Unexplained Phenomena – Race, Class and Health Care in America

Really? Are you kidding me? What is going on America? You people can’t possibly believe our health care system works as it is. I think the absence of a genuine discussion about health care reform is about something else entirely, but are we as a nation ready to talk about it?

It has something to do with why, at one point in this country, it was constitutionally sound to consider some of the people living here less than human. I would even go so far as to say it might have something to do why a Harvard professor can get arrested in his own home by an officer who is responsible for his precinct’s racial sensitivity training. And dare I say it? I think it has something to do with why people think it’s ok to carry automatic assault weapons to presidential assemblies, and why said people are not being arrested, harassed or otherwise antagonized by law enforcement agents.

I know it sounds as if I’m going to over simplify the issue and say it’s about racism. I am, after all, a Black American woman and everyone knows we love to play the race card, right?

Well, if I were to place that ace on the table, it would be hard to dispute. I could tell you the story of my father’s family who were sharecroppers in rural GA growing cotton and sugarcane on land the family had once worked as slave labor. Under the sharecropping system, they were never able to make enough to live on. Furthermore, only 3 out of 13 kids were able to attend school. My father was one of the 3 but he failed 5th grade because he had to work the land.

Long story short, my grandfather buckled under the fiscal strain and actually tried to kill himself by shooting himself in the head. The problem is he didn’t die right away. They took him to the hospital but he was sent to the back door because he was black. They left him at the back door for several hours and by the time they let him in it was too late.

But here’s the thing. Racism may have killed my grandfather, but racism lives because of a much larger illness. I believe there is a collective neurosis we as human beings have inherited that says some people have more inherent value, and by extension more rights, than others. Although I’m no expert, I believe this unexplained phenomenon occurs even in homogeneous cultures that don’t necessarily carry the weight of centuries of racially driven indecencies that this country bears. So although I won’t blame our health care crisis on racism, I sure can use that strange little institution to elucidate a larger dilemma.

There was a time in this country where a “federal ratio” declared certain people “3/5ths” the value of other people to protect financial and political interests. The ratio was originally proposed so that Southern states could be taxed “according to their numbers and their wealth “(Jefferson), but was ultimately adopted so as to procure the Southern states more congressional representation, according to their numbers, as it were.

I am sad to admit that when I was taught about the “Three-fifths compromise” in grade school, it made perfect sense to me. “Of course the slaves shouldn’t be counted as full people,” I thought. I followed the logic of both sides and found it a completely reasonable solution. I even equated myself with the population that was being declared “less than fully human” as described by some accounts, and never registered a single chill in my spine at the notion.

(On a side note, I recall covering this material in social studies and history classes at the ages of 6, 9, 11 and 13. I can’t say the “that was then, this is now” consolation was all that effective at such an impressionable time in my life.)

Now, as a thinking adult, I have to say I find it appalling for one class of people to presume they have the authority to come to some consensual agreement, for whatever reason, over another’s value, especially when the calculation is to serve an end as coarse and gauche as taxation or political gain.

I would assert that we still live the legacy of such reasoning. In regards to health care, where once it was acceptable to determine your inherent value and therefore access based on race, later it became about class. If you were affluent or gainfully employed, you could have access to care. If you were poor and/or unemployed, sorry. Now it has progressed even further, if you are affluent, gainfully employed full-time and have never been sick, hooray! You’re in the club. Otherwise, tant-pis!

From the corporate point of view, they’re protecting their bottom line like the North attempting to tax the South, and guess what? the bottom line is more important than the lives of the people who need healing. Nowadays, it is not uncommon for an insured person to pay premiums regularly (money they will never see again if nothing ever goes wrong), pay their co-pay at the doctor’s office, and then be denied coverage for the very medicine or treatment their degreed and licensed medical professional prescribes. I read a recent account where an insurance company declared anesthesia for knee surgery an “unnecessary procedure.” Well admittedly I was not there, but somehow I doubt that back in the Civil War, they made amputees, civilian or otherwise, pay for the vodka, whiskey or moonshine they poured down their throats before the doctors took their limbs.

From the social point of view, both the “haves” and “have nots” are so afraid of “not having enough” that we navigate the issues from a fear and separatist based “poverty mentality,” sub-consciously turning to our inherited neurosis to support our right to be afraid. Even if our children are no longer being raised to believe their different raced neighbor has different colored blood, they are not protected from the other, more socially acceptable ways in which we judge and assess each other’s worth.

We (and by we, I mean those of us who want to let the broken system keep getting worse) still think we have the right to declare which lives are worth healing, and from my experience we’re a pretty judgmental bunch. Have you listened to how some of these conversations go? A lot of the arguments I’ve heard against health care reform are about how they, as tax payers, shouldn’t be responsible for certain people’s care: the smoker, the alcoholic, the fat lady, etc.

I see at least a few gaps here:
1. It ignores all the people who don’t fall into one of those categories.
2. It implies that people who did not have leave it to beaver lifestyles and meal plans should be shiz-out-of-luck if they ever get sick.
3. It presupposes that a public option paid for by taxes is the only possible solution.
4. It doesn’t address the abuses already in practice by the industry.
5. It ignores the fact that we all end up paying for it one way or another…

We are afraid of each other and we don’t care enough about each other’s well being to get over it. I think the industry takes advantage of our confusion because it makes real change that much harder to accomplish. We are indirectly protecting the “industry” of health care while deflecting it’s primary purpose which is to generate, provide and assist in efforts pertaining to health and care.

Let’s face it. We are in an entangled, dynamic system. My question is how do we engage that truth in a way that actually works?

At this point, I don’t think anyone could convince me that our current health care system works. We’ve all had experiences to the contrary, and we get sad, maybe even angry, but we don’t get outraged. We don’t say “Are you kidding me?” We don’t demand the fundamental ideological changes that would turn the whole thing inside out.

Why is this? Why isn’t health care a civil rights issue? Why isn’t it tied to “life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness?” Why are so many Americans so desperate not to rock this leaky bucket of a boat?

They tell me the issue is money and politics, corporate structures and power, and that the media is feeding the frenzy because they are a part of those structures. Well, haven’t we been here before? Our system has been deciding for decades what race and what class of person was worthy of care, and what degree of care they should be allowed. That entire line of reasoning has always been corrupt, and has now brought us to a place where everyone is at risk of a ridiculous decision being made by a desk clerk bureaucrat to protect a corporate entity’s bottom line.

I think WE are the ones who must create this change. WE are the ones responsible. The president WE elected is not going to accomplish it, and why should he even bother since WE THE PEOPLE seem to be on the fence about whether or not WE want health care reform?

WE THE PEOPLE have navigated impenetrable canyons and brought water to barren lands. WE THE PEOPLE upended the major financial and social institution of slavery because it was the right thing to do. We have the resources to make this happen. The steps are very simple. First we must decide that creating a system that grants ample access to health care to everyone is the right thing to do. Then we decide how to do it.

We are good, strong people. So what gives?

Songs related to this article:
Winona Laduke from The ShizWhere We Stand
Wednesday’s Child from Sleeper’s Wake

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6 comments to “Unexplained Phenomena – Race, Class and Health Care in America”

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  1. zoe - September 6, 2009 at 3:49 pm Reply

    um, i get outraged. i've got car insurance, the psycho that hit me has car insurance, and i'm still paying all my med bills out of pocket while their insurance company tries to figure out a way not to pay. even though there's been no question, at any point, of fault.

    you've laid it out perfectly, i think. the problem is, nobody but "me" is deserving, and "me" never gets as much as "me" deserves. also, i don't understand how we thought a publicly-traded company was going to have anything other than the bottom line in mind? a company with stockholders has the unrealistic and already ridiculous goal of constant growth (constant profit increase), and, quite frankly, that means constant decrease of cost and increase of charges–we can use that to explain why the products we buy today are so lacking in quality, as well.

    the other thing is, and this is KEY, it's the uninsured, right now, who are footing the bill of all the insured people. please read that sentence twice. all those rich people who feel very justified and self-righteous about their higher right to health care should think about that.an insurance company NEVER pays the high amounts that an uninsured patient pays. today a visit to the doctor for the uninsured is 200+ dollars. an insurance company will never pay that–meaning, the doctor's office (reeling from student debt and the various types of *insurance* costs it must pay out each month) will make up the difference with the uninsured. and we have to pay that, or we lose our house, or our wages are garnished.

  2. zoe - September 6, 2009 at 3:49 pm Reply

    private insurance is a mafia, period. they take your money, for "protection," which they don't actually offer. and in the end, they are the biggest danger to you, for example (as you mentioned) when some flunkie middle-management bozo decides what your medical needs are. or when the company takes so long to decide whether it will pay for the service you need that you die in the meantime.
    there was a case brought up in congress where a woman was diagnosed with a very aggressive type of breast cancer, and suddenly her insurance company balked and said–you forgot to mention on your application (years ago and many, many premium payments ago), that you'd been to the dermatologist. might that have been related? might you have been scamming us? her doctor wrote to the company and said, she came to see us for ACNE, it's completely unrelated. but months passed.
    they were waiting for her to die, so they wouldn't have to pay.
    i don't think this is an issue of good people on both sides that need to come to a compromise. it's greed, plain and simple, the god of this country, where wealth indicates your level of holiness. [and that's another conversation, of course, but wealth is not equal to effort, as the argument goes. britney spears is not working harder than the garbage man. she's not working smarter than the garbage man. and her work is not more necessary than that of the garbage man.]

    sorry, lil, but good, strong people don't act like that.

    and i'm not sure that we the people did anything about slavery. the slave owners looked, saw that the slaves were realizing there were more of them than there were of slave owners, and they figured out that they could anyway actually make more profit it they were no longer responsible for the well-being of the slaves. if they could see them as–like you said above–disposable. because, if they weren't slaves,then you no longer had to buy them up front, did you? it was no longer cost-efficient to try to keep them alive and healthy so that you wouldn't have to pay to replace them. you were no longer responsible for clothing, etc. they were, as sharecroppers, desperate to work for you. you could pick and choose…

    ok, so now that all that nasty ugliness is out of my mouth, i want to say this:
    the only way out of this mess, the way i see it, is to imagine something totally different, totally amazing, completely new, and then believe it into being. to be just as irrational as the people that are in power now, but to believe that there is a bizarre goodness, a bizarre magic that is just a strong as all that unbelievable nastiness and all those incredibly big, ugly, stinky monsters. it only makes sense, right?

    and please don't wait another 5 months to post!

  3. BigGayLilli - September 6, 2009 at 4:42 pm Reply


    You are right. Good and strong people don't behave this way. Our fear and selfishness (due in part to our sociopathically corrupt corporate structure outlined so perfectly by you) is making us forget who we are.

    People get up everyday and got to work to provide for and protect their families. People build cities, people dig ditches, people collect the garbage, people build schools and teach in them… People become elected officials that create pipelines for building highways and going to the moon. People engineer these projects and people perform the labor to see them come to fruition. When I take stock of all the amazing stuff we've created in the face of our fear and ignorance, I really don't think believing in that bizarre goodness is irrational or even magic. We're not dummies. We can do it. Period.

  4. zoe - September 6, 2009 at 5:04 pm Reply

    well put.. we can.. i still like the magic part, though 😀 i want more, more amazing than i can even imagine, you know? (obviously, i don't mean more "stuff")

  5. BigGayLilli - September 6, 2009 at 7:05 pm Reply

    ok. you got me. magic is way cool.

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