Affirmative Action for Flood Victims

GARRY WILLS

July 21, 1993|By GARRY WILLS

CHICAGO — Chicago.--Disaster relief is an American tradition that few challenge. We all suffer hardships, and do not expect the government to rush to our assistance each time an illness or accident plays havoc with our individual lives. But when a whole region is damaged economically, we feel that some form of compensation is needed to restore it to its place in the overall financial health of the nation.

There is no absolute case-by-case justice to this. Some of the people in Iowa who will be helped by the government have savings and investments and assets surpassing mine or yours.

So: Should John Doe sue the government for discrimination, arguing that in helping a whole group it is helping some people who need it less than John Doe does -- that John Doe is, therefore, being discriminated against? Or that flood victims play on their victimhood? Or that favors to one group offend against the very idea of equality before the law?

You grasp the parallel I have been hinting at. Flood relief is a kind of ''affirmative action'' to help the disadvantaged catch up. People who do not challenge disaster relief are very fast, by contrast, to say that compensatory action for blacks or other minorities is unfair.

Yet the economic ravages visited on the black community over centuries are more crippling than anything the Mississippi River has done to Iowans or Missourians. And the government had a hand in the past forms of legal discrimination and social pressuring. The national administration did not cause the Mississippi to overflow its banks. But it did enforce segregation patterns in the past, laws meant to keep blacks from the vote, discriminatory hiring practices.

It may be objected that help to those with flood damage is temporary. True. But some compensatory plans go on for years. The GI Bill was a form of affirmative action for veterans who had lost their educative years to the military and needed help to catch up with others. Some programs have gone on for decades -- help to young families in getting their first mortgage, or help to disabled veterans, or help to Native Americans deprived of their land.

Considering the length and intensity of the deprivations the black community had to suffer, compensatory programs seem not only fair, but as American as apple pie. It is, after all, just disaster relief under a different name.

Garry Wills is a syndicated columnist.

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