The GOP Minstrel Show

A white tycoon in blackface race-baits Teresa Heinz Kerry.

A new radio ad paid for by a nonprofit called People of Color United takes Teresa Heinz Kerry to task for playing up her African heritage. (She was born and raised in Mozambique.) As Thomas B. Edsall reports in the Aug. 12 Washington Post, the ad copy includes the following:

His wife says she’s an African American. While technically true, I don’t believe a white woman, raised in Africa, surrounded by servants, qualifies.

What’s interesting about this blacker-than-thou statement is that it’s underwritten by a white man. People of Color United, although run by a black woman named Virginia Walden-Ford, got nearly half the money for its media buy from a Caucasian insurance tycoon named J. Patrick Rooney. Walden-Ford confirmed to the Post that Rooney gave the group $30,000 for a series of ads that are running in swing-state urban areas, and that the total ad buy thus far cost $70,000. Rooney, she said, was the group’s biggest donor. All its funding information will eventually be public, but the law does not require People of Color United to file with the IRS before the ads go on the air. It will be interesting to learn whether a single person of color has written a check to People of Color United.

I don’t know about you, but when I hear a statement meant to inflame gratuitous resentment of white people, I prefer that it come from a black person. A white man who puts on blackface to call John Kerry’s wife a fraudulent African-American is acting in so many kinds of bad faith that I scarcely know where to start. Why did he do it?

The answer has nothing to do with the struggle for civil rights. Rooney is a medical-privatization pimp. His former company, Golden Rule Insurance Co., and its successor, Medical Savings Insurance Co., market private savings accounts of the type that Republicans are gradually using to displace health insurance provided by the government under Medicare and Medicaid (most recently in last year’s Medicare prescription bill). In pursuit of this goal, Rooney, his family, and his employees have lavished more than $5 million on the GOP. Rooney’s latest game, according to a recent story in Business Week, is to mau-mau hospitals into lowering rates for uninsured patients while simultaneously (and much more quietly) securing debt forgiveness for his company.

Rooney, naturally, rejected the Post’s suggestion that he’s bankrolling a race-baiting ad in order to expand his health insurance business. “I have a long history of involvement with and support of the black community,” he told Edsall.

For 21 years I have gone to an all-black church. They finally elected me over other black people to their church board. I’m one of them. I don’t know what it has to do with health savings accounts.

It does Rooney credit that he has sought and won acceptance from African-Americans. But how can his church be “all-black” if it includes Rooney? Is “I’m one of them” a statement of laudable solidarity or shameful arrogance? Perhaps, having smeared shoe polish onto his face so that he might better smear the Democratic nominee’s wife, Rooney looks in the mirror and concludes he really is black. But the rest of us needn’t be fooled.