Politics & Policy

Wanna Be Starting Something?

Nasty racial questions.

One of the more despicable motifs sounded by left-of-center commentators in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina took the form of a question: If the majority of the victims in New Orleans had been white rather than black, would the federal response have been swifter and more decisive? This isn’t a real question, of course, but a rhetorical question, a cheap attempt to score political points, since the person doing the asking already knows, or thinks he knows, the correct answer: Well, obviously, the federal response would have been more efficient if the majority of the victims had been white . . . because President Bush is a closet racist who doesn’t mind watching black people suffering and dying.

Such venomous insinuating, in a sense, follows a familiar liberal pattern–namely, it presupposes the ability of the president’s opponents to set aside his actual words and peer into his soul to determine his true motivation. So, for example, even though Bush publicly declared that all detainees held by the United States during the war on Islamic terror should be treated humanely, and even though he privately sent a memo to his Joint Chiefs of Staff stating that detainees must be treated humanely, in his heart of hearts he knew and approved of the abuses of prisoners at Abu Ghraib. In a similar vein, then, we hear Bob Herbert of the New York Times insisting that the demographics of Katrina’s victims caused Bush to ignore them: “He would have noticed if the majority of these stricken folks had been white and prosperous. But they weren’t. Most were black and poor, and thus, to the George W. Bush administration, still invisible.”

It’s ugly, it’s unsupportable, but at least Herbert comes out and says it.

What makes the accusation of racism against the Bush administration especially insidious in the current crisis, however, is that it so often takes the form of merely wondering aloud. Thus, for example, Joel Achenbach of the Washington Post: “We have to ask whether the government would have been better prepared for this sort of situation in New Orleans if the most vulnerable communities hadn’t been, for the most part, black neighborhoods.”

Likewise, Marlene Davis of the Lexington Kentucky Herald Leader: “Had the New Orleanians been predominantly white, would their young be allowed to witness death and dying daily? Had they been the white-collar workers of New York City on Sept. 11, 2001, would disaster relief have been more swift?”

Likewise, Tomas Alex Tizon, of the Los Angeles Times: “The central questions seem to be: Why are most of Hurricane Katrina’s victims black, and does the color of their skin have any bearing on authorities’ response, which has been criticized as slow?”

Television journalists can be even cagier with their not-quite suggestions of Bush administration racism. So, for instance, on left-leaning CNN (a phrase that should appear as often as “right-leaning Fox News”) correspondent Wolf Blitzer goaded Rep. Elijah Cummings (D., Md.) of the Congressional Black Caucus into leveling the charge for him: “Do you believe, if it was in fact a slow response, as many now believe it was, was it in part the result of racism?” When Cummings wouldn’t immediately take the bait, Blitzer kept after him. “There are some critics who are saying, and I don’t know if you’re among those, but people have said to me, had this happened in a predominantly white community, the federal government would have responded much more quickly. Do you believe that?” Finally, Cummings relented: “I think that’s a pretty good probability.”

Aaron Brown, also of CNN, likewise pressed the racism angle with CBC member Stephanie Tubbs-Jones (D., Ohio) until she gave up the goods: “Tell me how you think black people in the country, outside of New Orleans, are seeing this story.” When at first Tubbs-Jones focused not on racism but on black people’s sympathies for the victims, Brown persisted. “I think what I’m wondering is, do you think black America’s sitting there thinking if these were middle-class white people, there would be cruise ships in New Orleans, not the Superdome?” Tubbs-Jones still wouldn’t declare that race was the decisive factor, insisting she was offended on behalf of all victims, whatever their class or color. But Brown wouldn’t let up: “Now look, here’s the question, okay? And then we’ll end this. Do you think the reason [for the shoddy federal response], isn’t this a matter of race and/or class?” At last, Jones allowed, “I think it’s mostly a matter of class, but clearly race is a factor . . .”

This is nasty business. Or, in other words, roughly par for the course for some on the Left.

But what would it sound like, I wonder, if both sides played the “just asking” game?

Suppose, for a moment, an enterprising right-of-center commentator seized upon the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina to beat his own hobby horse, scoring political points by posing his own set of cynically distasteful rhetorical questions. He might ask, for example: Might the fact that black urban culture is dominated by hip hop, which pounds home the pathologically false message that federal and local authorities are the enemies of black people, and which relentlessly portrays anti-social behavior as a sign of black authenticity, contribute to a disproportionate degree of lawlessness among blacks?

Far be it from me to raise such a question. All I’m saying is some people might be wondering about them. . . .

But enough.

There will be a time and a place, months from now, after the streets are drained, after the homeless are housed, to investigate the federal, state, and local responses to Hurricane Katrina. There will no doubt be a Katrina Commission to hash out the disaster-planning and decision-making, the bureaucracy and blunders, the dedication and compassion. Perhaps it will even touch upon the admirable grit and occasional nihilism of New Orleans. What that commission will find cannot be known now, of course, but here’s a safe bet: On the whole, government officials did what they thought was right, and that what they thought was right was indeed right most of the time, and even when it was wrong, it was well-intended.

Americans don’t elect monsters–notwithstanding the hobgoblins floating around in the minds of liberal commentators.

Mark Goldblatt’s novel, Africa Speaks, is a satire of black hip-hop culture.


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