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.
Democratic Whip Rep. James Clyburn, D-S.C., has said that the conduct he’s seen at the town halls reminds him of the hate-filled racists he encountered during the civil rights movement, citing as an example the swastika spray-painted outside the office of Rep. Scott. Kenneth Spain, a spokesman for the National Republican Congressional Committee denounced Sen. Clyburn’s statements as “bigoted and elitist.”
But has Spain, or other GOP members of Congress who have convened town halls, publicly and forcefully condemned the use of swastikas and racist imagery by town hall attendees? Rep. Clyburn is correct to specifically target Rep. Eric Cantor, the Republican Whip. As a prominent Jewish leader in the party, he is especially sensitive to the use of the swastika as a threatening symbol. Why is he silent about its use by protesters supporting the position of the Republican Party on health care reform? Given the regular list of black public figures who are called upon by whites to “denounce” (Louis Farrakhan, Sister Souljah, the Rev. Jeremiah Wright), Rep. Clyburn has every right to demand that white Republicans denounce blatant, public expressions of racism by their supporters.
This is reminiscent of the heated presidential campaign last summer when Sen. John McCain criticized Rep. John Lewis, D-Ga., for Lewis’ statement that the atmosphere at some of the McCain-Palin rallies, where participants referred to Obama as a terrorist, and at which one reportedly shouted “kill him,” reminded Lewis of the kind of anger and hate he faced during the civil rights movement. Sen. McCain said that he was offended by Rep. Lewis’ remark. He wasn’t offended by the folks at the rallies who created this hostile atmosphere; he was offended by Rep. Lewis’ response. Rep. Lewis was almost killed by angry whites on more than one occasion during the years when Sen. McCain was held as a prisoner of war in Vietnam. Each man is probably the best judge of the atmosphere that calls to mind the personal hell each endured during that period. Sen. McCain should no more presume to school Rep. Lewis on racially hostile mobs than Lewis should suggest that he is in a better position than McCain to comment on the conditions under which prisoners of war are held.
There is a legitimate debate to be had about health care reform. Without question, some town hall participants legitimately want to engage in this debate. But the use of swastikas, racist imagery and death threats against the president have nothing to do with single-payer, public option or end-of-life counseling. It has everything to do with racism. That racist imagery and threats have infiltrated some areas should be cause enough for serious concern by the elected officials who preside over these events.
It would be healthy if white elected officials denounced the racism that has infected many of these meetings. Or they should at least defer respectfully to the warnings of Rep. Clyburn and Rep. Lewis, who grew up during some of the worst days of American racism and have the courage to call it when they see it.
Sherrilyn A. Ifill is a regular contributor to The Root.