Shortly before the House of Representatives passed a drastic overhaul of our health care system, Nancy Pelosi (D-Calif.) and House Democrats walked arm-in-arm through an angry mob of protesters that converged on the National Mall. As the Speaker clenched the arm of Rep. John Lewis (D-Ga.) – who organized the Selma to Montgomery Marches in 1965 – I could not help but think about the civil rights movement.
The imagery that accompanied Pelosi’s march to the House chamber poignantly captured the evolution of contemporary racism from its violent past. Instead of the beatings he endured on Selma’s Edmund Pettus Bridge, Lewis only faced an onslaught of racial epithets from a few members of the large crowd. In an age when explicit expressions of prejudice remind us of a shameful era of institutionalized racism, even the type of bigotry that Lewis faced on his way to the Capitol is usually castigated from our public discourse.
Nearly everyone who jeered Pelosi and Lewis identify with the Tea Party movement, a populist collection of fiscal conservatives that emerged at the very beginning of President Obama’s term. It would be preposterous to suggest that a racist reaction against Obama was solely responsible for the rise of the Tea Party. Nonetheless, the presence of race in American politics contributed to the Tea Party’s role as a viable opponent to health care reform.
While many observers have noted that the Tea Party is a personal affront to Obama’s identity as our first black president, few people have outlined a larger issue with race that transcends Obama’s presence in the White House. The movement’s most significant issue with race arises from a series of age-old stereotypes about black America in post-civil rights society.
The civil rights movement holds a very prominent place in our country’s political conscience. In the fight for health care reform, Democrats advocated from a progressive stance similar to that of the 1960s campaign for civil rights. From President Johnson’s Great Society to the contemporaneous passage of civil rights legislation, a culturally progressive outlook enabled the victories of that decade.
The subsequent turbulence of the 1960s resulted in the development of political divisions in America. Democrats have largely affirmed the 1960s as a positive chapter in American history, while the GOP immediately began to capitalize on the scores of disaffected Southern Democrats who opposed the civil rights movement.
The political ramifications of a racially polarized political system persist in our society, which has failed to erase age-old stereotypes of African-Americans. A decade ago, political scientist Martin Gilens explored the relationship between social welfare politics and race in “Why Americans Hate Welfare.” Gilens illustrates how racial prejudice ascribes to black America a series of debilitating stereotypes. Gilens specifically observes the stereotype of the lazy black, which conservative politicians constantly exploit in order to defeat socioeconomically progressive legislation. He cites a 1996 survey that assessed the preponderance of this stereotype: Only 15 percent of white respondents characterized blacks as hardworking. When asked about the work ethic of whites, however, 41 percent of respondents characterized whites as hardworking.
While the health care bill differs significantly from the type of welfare programs that are the focus of Gilens’ analysis, it has provoked the same criticism of irresponsibly assisting America’s poor. Racial stereotypes exacerbate the class barriers that prevent the passage of legislation that aims to help the least fortunate. The stereotypes of poor African Americans reduce their plight to inherently personal failings that transcend the affects of socioeconomic reform. As with the type of personalized opposition to Obama that many political observers have noted, the Tea Party’s fiscally conservative underpinnings derive from these subtle sources of prejudice.
I find it hard to accept that the election of our first black president has suddenly reconstructed our country’s sense of race. Back in September, I attended the Tea Party Taxpayer March on Washington as a casual observer. By the end of the day, I could count on one hand the number of black participants I had seen. As the election of Obama continues to perpetuate a deceptive conception of a post-racial America, let us remember the Tea Party’s nearly successful effort to block health care reform. Without confronting the movement’s race problem, we feed into these post-racial delusions that threaten to halt future racial progress.
Tyler Bilbo is a sophomore in the College.