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Racism underlies rage at Obama presidency

It shows itself in attacks against each and every act.

It started with a nagging feeling in my stomach as I watched media coverage of people screaming at so-called town-hall meetings that were purportedly about health-care policy. Seeing that some of those people came armed with handguns - and were allowed to join a public gathering where the president of the United States was speaking - didn't help. And when South Carolina Rep. Joe Wilson yelled "you lie!" at President Obama as he addressed a joint session of Congress, I reached my personal tipping point.

So I have decided it's time that what I've been watching be called what I believe it is: racism.

Situated as I am, it's very easy to feel removed from the fray. I am a thirtysomething white woman living in the village of Canton in northern New York, south of the St. Lawrence River, north of Syracuse, and 200 miles from any metropolitan area, in one of the poorest counties in the state. As a sociologist who has taught and researched issues of inequality, particularly among those considered socially marginal, I have a unique perspective on the fomenting fury covered nightly on our airwaves.

Watching those town-hall meetings, I could not recall another such scene, especially at an event where the president was speaking. The feeling intensified with the cries of indoctrination and schools' refusing to air the president's recent speech on the value of education - a speech very much like one given by former President George H.W. Bush. What, I wondered, is going on?

The realization was slow in coming, because this isn't the obvious or overt type of racism that our parents and history have told us about. This is a different and, I think, more insidious kind - one that smolders under the surface, unnamed but present all the same. Calling it what it is - racism - may help explain some of what I've observed, as well as better explain the seemingly over-the-top rage being vented lately around the agenda of the Obama administration.

Discussions about revamping health-care systems tend to be highly contentious, causing deep divisions among doctors, politicians, and citizens. That was true during the health-care debates that took place in Canada in the 1930s, England in the 1940s, and here in the United States in the 1990s.

But it seems that the current debate goes beyond mere disagreement - even if the subject is, as Rep. Wilson explained in his morning-after apology, "emotional." The level of rage being expressed is different and out of sync with what we know from the past.

Racism has a long and complicated role in our nation's history, and it is far from dead. However, in this era after the election of Obama, we're evidently not supposed to talk about racism, particularly as it relates to the man elected to the highest office in the nation. But not mentioning it doesn't mean it's gone away.

The election of Obama marked a transition in our culture for many, young and old. On election night, even President George W. Bush said the historic outcome was "exciting." One result of this is that any expression of distrust of the president based on race would be subject to such negative public sentiment that it would cause a maelstrom in the media. So those who would attack Obama because he is African American instead transfer their rage to a more acceptable target: each and every policy, decision, proposal, and action of his presidency.

Also a part of our nation's history is the legacy of distrust and racism within poor white communities, one of which I happen to come from. It should come as no surprise that many of these communities are in particularly dire straits at the moment. If we look below the surface, we can see how deep economic hardship has mixed with fear and racism to produce rage, silencing more thoughtful conversations, as well as the development of public policy that would be in the interests of many of the poorest people in our country - of all races.

Health care is a great example. Statistics from the 2008 census show that the ranks of the country's uninsured include 19.7 percent of the African American population, 31.7 percent of Native Americans, 32.2 percent of Latinos, and 10 percent of whites.

Until we as a nation begin to face and deal with the feelings of disempowerment, pain, and impotence that emerge with economic desperation, and to focus on the bigger picture of economic inequality, we're going to see rage increasing. And people of color will continue to be scapegoats, overtly or subtly. Obama won the election, but he continues to fight a different kind of campaign.