10/25/2005

A discussion of the ugly truth about race and the lethally inept Katrina response

The following is an article by Paul Krugman: "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)

France Orders Positive Spin on Colonialism

PARIS (AP) -- France, grappling for decades with its colonial past, has passed a law to put an upbeat spin on a painful era, making it mandatory to enshrine in textbooks the country's ''positive role'' in its far-flung colonies. But the law is stirring anger among historians and passions in places like Algeria, which gained independence in a brutal conflict. Critics accuse France of trying to gild an inglorious colonial past with an ''official history.'' At issue is language in the law stipulating that ''school programs recognize in particular the positive character of the French overseas presence, notably in North Africa.'' Deputies of the conservative governing party passed the law in February, but it has only recently come under public scrutiny after being denounced at an annual meeting of historians and in a history professors' petition. An embarrassed President Jacques Chirac has called the law a ''big screw-up,'' newspapers quoted aides as saying. Education Minister Gilles de Robien said this week that textbooks would not be changed. But the law's detractors want it stricken from the books -- something the minister says only parliament can do. The measure is one article in a law recognizing the ''national contribution'' of French citizens who lived in the colonies before independence. It is aimed, above all, at recognizing the French who lived in Algeria and were forced to flee, and Algerians who fought on the side of France. Unlike other colonies, Algeria, the most prized conquest, was considered an integral part of France -- just like Normandy. It was only after a brutal eight-year independence war that the French department in North Africa became a nation in 1962, after 132 years of occupation. Algerian President Abdelaziz Bouteflika has equated the law with ''mental blindness'' and said it smacks of revisionism. The Algerian Parliament has called it a ''grave precedent.'' The friction comes as France and Algeria work to put years of rocky ties behind them with a friendship treaty to be signed this year. ''Morally, the law is shameful,'' said University of Paris history professor Claude Liauzu, who was behind the petition, ''and it discredits France overseas.'' France was once a vast empire, including large holdings in Indo-China and Africa. It unraveled in the 1950s and 1960s, mostly calmly. However, France suffered ignominious defeats in Indo-China and Algeria. Paris only called the Algerian conflict a ''war'' in 1999. Throughout the fighting, and for decades thereafter, France had referred only to operations there to ''maintain order.'' In colonial times, French textbooks typically depicted the French presence in the colonies as that of benevolent enlightenment, with a clear mission to civilize. The newspaper Liberation this week published drawings from ''France Overseas,'' an illustrated colonial Atlas of 1931 that showed ''before'' and ''after'' drawings, one a sketch of Africans cooking and eating another human being, the second a school house on a well-manicured street with a French flag flying overhead. The Association of History and Geography Professors has asked that politicians ''end the practice of manipulating history'' and abrogate the law. The separate petition by history professors gathered 1,000 signatures in three weeks, said Liauzu. ''We're in a rather crazy situation,'' he said. ''They say the law won't be applied but it's up to lawmakers to cancel it.'' Beyond the real concerns over the political manipulation of historic events, there is another danger of falsely misrepresenting French colonization, Liauzu said. ''France is a country profoundly marked by immigration'' with the majority of French from immigrant stock, Liauzu said. By failing to tell the truth, children of today's immigrants ''are deprived of any past.''