SYNOPSIS: A discussion of the ugly truth about race and the lethally inept Katrina response
By three to one, African-Americans believe that federal aid took so long to arrive in New Orleans in part because the city was poor and black. By an equally large margin, whites disagree.
The truth is that there's no way to know. Maybe President Bush would have been mugging with a guitar the day after the levees broke even if New Orleans had been a mostly white city. Maybe Palm Beach would also have had to wait five days after a hurricane hit before key military units received orders to join rescue operations.
But in a larger sense, the administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need.
Race, after all, was central to the emergence of a Republican majority: essentially, the South switched sides after the passage of the Civil Rights Act. Today, states that had slavery in 1860 are much more likely to vote Republican than states that didn't.
And who can honestly deny that race is a major reason America treats its poor more harshly than any other advanced country? To put it crudely: a middle-class European, thinking about the poor, says to himself, "There but for the grace of God go I." A middle-class American is all too likely to think, perhaps without admitting it to himself, "Why should I be taxed to support those people?"
Above all, race-based hostility to the idea of helping the poor created an environment in which a political movement hostile to government aid in general could flourish.
By all accounts Ronald Reagan, who declared in his Inaugural Address that "government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem," wasn't personally racist. But he repeatedly used a bogus tale about a Cadillac-driving Chicago "welfare queen" to bash big government. And he launched his 1980 campaign with a pro-states'-rights speech in Philadelphia, Miss., a small town whose only claim to fame was the 1964 murder of three civil rights workers.
Under George W. Bush - who, like Mr. Reagan, isn't personally racist but relies on the support of racists - the anti-government right has reached a new pinnacle of power. And the incompetent response to Katrina was the direct result of his political philosophy. When an administration doesn't believe in an agency's mission, the agency quickly loses its ability to perform that mission.
By now everyone knows that the Bush administration treated the Federal Emergency Management Agency as a dumping ground for cronies and political hacks, leaving the agency incapable of dealing with disasters. But FEMA's degradation isn't unique. It reflects a more general decline in the competence of government agencies whose job is to help people in need.
For example, housing for Katrina refugees is one of the most urgent problems now facing the nation. The FEMAvilles springing up across the gulf region could all too easily turn into squalid symbols of national failure. But the Department of Housing and Urban Development, which should be a source of expertise in tackling this problem, has been reduced to a hollow shell, with eight of its principal staff positions vacant.
But let me not blame the Bush administration for everything. The sad truth is that the only exceptional thing about the neglect of our fellow citizens we saw after Katrina struck is that for once the consequences of that neglect were visible on national TV.
Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can't afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined.
But the health care crisis hasn't had much effect on politics. And one reason is that it isn't yet a crisis among middle-class, white Americans (although it's getting there). Instead, the worst effects are falling on the poor and black, who have third-world levels of infant mortality and life expectancy.
I'd like to believe that Katrina will change everything - that we'll all now realize how important it is to have a government committed to helping those in need, whatever the color of their skin. But I wouldn't bet on it.
Originally published in The New York Times, 9.19.05