Opinion

Is racism blocking NC’s Medicaid expansion?

Rev. William Barber, head of the NC NAACP, standing, prays over 13 protesters who participated in a die-in at under the rotunda of the NC Legislature in February 2015 to protest the state’s continued denial of Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. The protesters were from the NC NAACP and the Forward Together Moral Movement.
Rev. William Barber, head of the NC NAACP, standing, prays over 13 protesters who participated in a die-in at under the rotunda of the NC Legislature in February 2015 to protest the state’s continued denial of Medicaid expansion for hundreds of thousands of North Carolinians. The protesters were from the NC NAACP and the Forward Together Moral Movement. N&O file photo

Maybe it’s because they’re defensive about what has happened to “the party of Lincoln,” but Republicans are touchy when accused of racial bias.

An example occurred last week in North Carolina. Rob Schofield, director of the liberal online publication NC Policy Watch, wrote a column about a UNC professor’s new book on the history of racial conflict in Hattiesburg, Miss. Schofield noted an incident from the book in which the Red Cross was kicked out of City Hall for letting blacks come there to apply for emergency aid. Schofield said the 1931 incident is reflective of what Republicans now are doing in southern states by refusing to expand Medicaid for people they deem “unworthy.” He noted that state Senate leader Phil Berger recently made that perception explicit when he said Medicaid expansion “disincentivizes folks to go to work.”

Schofield’s straightforward observation brought a howl from the General Assembly’s Republicans. Sen. Joyce Krawiec, (R-Forsyth), chair of the Senate Health Care Committee, said in a statement:

“Schofield’s bombastic hit piece attempts to draw a false moral equivalence between that racist past and not expanding Medicaid while personally assaulting the character of legislative Republicans. It’s an abhorrent comparison that has no place in politics, let alone civilized society.”

Actually, Schofield was quite gentle with Republicans, given their recent record in North Carolina. He wrote: “None of this is to imply that Berger’s stance is founded in racism .... One can take the movement leaders at their (frequently uttered) word that their motives are ideological in origin, rather than racial, and still see obvious parallels to the past.”

The Rev. William Barber, the former North Carolina NAACP president and now the leader of the national Poor Peoples Campaign, isn’t taking North Carolina’s Republican leaders at their word. “The poof is in the pudding,” he told me this week. He cited court decisions that found Republicans had passed laws aimed at suppressing the black vote “with surgical precision” and that they illegally gerrymandered voting districts along racial lines. He said GOP leaders use racial code words about laziness when they suggest that Medicaid expansion is a handout to “able-bodied” people.

By the numbers, Medicaid expansion is mostly a white issue. The Kaiser Family Foundation estimates that expanding Medicaid in North Carolina would make 379,000 uninsured adults eligible for coverage. Of that group, 53 percent are white, 27 percent are black, 14 percent are Hispanic and 6 percent are other.

If it’s not race, what else is holding North Carolina Republican from joining 36 other states — including some led by Republicans — that have expanded? Berger says it’s the potential state cost, but that would be minimal. The federal government would pay 90 percent and, under Gov. Roy Cooper’s plan, hospitals and health plans would pay the remaining 10 percent.

State Sen. Erica Smith, a Democrat representing the northeastern corner of the state and a former leader of the General Assembly’s Black Caucus, thinks what is blocking expansion isn’t so much about race or dollars as it is about empathy — or the lack of it.

Smith, who is running for U.S. Senate, said of her fellow state lawmakers who oppose expansion, “I don’t feel like I work with people who are racist. I feel they are privileged. They’re out of tune because of that privilege and fair part of them are insensitive. They have not been willing to move beyond their personal experience and put themselves in the shoes of another person.”

Barnett: nbarnett@newsobserver.com, 919-829-4512

  Comments