The thing they have in common?Â Story is here
Ex-Marine Jack Burke went toe-to-toe with his congresswoman at a street fair in San Carlos last week, convinced President Barack Obama’s health care reform would mean politicians, not doctors, would make his medical decisions.
It wasn’t just health care making him angry, Burke said a few moments later. It was Obama’s plan to limit global warming; it was the auto industry and all the other bailouts; AND it was health care. The retiree said it all felt so wrong, so contrary to how he was raised.
“I just feel the government is intruding in our lives,” Burke said.
With the civic dialogue aflame with phrases like “death panels” and “the blood of tyrants,” conversations with voters like Burke suggest more is brewing in the nation’s troubled soul than a debate over the mechanics of health care reform. 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.
After she’d spent three hours Thursday standing shoulder-to-shoulder in a throng with Burke and other constituents, Rep. Jackie Speier, D-San Mateo, said one common
note she heard in people’s voices was fear.”I had one lady stand here tonight and say, ‘I’m just scared,’ ” Speier said. “And people are justifiably scared because so much has happened so fast in this country. I’ve been in office for 16 months, and I haven’t caught my breath yet because it’s been one issue after another; it’s been one failed institution after another.”
Just nine months after the historic election of the first African-American president set off an apparent glow of racial reconciliation, conservative commentator Patrick J. Buchanan invoked an icon of the 1990s culture wars â€” the “Angry White Man” â€” to explain the outcry over health care reform.
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.”
Recent weeks have seen the racial contretemps of Harvard professor Henry Louis Gates Jr. and Sgt. James Crowley, and the continued viral spread of rumors by “the Birthers” that Obama is not a legitimate president, alleging he was not born in the United States.
The uncontrolled presence of the Internet and competing philosophies guiding radio and cable news networks have all added fuel to the war of words.
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.”
Melson said she knows minorities are proportionately more likely to have voted for Obama, “so maybe they’re just kind of done, they feel he’s in office, it’s going to pass, and they’re taking it for granted.
“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 â€” 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.
Meanwhile, one prominent watchdog organization has documented a surge in the number of racial hate groups, such as Stormfront, a “White Nationalist Organization” that logged into the Sierra Club debate.
The election of an African-American president “has racialized the anti-government debate,” said Heidi Beirich, director of research for the Southern Poverty Law Center, which issued the hate group report.
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.
“There is an anger out there unseen since Ross Perot was leading Bush I and Bill Clinton in the presidential trial heats in 1992,” the conservative commentator wrote.
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.”