The Tough Thing About Racism...

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...is you just don't know. I strongly suspect Paul Krugman is right:

For the most part, the protesters appear to be genuinely angry. The question is, what are they angry about?

There was a telling incident at a town hall held by Representative Gene Green, D-Tex. An activist turned to his fellow attendees and asked if they "oppose any form of socialized or government-run health care." Nearly all did. Then Representative Green asked how many of those present were on Medicare. Almost half raised their hands.

Now, people who don't know that Medicare is a government program probably aren't reacting to what President Obama is actually proposing. They may believe some of the disinformation opponents of health care reform are spreading, like the claim that the Obama plan will lead to euthanasia for the elderly. (That particular claim is coming straight from House Republican leaders.) But they're probably reacting less to what Mr. Obama is doing, or even to what they've heard about what he's doing, than to who he is.

That is, the driving force behind the town hall mobs is probably the same cultural and racial anxiety that's behind the "birther" movement, which denies Mr. Obama's citizenship. Senator Dick Durbin has suggested that the birthers and the health care protesters are one and the same; we don't know how many of the protesters are birthers, but it wouldn't be surprising if it's a substantial fraction.

But how "right" is he? In other words, can we say that John Edwards would not have gotten a similar response? And even if he would have, is part of it based on the idea that "national health care" really will cover everyone? Historian Ira Katznelson outlines how Roosevelt was able to past the New Deal in part because Southern senators were able to cut their black constituents out of the "deal."

And there is the fact that never in this country's history have people admitted to being racist. Even the Confederate white supremacists insisted that they were looking out for black people. They were as cynical as any Senator today.

And then I got this via e-mail today:

Yesterday evening I was to attend to the Health Care summit with(D) Rep Betty Reed and(D) Rep Kathy Castor, I'm a Precinct Captain (203) in Tampa and we received our talking points to rebut any NEGATIVE GOP talking points on healthcare. I never made it in the building. I've never in my life really experience outright racism in a public place. Signs of Obama hung in effigy, racial slurs on signs, people chanting negative words ( too many to list) and outright screaming at Obama supporters. The hatred was in their eyes and they actually scared me for a moment. At first I was shocked, then a little scared and then I got outright mad in the span of 1 minute.............. I actually left (the "hood" would have come out).  I was totally blown away it was a mad house. I'm kinda mad at my self now, because I left. I'm still shaking my head in awe....................I'm still cold inside.

One thingto keep in mind is that race, and racism, have rarely ever acted alone. One of the best points that Phillip Dray makes in his classic history of lynching is that epidemics of lynching often coincided, not just with an expansion of black rights, but with increased labor mobility among white women. So fear of white women, and their independence, as well as fear of sexual competition, all worked in concert. It wasn't simply "I hate niggers"--it never is. It was "I don't much like black people, and prices are going up, and I have to let my wife work, so I can survive, and I'm scared she won't stay with me if she's not dependent on me and I'd die if she left me for a black guy." Or some such.

Ditto for the Civil Rights Movement. It wasn't just racism--it was class also. In the South you had this black middle class that always had to be deferential to the most poorest white person in the world. The prospect of losing that deference, of already being lower than the white aristocracy and now also being lower than a class of blacks too, wreaked havoc.

I don't know if the response to Obama involves a similar mix--I still don't know what to make of that Joker face. But it's worth noting that, to the extent that this is complicated, it's complexity is not new. The ingredients may be--but not the complexity. Americans have almost never admitted to being racist, and to the extent they've been racist, it's rarely been reducible to a simply "I hate black people." There's always been something more. It's always been hard to figure out what the "more" was.

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Ta-Nehisi Coates is a national correspondent at The Atlantic, where he writes about culture, politics, and social issues. He is the author of the memoir The Beautiful Struggle.

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