A steady withdrawal from responsibility

September 19, 2005|By George Baca

The tragedy sweeping through the Gulf Coast in Hurricane Katrina's wake reveals how deeply racism and class inequality divide this country. Some media critics, by focusing solely on President Bush's inadequacies, have tended to obscure the key issues at play. His administration surely failed to respond appropriately or efficiently to the disaster, magnifying its destructive power.

But the disintegration of New Orleans has a much longer history, embodied in a make-the-federal-government-weaker philosophy.

For our complicity and indifference to that policy, we are responsible for failing to properly maintain the levees, keeping the city's working poor below the poverty line, then leaving them to drown and starve. As the middle-class and elite fled the city, Katrina washed away the gloss that decades of civil rights reforms have put over the American public's contempt for poor African-Americans, leaving their isolation and poverty for the world to see.

There has been a determined reluctance to confront unblinkingly the results of reforms following the civil rights movement. Instead, Americans prefer to glory in the victories of the movement, idealizing the 1964 Civil Rights Act and the 1965 Voting Rights Act as racial progress.

Such praise is understandable, as national reforms have significantly expanded the number of African-Americans who enjoy middle-class privileges, attend the most prestigious universities and hold positions of great authority, including top-level cabinet positions in the Bush administration.

Such inclusion fosters the sense that we have eradicated the most egregious forms of racial inequality. But this uplifting view, although entirely consonant with the American myth of upward mobility, obscures the fact that the standard of living for all working class people, including African-Americans, has fallen markedly over the past 40 years.

The coexistence of an expanding group of privileged African-Americans and an increasingly marginalized majority has confused both scholars and the layperson. We read analyses claiming that the increased poverty and violence, along with the exponential growth of the African-American prison population, are mere anomalies in the post-civil rights era of racial progress.

No such anomalies exist.

Civil rights reforms have complemented, and have been used to legitimize, the savage disregard for the general good that Katrina revealed. For nearly half a century, the incorporation of some African-Americans into the middle classes has helped conceal decreased spending on vital public necessities such as education, health care, mass transportation and urban services - structural changes that could truly have served to diminish racial equality for the majority.

Where Americans once thought of government as a source of protection for its citizens and as a provider of such public goods as education, transportation and health care, we are now taught to think of government as an irritant and private markets as the better route to security for all.

As proof of the harm such thinking can inflict on racial inequality, we need only remember how the integration of public schools spawned the vast growth in private education as middle-class citizens (black as well as white) abandoned public school systems.

Ideologically based cutbacks in the funds available for these key public goods have damaged the country's basic infrastructure, increased poverty among the working classes and resulted in a political system in which citizens are forced to take care of themselves when such tragedies such as Katrina occur. How many of us now would concur with the federal government's callow assertions that fortifying New Orleans' levees was pork?

The manner in which we have implemented racial reform has supported our government's gradual withdrawal from responsibility for the public welfare. The growth of the black middle class and the distribution of privileges to this group have largely defused black politics, reducing black leadership to the role of ratifying status quo agendas and economic packages.

High-profile minority representation in government helps create the aura of political involvement by strategically using black representatives to mask the de facto disfranchisement of working class and poor African-Americans.

Proponents of tax cuts can point to black officialdom to bolster their assertions that class and race are no longer impediments to success in our society, peddling the view that almost all public spending (except, of course, on law enforcement and jails) is wasteful and - worse yet in a society that prides itself on equality - that it offers unfair advantages to African Americans and other members of minorities.

Instead of public spending for the public good, the current administration, like others before it, continually pushes the privatization of public goods. In Katrina's wake, we can clearly see the ruinous result of that policy.

George Baca is an assistant professor of anthropology at Goucher College.

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