When the House of Representatives passed health care reform, they made history. Never mind that the victory was a narrow 219-212, with 31 Democrats deserting their party on this vote. Never mind that not a single Republican voted for health care reform. It was about time that the myth of bipartisanship bit the dust, about time President Obama shrugged off the role of conciliator and healer, embracing his mandate as change agent instead. The passage of health care reform is the first improvement in the social contract in a generation. It is a victory for President Obama, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-CA), Majority Whip James Clyburn (D-SC), but mostly for the American people. To be sure, the legislation is imperfect. To paraphrase the President, it is not radical reform, but it is reform. While we will not have universal health coverage, about 95 percent of the population will be covered, up from 83 percent now. Congress will have the possibility of amending current legislation to expand it, so that, in time everyone will be covered. This compromise reflects compromises in other social contract legislation, such as the minimum wage, which excluded private household workers and farm workers. Eventually, these workers were also covered by labor standards legislation, although the struggle continues to treat these workers fairly.
It occurs to me that the very Tea Party protestors who so strongly protested the passage of health reform might be prime beneficiaries of it. After all, the racist and homophobic epithets showered on Congressmen Emmanuel Cleaver, Barney Frank, and John Lewis were a reprehensible example of the biases that many in the Tea Party bring to the table. They aren't so much against health reform as they are against folks they chose to describe in words Congressman Clyburn says he had not heard since the sixties. Their language reveals the origins and intent of the Tea Party movement. It also suggests that these folks need a health care intervention.
Racism is, after all, a disease. For these Tea Party members it is a pre-existing condition. My tongue is only partly planted in my cheek when I suggest that these folks need every provision of this new health reform legislation to get the mental health services that they need to overcome their racism. It cannot be healthy for people to work themselves up into such frenzy that they spit on legislators and shower them with epithets. Congressman Emmanuel Cleaver (D-MO) is a more magnanimous soul than me. From my perspective, the spitter should have been prosecuted to the full extent of the law.
The Tea Party ugliness does not detract from Sunday night's victory. It does, however, remind us of the fallacy of post-racialism, and the rigidity of Tea Party attitudes. In the wake of the virulent Tea Party racism, some of the leaders attempted to distance themselves from the worst of the nonsensical Tea Party behavior. Republican National Committee Chairman, the ambiguously black Michael Steele, said the racism could be narrowed to "just a few ignorant people", not the whole movement. Why is Mr. Steele making excuses for these people? Does he doubt that they call him the "n" word, too, when they can't run roughshod over him?
Congressman Clyburn called health care reform "The Civil Rights Act of the 21st century". His wording reminds us that no civil rights legislation was passed without extreme resistance. No doubt, epithets were tossed around when the Civil Rights Act of 1964 was passed, and diversionary tactics were used to attempt to sway votes. No step toward social justice has been made without resistance. From that perspective, the Tea Party resistance is completely consistent with history.
At the same time, the tone and tenor of Tea Party resistance reminds us how much more work we must do before our nation truly becomes "post-racial". And it reminds us how much help racists need. Perhaps, thanks to heath care reform, they can get much-needed mental health assistance to help with the fatal pre-existing condition - virulent racism.
Dr. Julianne Malveaux is a noted economist and president of Bennett College for Women.