The imminent passage of health care in the Senate comes at the same time that black Americans in Congress and elsewhere have expressed disappointment that President Obama has not been addressing the needs of communities of color. Black neighborhoods have been hit particularly hard by the foreclosure crisis and the ongoing job and credit crunch. While the White House has tried to maintain a delicate, noncommittal stance with respect to the president’s race and political agenda, Congressional Black Caucus members including Reps. Barbara Lee (D-CA), Maxine Waters (D-CA) and John Conyers (D-MI), plus actor Danny Glover, have been vocal critics of administration policies on war, job creation and other kitchen-table concerns for black Americans. “The Obama administration has followed the same playbook…as the Bush administration. I don’t see anything different,” Glover said this week.
Obama brushed these critiques off in a recent radio interview. “Of course there's grumbling,” he said, including himself in the pool of black Americans worried about the future. “There’s a long history of us being the last fired and the first fired. As I said on health care, we’re the ones who are in the worst position to absorb companies deciding to drop their health plans. So should people be satisfied? Absolutely not. But let’s take a look at what I’ve done.”
Senator Roland Burris, the lone African-American member of the upper house of Congress, has been wrestling with the same issues as Obama. The Root has reported on the leadership he has shown during the health care debate. On the eve of the Senate vote, he spoke with The Root about critiques of the president, relief for black America and a very special poem he wrote in support of health care reform.
The Root: Will we have health care by Christmas Day?
Roland Burris: That’s the plan.
TR: What does this bill offer to the black Americans who are worried that the first African-American president isn’t looking out for them?
RB: In terms of disparities, you will see that there are studies that are required by [Health and Human Services] in response to diabetes and obesity, and those programs were added to the bill. As well as the cost curve being bent, and the savings taking place, and the uninsureds that are going to be insured. Thirty-one million more individuals—most of them blacks and Hispanics and minorities and poor whites—will get insurance. And it’s those that are employed, working without insurance, that is really key to this legislation.
On October 15 you said: “Let it be clear to all of my colleagues in this august body: I will not vote for any health care bill that does not include a public option.” Are you going back on your word?
I would love to do better. But I have had all my meetings with the sponsors of the bill; I met with the president’s staff. I met with the president. And my position is that we are going to curb insurance companies. And then the term “public option” pops up. It sounds good, but what I was talking about was competition, cost and accountability. All three of those measures are met in this bill. Are they met to the degree I would like them to be met? No. Are they taking place where you have to have exchanges and if the insurance companies raise their rates prior to this bill going into effect, then they will be excluded from the exchanges? Yes. There is real accountability there. And don’t forget taking out preexisting conditions, taking out the caps, taking out the exorbitant premiums, increases, or denying coverage for someone who could have gotten a preexisting condition. All of that is taking place.
For black families struggling through the recession, this health care doesn’t seem to help with the bottom line—jobs. What do you say to that?
It’s both. If we don’t do something about health insurance, they’re paying $13,000 a year right now. In five years they are going to be paying $26,000 a year to get decent, basic health insurance. Based on that alone, this is a major issue for the average family. We have a long way to go. We have not gotten it out of the Senate, and then you have to go to conference, and the House bill is different from the Senate bill. So this is not done yet. We are just working and praying and hoping that we will come out with a much improved bill that will then be able to get 60 votes in the Senate. And those votes in the Senate are very contingent. My vote—if they deal with costs and accountability, then I’m on board.
On the eve of the final vote, you read a poem on the floor of Congress: “T’was the Night Before Christmas” (reprinted below). Was it your idea?
I gave my staff the outlines. I said, “I need something to lighten this joint up.” Grinch, Scrooge, or maybe “The Night Before Christmas.” So that’s what was created. My daughter called me from Chicago and said, “What’s this poem?!” It was a light moment.
Watch Burris read his poem here:
It was the night before Christmas, and all through the Senate
The right held up our health care bill, no matter what was in it
The people had voted a mandated reform
But Republicans blew off the gathering storm
We'll clog up the Senate, they cried with a grin
And in the midterm elections, we'll get voted in
They knew regular folks needed help right this second
But fundraisers, lobbyists and politics beckoned
So try as they might, Democrats could not win
Because the majority was simply too thin
Then across every state there rose such a clatter
The whole Senate rushed out to see what was the matter
All sprang up from their desks and ran from the floor
Straight through the cloakroom and right out the door
And what in the world would be quite so raucous
But a mandate for change from the Democratic Caucus?
The president, the Speaker, of course Leader Reid
Had answered the call in our hour of need
More rapid than eagles, the provisions they came
And they whistled and shouted and called them by name
Better coverage, cost savings, a strong public plan [sic]
Accountable options. We said, “Yes, we can.”
No exclusions or changes for preexisting conditions
Let's pass a bill that restores competition
The Democrats all came together to fight
For the American people that Christmas Eve night
And then in a twinkle, I heard under the dome
The roll call was closed, and it was time to go home
Despite the obstructionist tactics of some
The filibuster had broken, the people had won
And a good bill was ready for President Obama
Ready to sign and end health care drama
Democrats explained as they drove out of sight
Better coverage for all, even our friends on the right.
Dayo Olopade is Washington Reporter for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.
Covers the White House and Washington for The Root. Follow her on Twitter.