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Health, Science, Environment

Commentary: 'I'm a racist' ad ignores real health issues

This article first appeared in the St. Louis Beacon, Dec. 11, 2009 - Missouri is making national news with state Rep. Rob Schaaf's (R) appearance in a recent YouTube posting of a TV ad designed for the D.C. area that has gone viral. The commercial has people from all backgrounds stating, "I guess I'm racist." In my opinion, the ad is a poorly executed idea produced in a slick and catchy way.

In a recent Rachel Maddow Show, she and her guest Associate Professor Melissa Harris-Lacewell do a fabulous job of raising the important issues on which this campaign misses the mark. The ad personalizes health care in a way that ignores the systemic disparities of the institution.

The ad is a tangled mess that is apparently is trying to discredit the idea that those who oppose Obama are racist. However, it fails to examine the ways in which race is intricately woven into the health-care debate regardless of who is at the helm. Its authors also confuse racial claims when they cite Jesse Jackson's statement calling out Blacks who are against health-care reform, yet in no way tying his statement back to their main idea. The ad is a jumble of race-related information loosely cobbled together.

Furthermore, it attempts to stop any conversation about race and health-care reform on the grounds that to oppose legislation is not racist. Agreed. No, it is not inherently racist to oppose health-care reform as it is being debated in Congress. But the insistence lacks depth or true understanding of the issue. I refer back to two earlier columns: The first outlines how levels of racism vary and the importance of understanding such distinctions and the second suggests that the quickest way to prematurely end a debate is to cry "racist." The creators of this ad were attempting to "win" by slamdunk (i.e. getting everyone under the sun to claim they are racist to take that charge off of the table).

End of discussion. You can't call us racist, because we already have claimed it. So let's move on and talk about the real issue.

However, here is where is gets interesting. Racial disparities within the health-care system are well documented. For example there is a disparity in first trimester prenatal care for African Americans, American Indians and Hispanics compared to Whites. That tidbit is simply the tip of the iceberg.

So while the ad attempts to be pre-emptive by claiming the racist label in attempt to force us to look at health care without race on the table, a quick glance at the topic will remind us that race is a relevant and important part of the health-care discussion. It would have done the creators some good to know the key issues. Obama being of color does not inject race into the health-care debate. Race would be a factor in health care no matter who is in power. Statistically, we have a health-care system that creates different outcomes for people based on racial group membership (in addition to income and language).

The institution of health care has already been implicated. Whether one or a hundred people are or are not individually racist, the systemic reality is that our health-care system creates disparate outcomes.

So, even if I can get beyond the poorly thought out argument yet accept the spirit of the ad, race remains a factor in health care.

Oh, and the last frames, which attempt to squash any suggestion that individuals are racially motivated in their opinions by showing a Black man stating, "I guess I'm a racist" is a weak argument. A Black man being against health care is not a vindication of race being a motivating factor. It's not even worth putting forth the evidence for internalized racism . The video reeks of an oversimplified quip that failed to consider overarching institutional realities.

Kira Hudson Banks, Ph.D., is assistant professor of psychology at Illinois Wesleyan University in Bloomington. The native of Edwardsville is a regular contributor to the Beacon.

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