Monday, September 12, 2005

Race and Poverty UPDATED

There has been an awful lot written over the past several days about Katrina, the poor, and racism. It seems that the three have been woven together into a images that will forever be linked to this disaster. Have the images of poor blacks in New Orleans reinforced a distorted belief system in America?

As the old saying goes, it's a fine line between civilization and the jungle. Katrina brought out the least civilized tendencies in those who were in dire straits, and it was really quite interesting in exposing the dormant racism in our society. Susie Madrak had this to say about racism:
Most people are racist out of sheer ignorance and fear. Most of that fear is grounded in resentment at their own narrow economic options.
I think that's correct and a crisp analysis of the origins of racism. And in that analysis, note that economics and racism are connected, i.e. that people who are economically fearful show greater tendencies towards racism. But also note that when faced with a choice in the voting booth of voting race vs. economic self interest, the GOP has successfully taken advantage of the tendency of too many people to vote race first.

Digby has been doing an excellent series of posts on the topic, and this bit in his post I found particularly interesting:
AGS [Alesina, Glazear and Sacerdote] report, using the World Values Survey, that "opinions and beliefs about the poor differ sharply between the United States and Europe. In Europe the poor are generally thought to be unfortunate, but not personally responsible for their own condition. For example, according to the World Values Survey, whereas 70 % of West Germans express the belief that people are poor because of imperfections in society, not their own laziness, 70 % of Americans hold the opposite view.... 71 % of Americans but only 40% of Europeans said ...poor people could work their way out of poverty."


"Racial fragmentation and the disproportionate representation of ethnic minorities among the poor played a major role in limiting redistribution.... Our bottom line is that Americans redistribute less than Europeans for three reasons: because the majority of Americans believe [emphasis added] that redistribution favors racial minorities, because Americans believe that they live in an open and fair society, and that if someone is poor it is his or her own fault, and because the political system is geared toward preventing redistribution.


Thus the racial factor as well as a wider net of social beliefs play a key role in why Americans don't care about income inequality, and why, not caring, they have no great interest in expanding the welfare state.
From this, Digby suggests:
Racism informs many Americans' ideas about poverty.
Digby has taken it one step further in suggesting that economics not only causes racism, but that our national view of poverty is linked with racism as well. Put differently, when the typical American thinks of poverty, they think black, and prejudice makes them not care.

Certainly there are many instances of that in reaction to Katrina. Many have charged (and I agree) that the Federal reaction would be and was different in, say, midtown Manhattan. The treatment of hurricane victims has been documentated to have favored the white and the affluent. And the media was caught, most notably in the famous "find" vs. "looting" picture with having racist tendency, which is a very small example of the unconscious racism that perpetuates the beliefs discussed above.

It seems to me that the issue of racism in the United States has taken a real back seat lately. Katrina may change that equation. But it seems that anytime a prominent black leader claims that a racist incident has occurred, the issue gets short shrift in the media. For example, isn't Al Sharpton seen as kind of a caricature of a loud mouth anti-racist? Conservatives have cowed the media and liberals from boldly pointing out racism and demanding change.

In the same post, Digby notes something that I think is really quite important. How can Democrats, as a practical matter, gain political traction in the south if racism is a continuing fact of life, and if racism is inextricably connected to poverty?
The liberal agenda depends upon forcing this out of the national bloodstream with each successive generation not only for moral reasons, which I know we all believe, but it also depends upon forcing it out of the bloodstream for practical reasons. Until this knee jerk reaction to black poverty among certain whites (and Pat Buchanan), particularly in the south, is brought to heel we are fighting an uphill battle to muster the consensus we need to create the kind of nation that guarantees its citizens a modern, decent safety net regardless of race or class.
The cause of civil rights and the fight against racism has made huge strides in my lifetime. But I think Katrina is a wake-up call that there is much work to be done, and that we can NOT take our eyes off the prize of continuing to purge incipient racism in future generations. It also suggests that there is much work to be done by Democrats.

UPDATE: This poll out yesterday:
USAT fronts a poll showing big racial disparities in views on the response to Katrina. Asked whether the president "cares about black people," 67 percent of whites said yes, 72 percent of blacks said no. (The paper doesn't offer pre-Katrina numbers.) A WP poll has nearly two-thirds of black respondents saying race played a part in the government's response; just over 70 percent of whites said that wasn't the case.
I wonder who you think would have a better perspective on being the victim of discrimination, blacks or whites?

UPDATE II: Just go read.


At 7:31 AM, Anonymous Steve Cates said...

I agree with destroying racism to the future generation. Let's start by pointing out that not all black people in New orleans are poor. Only 15% of the blacks in New Orleans didn't have the means to evacuate. 9% of the non-blacks didn't have the means to evacuate. The whole reason they didn't is that a democratic mayor didn't follow his own plan. So, I also agree your last sentence that the democrats have a lot of work to do as well.

At 8:45 AM, Blogger Greyhair said...

"Means to evacuate" is a amorphous term. And what kind of numbers does "15%" equal? Show me you data, then we'll talk. And certainly, means to evacuate does not equal poverty.

As far as the mayor and his plan. Please provide some documentation of that accusation. The "bus" issue has been roundly proven to be an untrue accusation. But I'd be interested in any others. And to say "the whole reason" they didn't evacuate is the mayor's fault is a bit sweeping.

At 2:07 PM, Blogger Greyhair said...

Steve, here's some info for you to check out:

CLAIM — STATE AND LOCAL OFFICIALS WERE MOSTLY RESPONSIBLE FOR FAILURES: “White House Shifts Blame to State and Local Officials” [Washington Post, 9/4/05]

FACT – BUSH PUT FEMA IN CHARGE OF EFFORT BEFORE KATRINA STRUCK: “Specifically, FEMA is authorized to identify, mobilize, and provide at its discretion, equipment and resources necessary to alleviate the impacts of the emergency.” [White House, 8/27/05]


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