Defining Racism Down
Just heard a presidential spokesman saying that, in tonight's speech, Bush will respond to the accusation that the administration "deliberately chose to delay the relief effort to New Orleans for racial reasons." (I'm paraphrasing, but the exact language was very close.)
This is of course one of those infuriating straw man arguments the Republicans employ so frequently--twisting an opponent's position to make it exaggerated or absurd, and then refuting that. "Oh, so you opposed invading Iraq on false pretenses, without allies, with too few troops, and with no post-war plan? Then that means You supported keeping Saddam Hussein in power. And here's why that was a bad idea . . . "
This particular twisting of logic, however, strikes me as especially pernicious. Naturally it misstates what Democrats and progressives are actually saying about the Bush administration. I don't imagine (nor have I heard anyone claim) that Bush and Chertoff had a conversation like this:
CHERTOFF: Pretty bad flood down in New Orleans, Mr. President. I guess we ought to help.
BUSH: Guess so. But wait, aren't a lot of those folks Black?
CHERTOFF: Now that you mention it, I think they are.
BUSH: Then forget it. Let 'em drown.
. . . which is what the idea of a "deliberate racial decision" to delay aid appears to imply. The idea that Bush (or any other mainstream politician in the year 2005) would be so crudely and overtly racist is probably ridiculous. It's also irrelevant.
The real charge that progressives are leveling at the administration is much more subtle--and much harder to deny. Our accusation is that the level of concern, urgency, and commitment devoted to the well-being of poor Black people by conservative Republicans is consistently and noticeably lower than that devoted to the well-being of affluent white people. This kind of racism doesn't appear in the form of "deliberate racial decisions" by the president or his top advisors. It takes the form of patterns of action and inaction that extend over decades. For example:
There's subtle racism in the decision by the Republican party back in 1968 to implement a "Southern strategy" whereby Black votes were simply written off in favor of appealing to prejudiced whites, in the South and elsewhere. Ever since then, many Republicans (including the current administration) have had zero political motivation to respond to the needs of Black voters. After all, they're not part of The Base and they never will be. Why waste time, energy, or money on them? And ninety eight percent of the domestic policies of the Republicans have been tailored to fit this strategy.
There's subtle racism in the myriad budgetary decisions made by a Republican White House and a Republican Congress, whereby the needs of (mainly white) suburban, rural, and Western communities consistently take preference over the needs of (largely minority) city dwellers. Hence the cutting of funds to repair levees to protect New Orleans, while plenty of money is found to build bridges to nowhere in Alaska.
And there's subtle racism in the patterns of action and inaction that are more directly and immediately related to Katrina as well.
Subtle racism is at work when Governor Blanco (whose affected constituents are mainly poor, Democratic, and Black) can't reach Bush on the phone at the height of the hurricane, while Governor Barbour (elected by people who are mainly middle-class, Republican, and white) gets several calls from Bush on the same day.
Subtle racism is at work when FEMA managers look at a crowd of hungry, desperate Black people stranded in New Orleans and think they see an out-of-control mob who are too dangerous to try to feed or rescue--and so they don't.
And subtle racism is at work when government officials (abetted by the news media) are quick to seize upon, exaggerate, and spread reports of violence and looting by Black people in New Orleans, thereby encouraging fellow victims of Katrina like the police in Gretna, Louisiana, to treat those stranded at the Convention Center like criminals--and suggesting that the highest priority of the government had to be "restoring law and order" rather than saving the lives of helpless children, the aged, and the infirm.
I don't think President Bush is overtly racist. He probably gets along all right with Black people who share his general outlook on life, and I doubt that he uses racial epithets or openly espouses racist beliefs. (I'm not so sure about his mother, however).
Unfortunately, none of this matters. The kind of subtle racial prejudice he and his government exhibit is almost as repugnant as the old-fashioned, overt kind. It certainly doesn't offer Black people any better help toward justice and equality than the overt kind does.
In effect, the Republicans have "defined racism down" so that only someone who snarls the N-word can be accused of it. This makes it very easy for people to consider themselves racially enlightened. It encourages people to say, When I look at myself, I see someone who is nice and friendly and well-meaning. Therefore I can't possibly be a racist. I have no doubt that something like this is going on in the mind of Laura Bush, who is a perfectly "nice" person and therefore "knows" that her husband can't possibly be a racist.
As Bill McKibben recently noted in Harper's magazine, it makes for an extraordinarily comfortable sort of Christianity--one that lets you congratulate yourself on your morality at no absolutely no personal cost. No wonder Republicans keeping winning elections. Who wouldn't want to believe he's a great guy without having to lift a finger to prove it?