Thursday, September 22, 2005

Katrina and Racism

John One-Note Leo, cultural critic for US News and World Report, is usually from about one-third to one-half right. He has only one theme which he belabors every week ad nauseam -- the excesses of cultural liberalism. In one of his recent diatribes he took aim at observers who found blatant racism in the government response to Katrina. He quoted some of the usual suspects who find racism everywhere and who love to be in front of microphones and cameras. Leo attempts to refute the charge with some success since some liberals make themselves such an easy target. We will grant him the usual partial grasp of the whole truth that we can usually find in his columns.

I tried to be hard-headed on these matters and to remain skeptical of everything until I am persuaded by what I can find out based on evidence and critical analysis. The catastrophe was so massive with so many levels of government involved offering so much opportunity for bureaucratic bungling, ineptitude, squabbling, and turf wars, and with so much complexity involved in a quick mobilizing of rescue efforts that much of the delay and ineffectiveness can be found somewhere in this vicinity. In these tangled, complicated matters most anything you say will be partly true. The whole truth and nothing but the truth is hard to come by, especially when emotion and ideology cloud perceptions. Class issues were certainly front and center, since those who did most of the suffering were poor. Either they could not afford to evacuate or lived in the most vulnerable areas.

Was there also racism that was conspicuous, overt, and deliberate? If so, the evidence needs to be presented, and maybe it will be forthcoming in time. In any case, the catastrophe unveiled in a vivid way ugly facts of race and class that have produced outrageous poverty in this rich land that prides itself on its virtue. These inequalities are a disgrace and a scandal for which we, beginning with the President, should be ashamed and say so right out loud. It is not that solutions are lacking. The political and moral will is not there. Maybe this will be a nudge in the direction of creating an outraged conscience that will result in effective change, but the pessimist in me doubts it.

FEMA has been accused of being derelict in its duty in past disasters.
Charles Perrow wrote this about previous instances of bungling by FEMA:

Hurricane Hugo in 1989 prompted US Senator Fritz Hollings to declare that FEMA was "the sorriest bunch of bureaucratic jackasses I've ever known." (1024) The next year when disasters hit California, Representative Norman Y. Mineta of California, declared that FEMA "could screw up a two car parade." When Hurricane Andrew hit in 1992 the primitive communications system of the agency forced it to buy Radio Shack walkie-talkies in last minute preparations, while the state of the art one FEMA had paid for remained unavailable.

After Hurricane Andrew hit Florida in 1992, help was slow in coming as well as inept and the victims were mostly white. No criticism of FEMA in New Orleans exceeds the ferocity of the wrath directed toward it after that catastrophe.

On the other hand, evidence is not lacking that in 1992 and in other situations racism was clearly present. A friend of mine who was close to some of them gives his own personal testimony:

During my time with the NCC (National Council of Churches) as an Associate Director for Public Policy, and before that with the Progressive National Baptists, I was heavily involved with what's call "Environmental Racism" throughout the country, particularly in Louisiana's "Cancer Alley" which is a 90 or so mile strip loaded with carcinogens running from the capital to New Orleans. And a guess what group suffered the most?

We worked with the a host of groups and witnessed firsthand the abject, grinding poverty in New Orleans and Baton Rouge, particularly the latter city.

I was also working as a disaster relief coordinator, raising funds and distributing services after hurricanes Hugo, Andrew, and the Oklahoma City bombing, and floods in Louisiana. In each of those cases there was conspicuous, systematic disregard for Black citizens. For example, after Hugo, Charleston, S.C., recovered really quickly;. McCullough County next door has permanently dislocated African Americans. Hugo was in '89.

Let's face it, Ken, Black citizens are still reeling from the effects of the post-Civil War era for which we've never recovered, e.g., poverty and control and institutionalized disregard for minority social well-being, etc.
The larger truth that Leo totally missed or ignored has to do with the historical and cultural background to the fact that large numbers of the suffering victims of Katrina were poor and mostly black. If by the racism in the situation we mean that federal officials took note of the fact that most of the misery following Katrina was being experienced by black folks and thought, "Heck, we can take our time here; they are black and don't vote for Republicans anyway," we need to see the specific evidence. If by racism we mean the long and sorry history by which African Americans have been discriminated against, ignored, and left in poverty over many decades, yes, the charge is valid.

Don't count of John Leo to make a major point of that. It is too easy to blast excessive charges of racism and hit the mark on the surface while hiding a far more important truth that only more careful analysis can uncover.

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