Saturday, September 10, 2005

The Take-Home Lesson

So, was race a factor in how the Katrina drama played out? NBC's Brian Williams, despite his desperate attempts to remain impartial, said as much on Thursday evening's Daily show. Howard Dean agrees. Yet according to a recent Pew survey, 77% of whites believe that the government's response would have been the same if the majority of the victims had been white, and 56% believe that Katrina did not reveal that racial inequality is still a significant problem in America. The respective numbers for black respondents were 66% and 71%. My opinion on these two questions could not have been adequately assessed by Pew's survey methods, and I expect that that was probably the case for many of the poll's more intelligent participants. If nothing else, Katrina did show is that race is still a major elephant in the room for many whites, and that many blacks are predisposed to view racial issues as driving forces in adverse situations.

Before I begin, I'd like to commend certain of the foreign press, among them France's L'Humanite, Italy's La Stampa, and Germany's Der Spiegel, for not sweeping racial questions under the rug. You could argue that it's always easier to criticize racism outside one's own country, but nevertheless, credit should be given where due.

Now let's talk about white people. It's glaringly obvious to me that many, perhaps most, white Americans really, really want to believe that racism is a thing of the past. Some Katrina commenters took to blaming the victims, some preferred to focus on class issues, and many others donated to the Red Cross and moved on to other concerns. But stories like this strongly contradict the contention that race is irrelevant, as many commentators on the right would have us believe. Whites also need to understand that recognizing race as relevant factor in today's world does not indict them as racist--it simply means that there's more work to be done.

At the same time, I'm a little disappointed in some of the black allegations and assumptions regarding race. "What if" scenarios are not admissible as evidence of racial bias; they're simply not falsifiable. And while, as I mentioned above, there has been some evidence that racial factors were at play, the assertion that they were paramount in importance cannot be proven without specific evidence of blacks and whites being treated differently. There's a strand of pragmatist philosophy that holds that it's possible to acknowledge correctly a certain cause as contributing to an effect, but that it's impossible to know exactly to what extent the cause in question influenced the effect. I think that's what's going on here--race and class were both factors, but until we can experimentally manipulate the two independently, it's impossible to know how significant they were relative to each other. What if the hurricane had hit a mostly affluent black municipality? What about a poor white community? All speculation is academic.

In answer to my leading question: Yes, racism still exists, and yes, it probably was a factor in the government's response to Katrina. But I don't think that's the most important lesson here, though many of my fellow African-Americans disagree. What everyone should be concerned with is competent governance--can the government adequately handle the security tasks we have entrusted to it? The current administration, thoroughly infested by cronyism as it is, is now at 2 and 0 for major national crises. And if poor choices rule the day, it won't much matter how fast the feds arrive. This is one of the biggest reasons why you don't want your amiable drinking buddy running the country.