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.

Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Bush -- Always Bad and Getting Worse

The current Bush Administration is the worst I have known in my 75 years upon this earth. The list of blunders and deceit is long, but a few clues can unlock the secret to the whole debacle.

In foreign policy the key is hubris compounded of exaggerated confidence in military power and the ability to remake the world in our own image. It is the old imperialism with a sugar coating of idealism. If we -- the innocent and virtuous nation-- conquer the bad guys while beckoning the liberated citizens to embrace freedom and democracy American style, a new world order will emerge. That is the neoconservative creed that the President has adopted. Iraq is failure exhibit number one, demonstrating both the limitations of power against a stubborn insurgency and the difficulties of imposing democratic principles on a land torn by deep religious and ethnic rivalries lacking the organic historical and cultural preconditions for either unity or democracy. Of course, if some semblance of democracy should arise inimical to our interests, we would have to find ways to undermine it. Uppermost in our strategy, of course, is maintaining access to Iraqi oil.

Bush got us into the Iraq war by a combination of ignorance, incompetence, and deceit, all under the guise of removing the imminent threat of weapons of mass destruction being used against us by Saddam Hussein, an evil man. When that pretense proved false, the rationale kept changing with the situation until it was reduced to the principle that the world would be better of without Saddam, I. e., he is not a nice person. Now we have a tiger by the tail. Victory and the promise of democracy in Iraq have proven to be elusive. Neither the "cut and run" nor the "stay the course" are promising. So there we are with the costs in American and Iraqi lives as well as money mounting daily with no good way out. A majority of Americans now believe the war was a mistake to begin with. Where were they last November, when we had a chance to get rid of the instigator of this disaster?

At home we are ruled by a combination of plutocracy and a retrogressive cultural agenda. Underlying all this is a religiously-flavored rhetorical compassion for the masses that gets combined with actual policies designed to put as much power and wealth in the hands of corporations and the already rich as possible. The means are slick political maneuvering, ruthless use of power, and subtle deceit. Middle and upper class economic conservatives either approve or grudgingly tolerate the agenda of the religious right wing, while lower income cultural and religious conservatives either approve or grudgingly tolerate economic policies contrary not only to justice but to their own self-interest. Bush has exploited the conflict between the economic interests and the cultural values of modestly well-off and poor Protestant evangelicals and Catholic conservatives so skillfully with a mantle of religion and traditional morality that they scarcely realize they are being robbed for the sake of giant corporations and the wealthy.

A look at the policies, appointment, legislative proposals, and executive actions of the President at home and abroad will illustrate a consistent motivation: the desire to promote the interests of the rich and powerful combined with retrograde cultural values. This holds whether we examine medical policy (favorable to the pharmaceutical industry), sex-education and the fight against AIDS (no condoms, abstinence only), environmental policy (favorable to polluters and big corporations), energy policy (more production to boost oil company profits, no legislation to require energy efficient cars), labor policy (against unions and for low wages), tax policy (immense rewards for the rich) -- just to begin a list.

Fortunately, with Katrina and Rita as the capstones, majorities of Americans are saying no to Bush. It is tragic that enough voters were deceived in 2000 and 2004 to let this menace to justice and peace seize the reigns of power and inaugurate the catastrophe that has unfolded before us.

For two recent examples of the Bush follies, see:

For my web site, see: