has been almost double the historical average.

At 6.7 percent and 6.5 percent during the first two quarters of 2009, the unemployment rate for older white men is higher than it’s ever been since the government began tracking that group, in the early 1950s. Unemployment rates for black and Latino men, however, are lower than the peak they hit during the recession of the early 1980s.

Tensions are rising

Aside from the health care debate, there are numerous signs that racial tension may be on the rise.

The federal government has noted a 25 percent uptick in complaints of racial discrimination since 2006. In the Bay Area, Santa Clara County numbers were down, but Alameda and Contra Costa counties recorded 10-year highs for racial complaints in 2008.

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In a recent column, Buchanan said the recession’s unprecedented impact on older men, particularly whites, is helping to fuel the outcry over health care reform.

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Different nation

But America is a very different place demographically than it was at the start of the Clinton administration, when three-quarters of Americans were white. Some say some of the tension in the nation’s civic dialogue has something to do with fear about how immigration and time are remaking the nation’s population.

Today, under two-thirds of Americans are white, while California went from being nearly 60 percent white in 1990 to just over 40 percent white today. Even in Orange County, ground zero for California conservatism, whites are no longer a majority of the population, according to U.S. Census estimates.

“Those whites that you see at the health care meetings, that was really Ronald Reagan’s America,” said John Kenneth White, a presidential scholar at the Catholic University of America and author of the newly published “Barack Obama’s America: How New Conceptions of Race, Family and Religion Ended the Reagan Era.”

“Reagan’s California exists today only on the commemorative license plate. That California that elected him governor twice and president twice is no more,” White said. He believes some of the anger behind the health care debate is from “a sense that power has shifted in the country, and the country they thought they knew doesn’t exist anymore.”

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