Media outlets have gingerly approached the question of whether the virulent and over-the-top town hall meetings over health care are thinly disguised venting sessions in which right-wing whites express their frustration and sense of dislocation over the election of the first black president. Following quickly on the heels of the out-in-left-field, birther conspiracy theorists, the rage-filled, inconsolable opponents of the current health care reform bill certainly seem to be more concerned with the legitimacy of the messenger rather than the message about President Barack Obama’s need for comprehensive health care reform.
Pictures of town hall attendees carrying gross, racist and distorted images of President Obama, the spray-painting of a swastika outside the office of a black U.S. representative, coupled with the open and brazen calls for the death of the president and his family, clearly demonstrate that some of these events have become cozy havens for virulent racists. It is certainly not all—and maybe not even a majority—of the protesters who share these views. But the fact that attendees brandishing these images and sentiments are not loudly denounced, or otherwise vilified, by the other participants in the meetings speaks volumes. Especially when compared to the treatment received by a black woman at a recent town hall in Missouri when she tried to show a fellow attendee her rolled-up poster of Rosa Parks.
It’s no surprise that elected officials have been cautious about pointing to the racial dynamics at play in the town hall meetings. It’s incendiary stuff. This is not to paint all or even most of the town hall participants as racist—irrational perhaps, but not racist. And it’s not to credit virulent racists with power. The attention that cable news stations are giving to these antics may only embolden the protesters. But it’s certainly understandable that many blacks do regard the conduct of the protesters as racially threatening.
So why is it that some white officials are so quick to denounce blacks who point out the racially charged atmosphere at many of the town halls? Democratic Missouri Sen. Claire McCaskill recently said that Rep. David Scott, D-Ga., – whose office received the spray-painted swastika— was “irresponsible” for identifying racism as a part of the town hall protests.