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The cruel double standard that could save Obamacare

(CNN) If you want to know why support for Obamacare is at an all-time high, here's one explanation:

A change in complexion leads to a change in perception.

That's how some explain the surging popularity of the embattled health care law. A recent poll from the Pew Research Center showed that 54% of Americans now approve of it, the highest number ever recorded by Pew. Some attribute this change to the fact that millions of Americans are now receiving help from the law.

But others cite another factor: The face of Obamacare is now white.

More Americans now realize Obamacare helps millions of working class whites and that it's not -- as once portrayed by conservatives -- a form of welfare pushed by the first black president to help people of color, historians and scholars say. The media landscape is filled with images of the furrowed brows of anxious white residents at congressional town halls who fear they will suffer if they lose Obamacare, says Judy Lubin, a sociologist and adjunct professor at Howard University in Washington.

"When you see white working-class Americans saying that I'm benefiting and my family is getting help from the Affordable Care Act, you start to hear 'repair' not 'repeal,'" Lubin says. "Whites standing up in support of a policy changes the dynamics of the conversation."

Angry constituents, many upset over plans to repeal Obamacare, confronted representatives at town halls.

The latest wrinkle in the Obamacare debate is revealing the existence of what the late comedian George Carlin called the ''American double standard." It's a brutal calculus that works this way: A crisis hits a marginalized group of Americans and no one cares; it hits white people -- particularly white men -- and it becomes a national emergency, activists and historians say.

"The country is founded on the double standard," Carlin said. "We were founded on a very basic double standard. This country was founded by slave owners who wanted to be free ... in order to continue owning their black African people ... so they can wipe out the rest of the red Indian people ... and move West and steal the rest of the land from the brown Mexican people."

The double standard goes beyond race, though. Here are five notorious examples:

No. 1: The epidemic that 'had no name'

It was a bizarre epidemic: Millions of Americans suffered in silence, afraid to tell anyone. Some suffered emotional breakdowns, others chose suicide.

It turned legions of people into drug addicts.

It was a wave of depression that hit white suburban housewives after World War II.

We hear a lot today about the plight of white working-class men. Reporters have made pilgrimages to places like West Virginia to examine how they've been left behind by globalization. Two Princeton University economists -- including a Nobel Prize winner -- released a report in 2015 that went viral, explaining how the despair experienced by poorly educated white men was leading them to suicide, alcoholism and drug abuse -- and driving up the death rate for all middle-aged white Americans.

The white men America left behind

But few cared about the despair many white women experienced after World War II. They weren't treated with compassion, historians say. Instead, they were treated to heavy doses of sexism -- and powerful drugs.

"Women were being drugged into submission," says Jonathan Metzl, a professor of psychiatry and sociology at Vanderbilt University in Tennessee who wrote a paper on this crisis entitled, "'Mother's Little Helper': The Crisis of Psychoanalysis and the Miltown Resolution."

The mass depression was spawned by the flipping of gender roles. During World War II, thousands of women entered the workforce because of a manpower shortage. The experience changed many, says Barbara J. Berg, author of "Sexism in America: Alive, Well and Ruining Our Future."

"They had felt a sense of importance about themselves that they hadn't felt before," Berg says. "They liked having their own money. They enjoyed the camaraderie of work."

Yet many of these newly empowered women were confined to suburban coffins after the war ended, where virtually all hope of being something more than a mother or housewife died. It was an era in the 1940s and '50s when Newsweek could unabashedly declare, "For the American girl, books and babies don't mix."

When women approached doctors for help, they were given a prescription, Berg says: Be a perkier housewife.

Many women faced a similar double standard after World War II when they coped with depression by becoming drug addicts.

"No one took them seriously," Berg says. "Doctors prescribed Valium. They were told to have another baby. They said they weren't being true women because true women should be happy in the domestic realm."

It was the start of a strange drug epidemic -- doctors and psychiatrists telling women to "just say yes." Doctors plied women with powerful tranquilizers with names such as Miltown, Equanil, reserpine. At one point, about 75% of all anti-anxiety and depression drugs were prescribed to women, Metzl says. Miltown was so popular that pharmacies hung out signs saying "Out of Miltown," or "More Miltown tomorrow."

The epidemic even became fashionable. Magazines like Cosmopolitan and Ladies Home Journal ran articles by men telling women to pop pills to make their depression evaporate. Women hosted dinner parties where they plopped Miltown in their martinis, and Cartier jewelers sold a bracelet that doubled as a holder for a Miltown pill, says Tessa Johnson, author of an essay on the 1950s epidemic entitled, "How to be a domestic goddess."

Few at the time thought that millions of American women had become drug addicts, Johnson says.

"They were very different than the typical image of a drug abuser -- these women were well groomed and educated and they didn't pose a threat to society," Johnson says.

The doped-out domesticity of the 1950s was occasionally referred to in popular culture through movies like "The Stepford Wives" and the Rolling Stones' song, "Mother's Little Helper." But it was the feminist Betty Friedan who diagnosed the problem in 1963 when she released her now classic book, "The Feminine Mystique." She called it "the problem that has no name."

She described it this way:

"It was a strange stirring, a sense of dissatisfaction, a yearning that women suffered in the middle of the 20th century in the United States. Each suburban wife struggled with it alone. As she made the beds, shopped for groceries, matched slipcover material, ate peanut butter sandwiches with her children, chauffeured Cub Scouts and Brownies, lay beside her husband at night -- she was afraid to ask even of herself the silent question -- 'Is this all?'"

Most Americans ignored the reasons behind the pervasive depression because of a sexist double standard, says Berg.

''We have a certain image in our heads that the white male is in a position of power and that he needs to be strong, he needs to be the wage earner and he needs to be healthy, and when he can't hit those markers, we're upset," Berg says. "But women have always been seen as weaker, submissive -- they can always move in with a father or an uncle. We don't put the same value on women's achievement or health."

No. 2: Race and the Second Amendment

No. 3: 'God's scourge' comes to America

On June 5, 1981, the US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention published a report on a baffling new disease. It noted that five young gay men had been afflicted by a rare lung disease. Their immune systems had collapsed, and two had already died. The ominous story was one of the first official reports on the AIDS epidemic.

Unlike women's postwar depression, this epidemic never became fashionable. It was always terrifying. But that terror was confined at first to the gay community. AIDS was initially seen as a gay problem. Some saw it as God's punishment for a sinful lifestyle.

President Ronald Reagan, dubbed "The Great Communicator," wouldn't even acknowledge its existence.

Many of the first AIDS patients were treated like lepers -- until the disease hit a young, straight white teenager.

"Ronald Reagan didn't actually say the word 'AIDS' until the fifth year of his presidency," says Timothy Patrick McCarthy, a Harvard University lecturer and co-editor of "Protest Nation: Words That Inspired a Century of American Radicalism."

Reagan assumed office in 1981, and soon after thousands of people with AIDS began to die. Many died alone like modern-day lepers. Family members wouldn't touch them because they were afraid of being infected. No one knew how the disease was transmitted.

The federal government's response was slow in the beginning.

CDC established its first AIDS hotline and Congress passed its first AIDS treatment and research bill in 1983. But it was still ignored by much of the American public and the Reagan administration. Reagan's spokesman even joked with reporters about the escalating crisis when he was asked about the President's response to it during a series of news conferences in the early 1980s.

Listen to Reagan administration officials and reporters laugh at the AIDS crisis

In 1985, though, AIDS stopped being a gay problem; it became an American crisis. Something had changed. Even Reagan noticed.

A straight, blond-haired, blue-eyed boy was stricken by the virus.

His name was Ryan White. The Indiana teenager was a hemophiliac infected during a blood transfusion. He and his mother fought for his right to still attend public school despite his diagnosis. Their story was splashed across magazine covers and featured on television.

That same year, Reagan publicly mentioned the AIDS epidemic for the first time while responding to a question at a news conference. Five months later, he announced that finding a cure for AIDS was now one of the nation's "highest public health priorities" and asked the nation's surgeon general to assemble a major report on the disease.

"When AIDS hit a young white boy, all of a sudden there was this sense of how devastating the disease was. He humanized it," says Carol Anderson, a historian and author of "White Rage," a book that looks at white racial backlash through American history.

"As long as it [AIDS] was in the gay community or ravaging black women, you had politicians treating it as God's scourge."

The nation mobilized after gay men stopped being the symbol of AIDS. The US Department of Health and Human Services hosted the first International AIDS Conference in 1985. Reagan gave his first public speech on the disease two years later and established a Presidential Commission on HIV.

In August 1990, Congress passed the nation's largest federal grant program targeting HIV. It was called the Ryan White Comprehensive AIDS Resources Emergency Act. It has been reauthorized four times since its passage.

White, though, never lived to see his honor. He died on April 8, 1990, just five months before the bill bearing his name became law. He was 18.

No. 4: 'They were considered barely human'

He was the coddled only child of a wealthy New York family. He loved sailing and stamp collecting. Some of his friends dubbed him "King Franklin."

There was little in Franklin Delano Roosevelt's background to suggest that he would become a champion of the "forgotten man" during the Great Depression, the nation's gravest economic crisis. Yet he became one of America's greatest presidents by offering struggling American workers a New Deal, an array of government programs that -- along with mobilizing for World War II -- helped the nation recover from the Great Depression.

But that help -- including the New Deal's crown jewel, Social Security -- was largely denied to one group, historians say: African-Americans.

Southern politicians inserted a provision into the federal pension plan that said no domestic or agricultural workers would be eligible for its benefits.

"About 80% of the black workforce was in those professions," says Anderson, a professor of African-American Studies at Emory University in Atlanta.

"The way the law was written meant only certain jobs were eligible. They defined those jobs that were eligible by the kind of jobs blacks didn't have."

This economic exclusion didn't just apply to Social Security but to various relief programs during the Great Depression. The Works Progress Administration, for example, paid lower wages to black workers than whites in the South. Some federal programs didn't provide any relief to blacks, historians say.

The New Deal helped many Americans in the wake of the Great Depression, but some of that help was denied to blacks.

"It was based on the assumption that blacks needed less money to live on because they were considered barely human," Anderson says. "People said that black people were used to scraping by, but it's really hard for a strong white man not being able to provide for his family."

Federal help for blacks continued to lag behind whites when it came to another popular program that followed the Great Depression: the G.I. Bill.

It's one of the towering achievements in American government. It laid the foundation for the economic boom that spread across post-war America. The federal government helped World War II veterans pay for college, get job training and buy their first homes.

That bill, though, was deliberately designed to give less help -- and sometimes even no help -- to black veterans, historians say.

And it was done in a way that removed all traces of overt racism, by invoking states' rights. Southern congressional leaders made sure the G.I. Bill was administered by white state officials, bankers and college administrators. That gave them the power to deny help to black veterans, according to Ira Katznelson, a historian and author of "When Affirmative Action Was White."

Black veterans who were eligible for the G.I. Bill were denied home and business loans, job training and admission to good colleges. In New York and northern New Jersey, for example, fewer than 100 of 67,000 mortgages insured by the G.I. Bill went to nonwhites, Katznelson said in his book.

Many white families today are still enjoying the economic head start the bill gave them, says McCarthy, the Harvard lecturer.

Millions of white World War II vets were helped by the G.I. Bill, but it was written in a way that gave blacks less or even no help.

His is one of them, he says.

His grandfather was a World War II veteran who used the bill to get a housing loan and pay for college. His father was a first-generation college student, benefiting in part from the government assistance his grandfather received. McCarthy's ability to attend college came from the multigenerational impact of the G.I. Bill, he says.

"My own family background, my own privilege, has been produced by a racial double standard that my father benefited from, but my black friends' fathers did not benefit from," he says.

No. 5: Crack babies and superpredators

A thought experiment: It's the 1980s and crack cocaine is ravaging black communities across America. Families are being destroyed. Neighborhoods look like war zones. "Crack heads" and "crack babies" make their way into colloquial speech.

What would have happened if a young black or brown man carrying crack cocaine had stumbled into a police station during that era and asked police to help him overcome his addiction? Would he have been referred to a treatment center, given a "you're better than this" lecture by a compassionate police officer? Maybe a hug?

Probably not, some say. That was a time when drug abuse in the black and brown communities was treated as a problem to be solved with war: the infamous "war on drugs." But that Robocop approach to drug use has changed now that drug and opioid abuse is destroying white communities, legal scholars and historians say.

When crack cocaine hit black communities like this one in Los Angeles in 1988, police didn't treat it as a public health crisis. Instead they waged a "war on drugs."

A truce has been called in the war on drugs now that many of its victims are white. Politicians and police chiefs across America are now saying drug abuse should be treated as a disease, not a crime. One Massachusetts police department even refuses to arrest people who walk into the station carrying drugs or needles if they ask for help.

Some would call it another example of the American double standard: White drug addicts are treated as victims; black and brown addicts are treated like a scourge on society.

Even black and brown children who'd been victims of the crack epidemic were dehumanized, says Anderson, the Emory professor.

"We even had disdain for 'crack babies,' " Anderson says. "Think about how they were defined. They were depicted coming out of the womb drug addled, and people said they were going to be a drain on society. No empathy, no concern for their health."

White drug abusers aren't depicted as products of a pathological white culture. But black crack users were. It was seen as a "collective moral failure" in the black community, with demands that people lift themselves up by their bootstraps, wrote Ekow N. Yankah in a 2016 New York Times op-ed, "When Addiction Has a White Face."

"White heroin addicts get overdose treatment, rehabilitation and reincorporation, a system that will be there for them again and again and again," says Yankah, a law professor at Cardozo School of Law in New York. "Black drug users got jail cells and 'Just Say No.' ''

This cruel calculus -- white lives matter; people of color don't -- has resurfaced in the current debate over Obamacare, some say.

Progressive politicians have been talking about creating universal health care ever since President Theodore Roosevelt proposed national health insurance in 1912. It was a central plank in the Democratic platform for decades. Yet when the nation's first black president introduced health care legislation, it was transformed into a "racial slur," says Matthew Lynch, a blogger for the Huffington Post and Education Week who wrote a column entitled, "Opposition to the Affordable Care Act is Rooted in Bigotry."

He says Obama's attempts to provide health care were portrayed by his opponents as a racial redistribution of wealth. The conservative radio talk show host Rush Limbaugh called Obamacare a "civil rights bill" and said Obama's "entire economic program is reparations." Fox News host Bill O'Reilly said Obama allowed "historical grievances" to shape his economic thinking, leading to "his desire to redistribute wealth."

Comedian George Carlin delivered a routine on American double standards: one rule for white men and another for everyone else.

"People didn't think it was going to help poor white Southern people. They almost saw it as a form of welfare for blacks, and they said they don't want any part of it," Lynch says.

Opposition to Obamacare wasn't always framed in blunt racial terms. People used coded language like "big government takeover" or tied it to a black man by calling it "Obamacare'' to stir up racial resentment, says Lubin, the Howard University sociologist.

But it amounted to the same argument to white people: Here's a black man who is going to give your hard-earned money to people who sit around all day having babies and collecting welfare, she says.

"You don't even have to say you're referring to brown or black people," Lubin says. "Just say it's the federal government getting bigger and helping people who don't want to work."

Now the optics of Obamacare have changed, Lubin says. The media is filled with images of working-class white people in farmer's caps and jeans saying Obamacare saved their lives. Some of them include Trump supporters who say they didn't think he was talking about them when he campaigned on getting rid of Obamacare.

"It made [Obamacare] real for people; they see people who look like them and whose lives have been saved," Lynch says. "They're able to connect to that."

If the double standard is so embedded in American history, how do marginalized groups make their suffering real to others? Lubin says people have to realize that what hurts one community eventually hurts all Americans.

"We have to start appreciating each other's humanity," Lubin says. "We have to think of ourselves as a caring nation that cares for our fellow citizens regardless of race, ethnicity or class."

Until that day comes, though, it may be wise to remember the cruel calculus of American history. If you want aid or justice, it helps to be white -- and it's even better if you're straight and male.

Forget this and you may run into George Carlin's old American double standard. To paraphrase another social critic, George Orwell:

All Americans are equal, but some are more equal than others.