I am not a welfare person

July 25, 2017
By Yanique Redwood

Although I bemoaned my one-hour commute in a previous blog, I am grateful for the opportunity that I have to listen to National Public Radio in the mornings. During one such commute, the NPR journalist was interviewing a woman who was fiercely defending the Affordable Care Act because of its impact on her own life and health. However, as she made her case she said the following words: I am not a welfare person.

I am not sure that I heard much else.

Why did she need to advocate for access to health care by separating herself from people who receive Temporary Assistance to Needy Families to survive? I submit to you that it may be related to the conflation of Black or African-American with welfare. In addition, research on the U.S. media environment suggests that the top three negative words that the average college-educated adult sees paired with the word Black are the words poor, violent and lazy. If welfare is associated with Black and Black is associated with these words, then it is no surprise that she would try to create distance.

As policymakers at the national level struggle to pass a new healthcare bill to replace the Affordable Care Act, it is so obvious to me (and I am sure many others) that a significant underlying issue is race. However, I do not hear many people talking about the role of race in this policy debate except for Vann Newkirk, II in his Atlantic article entitled the Fight for Health Care has Always Been about Civil Rights. He recalled Dr. Martin Luther King’s proclamation that “of all the inequalities that exist, the injustice in health care is the most shocking and inhuman” and pointed out that Medicare and Medicaid got established in the 60s when this country saw the most sweeping civil rights changes occur. Most insightful in his article was this observation:

“…as many other countries moved down the path to truly nationalized, universal health care, America instead largely expanded the existing segregated system of local private providers and religious-based charity care. In essence, the United States’s peculiar private-based health-care system exists at least in part because of the country’s commitment to maintaining racial hierarchies.”

My friends, if we are not surfacing these underlying race-related histories, narratives, and structures in our fight for universal health care, then we are all keeping up pretenses like the townspeople in the Emperor’s New Clothes—afraid to admit what we see for fear of the repercussions. Even if the current battle is won to preserve health care for the 22 million people that the CBO report states will be left uninsured by the Senate’s ACA replacement plan, we will always be fiercely trying to protect what racism demands be taken away. As we fight for the issues—any issue—I hope we will simultaneously call for national and local conversations about and action toward racial equity. Because, race is really what all this fighting is about.

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