Sunday, December 4, 2011

Is There an Element of Racism in the Fight Against Obama Care?

Cecily Tyson stars in the film version of The Help

The day after seeing the movie The Help, I had a vivid dream: I am asked to watch over Obama's two daughters, Sasha and Malia. We enjoy ourselves immensely. We visit a bookstore, much like the one President Obama visited with his daughters on Thanksgiving weekend. We share a wonderful Southern meal of fried chicken, butter beans, okra, and strawberry rhubarb pie, my favorite. We tell stories of our lives. Soon it's time for these young girls to be picked up by their mother, Michelle Obama, who graciously thanks me. She asks me if I would like to help out from time to time, because often the first lady and president are busy taking care of the country.

I agree to this arrangement. It seems right and somehow very reassuring. "Oh," I say, "Obama Care."

And then I wake up. The first thing I realize is that this soothing dream is in stark counterpoint to the discomfort and even anguish I felt watching The Help. I've spent years in the South. My Granddaddy's modest family had a mammy who passed down to him her lullaby -- we still sing it four generations later. This song is said to cure fevers and to heal any illness. It's a musical legacy that was given to us from a woman none of us knew, but whose lullaby still comforts us.
Mulling over the mash-up of my dream and The Help, mirror images haunt me: Aibileen, a Mississippi black maid tenderly embraces a white child she has cared for since birth. Softly, she repeats her mammy mantra:

"You is kind. You is smart. You is important."

Aibileen and the other "domestics" reveal to the wider world the injustices of Jim Crow, the racism of a social system that will let a black woman intimately raise a white child; but not let that woman use the same bathrooms as the white family she cares for.

In a heartbreaking scene, Aibileen is unfairly fired for supposedly stealing silver. For the last time, Aibileen embraces the little white girl. Saying goodbye, she asks the child to repeat her mantra. As Aibileen strides away, the child screams, "Ai-beeeee!" and cries, her hands pressed against the window of her aristocratic house with it landscaped yard and white pillars. She has lost her real mother.

Aibileen is grief stricken, but then holds up her head. She picks up her stride. She tells herself, "Maybe I'll be the writer in the family." She might also have said, "Maybe one day I might be president."

One day she might reverse generations of racism and classism. She might actually propose to take care of all children who are ill and need her compassionate tending.

The more I pondered The Help, the more I thought about Obama Care, that centerpiece legislation that aims to take care of the uninsured children, the disenfranchised families, and to extend coverage until the age of 26. Obama Care spans the "Us and Them" mentality, and asks that we take care, not only of our own, but also those people who do not look like us or even share our same beliefs and culture. This is empathy that reaches out past "me and mine" to embrace the Other.

I wondered, what are the states that most oppose Obama Care? Why is there such a mean-spirited attack on a health care program that, like many other civilized countries, hopes to insure everyone, no matter race or creed? In fact, Florida has taken their furious rejection of Obama Care all the way to the Supreme Court. This is the state where, according to "60 Minutes," over one-third of all homeless families live.

There are 26 states, over half the country, fighting some form of Obama Care. But when you look at a map of the Southern states that oppose Obama Care overlaid with a map of blue and red states that voted Democratic or Republican in the 2008 Presidential election, a sobering image emerges. Almost uniformly, the South opposes Obama Care. The list of those who have signed onto legislation against Obama's health care program introduced by Florida and Virginia, is a veritable roll call of the South -- South Carolina, Texas, Louisiana, Alabama, Georgia, Mississippi, Oklahoma, Arkansas.

Yes, there are other states besides the Southern block challenging Obama Care. In my own state, Washington Attorney General Rob McKenna quickly joined the fight against Obama Care. But his highly unpopular partisan politics created a backlash here.

Ironically, in the 2008 presidential election, Virginia and Florida stand out as blue states in a red sea of Southern states. Now, those two states lead the anti-Obama Care legislation. The whole country awaits the Supreme Court's decision, especially on the question: Is it constitutional for government to make people buy their own health insurance?

But given our country's troubling history of race relations, we need to ask this question: Is there a shadow of racism in this rejection of Obama and his health care program?

One might suggest that the South, with its history of slavery and Jim Crow, has even more of a moral responsibility in this new century to help children other than their own. After all, how many decades did black women tend to white children, slave in someone else's house, kitchen, and nursery? After decades of venal prejudice, segregation, demanding that black women raise white children instead of simply tending to their own -- don't white families have a responsibility to give back? To expand their care to include others who literally slaved for their ancestors -- for generations?

The Help main characters Minny and Aibileen who work as maids and bravely tell the real story of Jim Crow in the South

The Help was a study in compassion in the face of prejudice and hatred -- black women who raised all those white babies and loved them like their own. In this generation we have a chance to heal those racist wounds. This national health care debate must be seen as more than a power struggle between state and federal government. More than a rallying cry for the 2012 presidential elections. Obama Care is about much more than rights. It is about our responsibilities to our fellow citizens. This is a moral and ethical conversation about family values. Do we only value our own families -- or can we include everyone else? Not Us and Them. All of us.
Everyone can help take care of the next generations -- because they are all our children. And because we are kind. We are smart. And they are so important.

Brenda Peterson is the author of 16 books, including the recent memoir, I Want To Be Left Behind: Finding Rapture Here on Earth, which was selected among "Top Ten Best Non-Fiction Books of 2010" by The Christian Science Monitor
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