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.
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?