I’ve been working with our leaders on the Communications Organizing Team to get clear on their self-interest–what’s in it for them–in fighting to transform our for-profit health care system. At trainings and team meetings, a common issue has surfaced: many of us have been taught to focus on the privileges and advantages we do have in relation to the health care system. Intentionally or not, many of us do not acknowledge the way that health care in the U.S. was never meant to work for us in the first place. When some of us remain focused on the ways we are suffering less than others, we weaken our power to fight for a society that works for all of us.
One leader, Erica, said she’s grateful she’s finally insured because her new job provides health coverage. Another leader, Anna expressed that as a white person, they hadn’t had many overtly negative experiences with the health care system, although they had not had providers who shared their identities. Another leader shared that although his family immigrated from Mexico, their economic privilege had protected him, and maybe that means his experience was not hard enough to fight for a better health care system.
These leaders are not alone. I have felt similarly, both in relation to identifying my self-interest in changing the health care system and fighting for a better society as a whole.
A bribe created to divide
In my early years learning about anti-racism, white privilege was emphasized as one of the key pieces white people like myself need to understand–that I have unearned advantages because of my race. This helped me see how I act out and uphold racism, how it operates more broadly, and the real ways my life has been easier because I am white. But it was several years before I learned that privileges were given to white people as a strategic move to pacify them and weaken our power to fight back together.
I read about the United States’ racial history of the 17th century, when elite whites in the southern colonies were outnumbered by enslaved African and Indigenous peoples. The wealthy white elites feared that poor Europeans would realize they had more in common with the interests of enslaved Black people, and that they would build unity and power to rise up and put an end to the system of economic exploitation. The elite whites knew they needed to divide these groups to weaken their power, otherwise they would lose control and no longer be able to exploit them as free labor to accumulate mass amounts of wealth.
While reading about this history, I remember one particular phrase that stuck with me: “racial bribe.” The elite whites’ strategy was to give white indentured servants limited rights and privileges (the ability to own land and guns) so they would start seeing themselves as superior to Black people and more aligned with whiteness. Suddenly, in comparison, their conditions didn’t seem so bad.
The bribe worked. Poor white people started focusing on what they did have (more rights than Black people) and they accepted their situation instead of focusing on their economic conditions. The “racial bribe”--providing some token privileges to white people in order to pacify them–is still influencing the ways white folks see themselves as not suffering enough in order to fight back.
Not willing to stay silent
Before my work at Center for Health Progress, I was unable to see the ways our for-profit health care system harms me. I had a daunting $5,000 out-of-pocket cost when my first child was born; I borrowed $2,000 from my parents for critical dental care; lack of vision care led to a delayed diagnosis and nerve damage in one eye. However, because I can access health insurance if I can pay for it and I do not face racism at the doctor, I thought that I should be grateful for what I do have, because some people have it worse. I believed I should be quiet and accept what I can get. In reality, I was struggling and deserved better.
Hundreds of years after the creation of whiteness in the United States, the 1%--elite whites who are accumulating mass amounts of wealth on our backs–are still banking on us not seeing our shared struggles. They are counting on me, as a white person, to continue to focus on the suffering of others instead of recognizing my own stake in this fight. Creating a hierarchy of suffering doesn’t make the health care system better for anyone. We must build collective power for a health care system that values our humanity and wellness. For this, we need all of us, across race and class, across patients and providers.