Use the Word Obamacare as a Teachable Moment

On January 9, 2023, the Practicum Education Department of USC sent out a letter to the Suzanne Dworah-Peck Practicum Education Community, Faulty, Staff, and Students, announcing that it was removing the term ‘field’ from its curriculum and practice and replacing it with the word “practicum.” The explanation for the decision was that language in use (field) was believed to be “anti-Black or anti-immigrant” A huge backlash appeared all over social media. By January 12, 2023, Elizabeth A. Graddy, interim provost and senior vice president for academic affairs, backtracked. There is no campus prohibition on the use of “field,” she said.  “We will continue to use words – including ‘field’ – that accurately encompass and describe our work and research,”


USC is to be applauded for the decision to reverse course on the word “field.” As an 80-year-old Black American, the word has never struck me as being offensive in any way. This is not an attempt to speak on behalf of other Blacks of my generation, but I believe I’m not alone in this view, or at least on this particular word.


However, there is a term that I believe USC, as well as all universities and government agencies, should remove from any and all official documents they use –the word “Obamacare” is what I’m referring to. From its beginning, the law was personalized as derogatory slang -a way of insulting and showing disrespect to America’s first African American President. Further, academic research reveals that personalizing something in politics turns it from a logical, rational debate to an irrational one (Lambert & Wu). Some more bizarre examples include former radio personality Rush Limbaugh, who once said that Obama wanted America to have the same kind of healthcare plan that they have in his ancestral home in Kenya. Presidential candidate Dr. Ben Carson likened Obamacare to the worst thing in this country since slavery. And former Pennsylvania Senator Rick Santorum said that under Obamacare, Government would decide who lives and who dies and that Republicans were fighting back against it as Nelson Mandela fought against Apartheid in South Africa.


It is no secret that President Obama knows the value and power of words in books written and speeches delivered. First, he attempted to take the negativity out of it by declaring, “I do care,” but it didn’t work.  Then shortly before leaving office in 2017, he said: “The idea that this is somehow about Obama preserving his legacy-keep in mind, I’m not the one who named it Obamacare. They were the ones who named it Obamacare, because what they wanted to do was personalize this and feed on antipathy toward me in their party as an organizing tool, as politics.” Also noted, the word is nonexistent in the first person voice in his 700-page memoir A Promised Land. Secondly, it is nonexistent in the 40-page index of the memoir. And thirdly, the word is nonexistent in Finding My Voice, the memoir of his long-time Senior Advisor, Mrs. Valerie Jarrett. Yet here we are 13 years later, and “Obamacare” is still circulating, even in mainstream media.


Oddly enough, the word “Obamacare” specifically and healthcare, in general, were missing from the rather dire Inaugural Address by President Donald Trump in January 2017. Why did this exclusion happen? It remains an open question. However, speculation cannot be dismissed that this omission was in no way accidental. It is not a stretch to imagine that what happened was related to the bogeyman characterization of “Obamacare,’ and it would not have been appropriate to use the term in front of outgoing President Barack and Mrs. Michelle Obama, whom he had just praised for being gracious hosts during the transition.


Let’s face it, no matter who uses the word “Obamacare,” it is not a “neutral” term. It is not devoid of politics. The same would have been true if Democrats or the media had personalized the healthcare law and named it “Trumpcare” during the Trump administration. How many who dislike President Trump would have refused to sign up for healthcare simply because of its name? The answer is not knowable. What is knowable, however, is that identity politics is not helpful no matter which side of the political aisle you are on. If it were so, then Social Security, signed into law by President Roosevelt, would have been called “Roosveltcare,” and Medicare, signed into law by President Johnson, would have been called “Johnsoncare.” No such thing happened, and we now know those programs by the names of the laws, not by the names of the Presidents who signed them into law.


In our racially divided society where charges of being “woke,” false accusations about critical race theory, and the banning of Black history teaching now in vogue, Americans need to have real conversations about race. Sadly, we are not prepared to have these conversations because, as one writer said, “When people think they’re talking about race, they really aren’t. They are talking instead about the myths, resentments, projections and suppositions by which they justify half-baked notions about who those ‘other’ people are.” We are not helpless, however, for those interested in having a productive dialogue on race.


What can be done now is to use the word “Obamacare” as a “Teachable Moment.” This can and should begin with a University Political Science Class with questions like: Why was the word “Obamacare” coined? Who was the author? Why did President Obama, at one time, embrace the use of the word? Why did he refer to “Obamacare” as an organizing tool of hatred towards him? Omit it in the Index of his Memoir? Why did media sources initially shun the word Obamacare, but later embrace it, even today? Why has Obamacare been dubbed: “pay-back to Blacks? Reparations? Worst since Slavery? Why did an MSNBC news Host liken Obamacare to the N-word? Why did Speaker Nancy Pelosi push so hard to keep others from using the term Obamacare? Why did Secy. Clinton & Sen. Sanders coyly use the word Obamacare against each other? Why did President Trump use the word Obamacare throughout his campaign, but ignore the word specifically and healthcare in general during his 2017 Inaugural Address?


Truth should be revealed that there is no such thing as “Obamacare.” There is no law that carries the name. No official government program or Insurance policy carries the name. Teaching on this issue is necessary because pronouncements by high-profile like Paul Ryan, former speaker of the House of Representatives, have wrongly implied otherwise. Others erroneously referring to “Obamacare” as a law include: former Senator Orin Hatch of Utah and former Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia. Students in our schools deserve better. They should be taught the truth and not fed misinformation.


USC and other institutions of higher learning, while I do not see the word “field” as being racist or offensive, I encourage you to continue looking to eliminate words and actions that are. And go a step further and teach others about words and language that are coded messaging and signaling to others aimed at biases of race or ethnicity without saying so outright. “Obamacare” is offered as a starter word for this exercise.


Rev. John L Lambert

Rev. John L Lambert is a substitute teacher and serves as a volunteer in church ministry.

Lambert has a BA in Sociology from Southern Illinois University-Carbondale, a master’s in public administration from U of I Springfield, and a Masters of Divinity from Christian Theological Seminary in Indianapolis, Indiana.

He was employed in the Illinois State government for 28 years, formed the Illinois Association of Minorities in Government (IAMG) in 1987, then later became its first Executive Director. Lambert was elected to the Springfield district #186 School Board in 1980, appointed by the Mayor of the City of Springfield as a member of the Lincoln Library Board of Directors. He also Founded Faith Temple African Methodist Episcopal Church in 1984 in Springfield, IL.

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