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Universal health care in the U.S. v. the peculiar institution

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Message Cecile Lawrence

On the Monday in January 2015 commemorating the life of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., Healthcare-Now emailed its subscribers a message titled "Readers' Guide to Racial Equity in Healthcare."

The message started with the reminder that no biological basis for race exists, then went on to point out that "[i]n the United States . . . segregationist politics in Congress blocked national healthcare for much of the 20th century -- not, as is often claimed, the growth of employer-based insurance during WWII." Their email said nothing about the lingering effects of slavery.

That night, the Fresh Air broadcast on National Public Radio (NPR) involved an interview with Eric Foner, history professor at Columbia University, about his new book Gateway to Freedom: The Hidden History of the Underground Railroad. Professor Foner pointed out that the U.S. Constitution itself has a Fugitive Slave clause, although vaguely worded. Even so, by 1850, several U.S. states, mostly in the south, not satisfied with this, already had their own Fugitive Slave laws. The very clearly expressed federal Fugitive Slave law of 1850 was intended to prevent the south from seceding but it had the opposite effect because, according to Foner, while slaves or even free black people were brutally captured in some northern states to be sent back south into slavery, other states like NYS did not enforce the Fugitive Slave law as forcefully or even at all. This was one of the important factors leading to the U.S. Civil War.

Foner commented that the U.S. Constitution was deeply flawed from the beginning as at the time of the writing and ratification of the Constitution, slaves were 20% of the population but not included in "we the people," that this omission is "a flaw in the DNA" of this country and remarked on the "need to come to terms with how deeply slavery is embedded in the history of the country." Noticeably, the written "highlights" for this interview make no mention of these parts of what Foner said.

I go to some length to relate points made in this interview with Professor Foner, in combination with the email from PNHP, because it's very clear that the basis of the refusal of the U.S. to have universal health care for all is found in the culture's dismissal of dealing with its history of slavery. The cause is not just in the persistence of the form of ignorance we call racism, but in the historical fact of slavery itself as experienced in the U.S.

The majority of so-called informed people in the U.S., including medical providers and medical researchers, are found lacking when it comes to the illusion of race. They show their ignorance in their misguided and dangerous obsession to this day with finding racially focused genetic reasons for such complex ailments as cardiovascular disease (CVD), high blood pressure, and diabetes.

Simultaneously, from time to time, Republican and several Democratic members of the U.S. Congress, seek to weaken or even eliminate the Social Security Disability program, the Social Security program itself, as well as Medicaid and even Medicare. If you take a careful look at the application forms and processes for SS Disability and for Medicaid, you quickly come to the conclusion that the focus of the system is on rooting out any possibility that the person applying for such aid is not faking or malingering or lying so as to avoid getting back into the workforce sooner rather than later.

People receiving SS Disability do not "work" at a job. People on Medicare mostly do not "work" at a job. People receiving Medicaid are receiving funds from the government to pay for their health care or at least the premiums so that they do not become a public health hazard. All of these people are either not in the workforce mostly and/or are receiving funds without working for it at the time of receipt. This sticks in the craw of a culture of people who firmly believe that the main if not only sole purpose of people living in the U.S., unless very wealthy, is to do wage work, and work very hard preferably doing physical labor, for the benefit of the capitalist system.

U.S. style capitalism is built on slavery. We hear variously that why the U.S. does not have universal single payer health care is that it's too expensive and the country can't afford it (but can afford war after war and massive tax breaks for the Waltons and their ilk, for example), that if you call yourself a liberal or a Democrat the lack of universal health care can't be helped, that the medical device makers and the pharmaceutical companies lobbied Obama very hard or was it the very wealthy sickness care corporations (as if he could not resist and instead cleave to a moral imperative for universal health care), in essence a whole slew of excuses, shying away from the reality that non-unionized working class and even lower middle class jobs in the U.S. tend towards operating a lot like slavery. Those in power want to expand that system as we see from the almost complete decimation of unions in the U.S.

The general perception of the wealthy class towards everyone else is that the latter are akin to slaves, that it's OK to steal wages from workers, to steal their health, that they are to be worked into an early grave, that even one's health has to be embedded in capitalism through the intimate participation of for-profit corporations, as the health of enslaved Africans was embedded. This attitude is rooted in slavery.

To break apart this mindset, we need to fully face the lingering psychological and sociocultural effects of slavery. A nation-wide Truth and Reconciliation-type process which includes seriously addressing the several long-standing calls for reparations, might be a start to changing that DNA of which Prof. Foner spoke. More of us need to be talking about this day after day, rallying in the streets with signs, songs and chants, use all the tools at hand including social media and old school lobbying, towards building a massive movement calling for a real end to slavery of the mind.

(Article changed on February 6, 2015 at 13:58)

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Cecile Lawrence, Ph.D., J.D., is a writer, event organizer and public speaker. Co-edited MOVEMENTS IN TIME: Revolution, Social Justice and Times of Change. Has articles published in scholarly journals. Was a Green Party NY candidate for U.S. Senate (more...)
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