Wednesday, September 14, 2005

Bush on Katrina: Race had nothing to do with it

From the Post:

Speaking to reporters after touring New Orleans yesterday, Bush sought to dispel the view that race played a role in the government's response to the disaster. "When those Coast Guard choppers, many of who were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin," Bush said. "They wanted to save lives."

Bush vowed that the massive federal response, which already has received funding of more than $62 billion and involves more than 71,000 federal personnel on the ground, would be managed fairly. "The storm didn't discriminate, and neither did the recovery effort," he said, adding: "The rescue efforts were comprehensive, and the recovery will be comprehensive."

I've been awfully critical of President Bush, but I'm tempted to believe him on this one. I suspect that the response would have been quicker if the storm had hit, say, San Francisco or Boston, but that probably has more to do with the fact that they're richer, more prosperous, and ultimately more important cities in terms of media attention and, more broadly, in terms of America's sense of self (which is why a disaster in New York means so much more than a disaster anywhere else).

But race and poverty were indeed important factors -- before the storm hit, according to Matt Yglesias:

The race and class issues entered the picture earlier. Poor people face a distinct set of challenges when faced with things like evacuation orders, and I think it's undeniable that a big part of the reason nobody seems to have given consideration to those realities is specifically that the people in question were poor and largely black. That, after all, has been the general pattern of this administration. The federal government runs various programs designed to help the poor. That set of activities has been made uniformly less generous under the period of Republican rule. And they haven't been made less generous thanks to broad, across-the-board spending cuts. Virtually nothing has been cut except anti-poverty spending.

The point is, many of the poor (including the black poor of New Orleans) had no chance. Not because Bush is a racist or because there was some racial component to the relief and recovery efforts, but because they had already been beaten down and left hopeless and helpless by a society that largely ignores them.

They're the "other" America, and they're still suffering.

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  • First off, the problem was a disaster that no one expected. How many hurricaines have I lived through and shrugged off, laughing in my head at the Storm Warnings and fear mongering of the media? I've never filled up a bathtub, stocked up on cans of tuna or candles... A broken levee, while not outside the realm of probability was not anticipated and sat outside our conception. It was simply too horrible to conceive, in the same way that we often ignore genocides, threats of plagues, and any huge potential disaster. The scale of the damage exceeds our desire to face the unpleasant and so we simply ignore.
    I think poverty has everything to do with the rescue disaster, the looting, and even a general lack of interest in New Orleans. How do you tell a person without a car to "drive away"? Where can a person with no money get a bus ticket or find a hotel to stay in? Some of America's cities are war zones with roads serving as the demarcations of no man's land. Those who Have can not cross on foot without feeling threatened, and consequently, those who Don't Have can not cross without feeling sub-human and being eyeballed as criminals, monsters, animals. The problem is pervasive and does follow color lines, most likely because it is difficult to break the cycle of poverty. The poor often stay poor.
    I should add that if my city were to flood, I don't even know what I would do. I have never been told what to do, except a few basic survival tips, in the advent of a return to the state of nature.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:04 AM  

  • Yes, Nate, I understand that many of the victims of Katrina are/were relatively healthy men and women, but I think Rachel makes a good point here. It would be hard enough for someone with money and resources to know what to do in a time of crisis. But for someone living on the streets, or in some housing project, someone largely isolated from the mainstream of society?

    I'm not arguing here that there is no responsibility, and I certainly don't mean to denigrate the very concept of individual choice. But remember that individuals make choices within certain parameters (social, psychological, moral, political, economic, etc.). I'm not reducing everything to determinism, just pointing out that many of the poor (and, yes, many of the black poor), especially in dilapidated urban areas like New Orleans, just don't have the resources (broadly understood beyond mere economics) to make the choices we who live in relative prosperity do.

    I'm not claiming that society (or social forces) is all to blame for poverty. I'm not arguing that there's nothing to be said for responsibility, both individual and collective. But I am saying that poverty had something to do with what happened in New Orleans.

    By Blogger Michael J.W. Stickings, at 12:22 AM  

  • I think Nate makes some very good points here. Let's face it, one of the things that make poverty so intractable is the isolation of the poor from mainstream society. And this isolation is much worse in the case of the African-American community. Obviously, racism has had a lot to do with it, but today there seems to be a real issue in the community with, as Nate notes, "white" values, where, for example, kids doing well in school are derided for "acting white." Until these kinds of attitudes change, it's unlikely that much will change, at least in the poorest of the inner city.

    That's not to say that society doesn't bear much of the responsibility for this poverty and isolation. And that's why I think that we need to be talking about poverty, even if we don't know how to "end" it. For one thing, I would like to see less emphasis on affirmative action to get middle class African-Americans into elite universities and more on improving secondary education and getting the mass of poor people into less elite schools that have more relevance to their lives.

    By Anonymous Anonymous, at 11:45 AM  

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