Poverty, race, Katrina, and demagoguery

The other day, speaking to the Congressional Black Caucus, New York congressman Charles Rangel referred to George Bush as “our Bull Connor.”

Appearing on various talk shows (including Bill O’Reilly tonight), Rangel has claimed that he never meant to imply that Bush was a racist; he was simply saying that just as Bull Connor’s brutality against peaceful civil rights demonstrators in Birmingham, Alabama in 1963 woke up America’s conscience to the problem of racism, Katrina and the federal government’s inadequate response to it would wake up America’s conscience to the problem of poverty. Rangel has even said that he does not regard this as a racial issue, and that Katrina’s real disgrace was the plight of the poor, black or white.

First of all, to get the obvious out of the way: Rangel’s claim that to call someone a modern-day Bull Connor is not a charge of racism is plainly and simply laughable. If Rangel’s goal was to draw attention to the problem of poverty, his demagogic race-baiting was precisely the wrong strategy.

But what about the problem itself? The disaster in New Orleans was, in fact, a stark reminder of the persistence of poverty in our midst. The standard left/liberal answer is to blame capitalism and conservatism, and to call for more social programs and more redistribution of wealth. The standard conservative and libertarian answer is to blame the “culture of poverty” with its intractable social problems, which sometimes translates all too easily into blaming the poor.

I agree that more socialism is not the answer, and that poverty in America is largely a self-perpetuating culture. There are millions of immigrants who come to the U.S. every year with nothing, and manage in a fairly short amount of time to work their way into the middle-class — because they have social support networks and a culture that values education and hard work. (Many of those immigrants are black, whether from the Caribbean or from Africa, which further undercuts the theory that poverty is due to institutional racism.) But in discussing the culture of poverty, we should be very, very careful to avoid bashing the poor themselves. Most of us, if born into the same circumstances, would have likely ended up trapped in the same patterns of self-defeating behavior. Bourgeois virtues are not acquired at birth. Yes, there are people who manage to overcome multiple social handicaps and break the cultural habits of their environment. But that takes some unusual qualities — an extrordinary level of energy, determination, and self-sufficiency.

Some excellent thoughts from Megan McArdle, aka Jane Galt, here and here.

Would it be worthwhile, perhaps, to take a closer look at the factors that determine upward mobility in individuals and families — both among the U.S.-born poor, and among immigrants?

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4 Comments

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4 responses to “Poverty, race, Katrina, and demagoguery

  1. beAzl

    Generally agree with your comments, but I think it is a bit narrow minded to so easily dismiss the Real Clear Politics opinion piece as “blaming the poor”, end of rational discussion. The opinion, right or wrong, is probably shared by a substantial minority (at least) of Americans, yet few politicians or prominent figures dare to utter such politically incorrect sentiments. I think this is unhealthy for our democracy.

    First of all, the opinion piece is blaming the welfare state as the ultimate culprit, suggesting that the pathologies in the affected community stems from these failed policies.

    Yes, the article does suggest that if there had been less (perceived) violence among the affected, the rescue would have been easier. I heard one Red Cross official indicating that it would not have been safe for them to enter the superdome, so there is at least some merit to this opinion.

    Maybe the violence was purely media hype, in which case we should seriously question how the media got this story so wrong.

    Or the violence was real, in which case it is worth pursuing the question of why there was so much violence. Without resorting to twisted intellectual gynamistics, this line of pursuit will inevitably need to consider aspects of the “culture of poverty.” I don’t think it is helpful that this line of inquiry be constantly accompanied by charges of “bashing” the poor. Okay, so maybe it is “bashing,” but labeling it as such doesn’t prove the opinion to be wrong. This is a cheap shop that, in my opinion, creates more heat than light.

  2. Cathy Young

    I agree that Tracinski ultimately blames the welfare state. But in my view, referring to one’s fellow humans as “sheep” and “parasites” is in rather poor taste. Particularly fellow humans who, when the article was published, were in truly dire straits.

  3. Anonymous

    I dont think its necessary to comment on the Tracinski article because the ignorance of it speaks for itself. In my opinion once you are quoted as getting your information from Fox news then make a massive generalization that all poor people on welfare are lazy and have yourself to blame (it could not be a substandard education system, awful parent or parents, inability to take advantage of the many legal and societal advantages a great many of us seem to not give some credit for our own sucesses to), intelligence should stop paying attention. For the record you would be equally ignorant to think there are not many welfare recipients that fit these stereotypes. But it serves no purpose if your goal is truly to fix the problem.

    The purpose of this comment though is that I see a trend that the increasing self-absorbed interest of society is beginning to permeate disasters, the one time when, as part of the discussion points out, we could count on people to be selfless and help. New Orleans was definitely a different breed, but I think careful observation might reveal that there is more and more awful behavior even during emergencies, including money scams, fraud, price gauging, and plain unneighborly behavior.

    Its a terrible phenomenom, but I cringe that it may be true.

  4. beAzl

    Okay, I missed the reference to parasites, which was in bad taste.

    The left seems to use pigs as the preferred insult (capitalist, chauvinist, etc), though this doesn’t seem to have the same sting anymore.

    So maybe you could warn against referring to homo sapiens of limited means as lower life forms, like sheep and parasites, which clearly they are not, and doesn’t require explanation.

    But this is different from saying that “blaming” the poor is verbotten. Unless you believe the poor are blameless, which is a fine opinion, but one which probably needs some justification.

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