washingtonpost.com  > Opinion > Columnists > Eugene Robinson

So Now Bush Cares?

By Eugene Robinson
Friday, March 4, 2005; Page A21

I have to assume that President Bush's sudden concern for my life expectancy, and that of my homies, is just breathtaking political cynicism, nothing more. He isn't sincere. If he were, it would mean a road-to-Damascus transformation as profound as his earlier conversion from jejune, fun-loving frat boy to sober, responsible man of God.

Here's what he said in January, pitching his dodgy private Social Security accounts at a forum: "African American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed."

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Like I said, it takes your breath away. An administration that claims to be colorblind, that has been consistently hostile to affirmative action, that deals with black America mainly by inviting some preachers to the White House every now and then to toss them a few faith-based dollars -- an administration that denies race any importance -- has suddenly identified a blatant racial injustice and is determined to right it?

What this would mean, if Bush were serious, is that he now accepts race as an objective, quantifiable factor in American life. Not only that: It would also mean that to measure the impact of race he is using not "opportunity" -- the Republican mantra -- but "outcome," which is doctrinal heresy. The grave, after all, qualifies as the ultimate outcome.

If the president were serious, he'd have to spend the rest of his term reversing his policies. Take the death penalty. Bush was the Grand Executioner of Texas as governor, but since blacks are disproportionately represented on death row and the killers of white victims are more likely to be executed than those who killed blacks, the system must be "inherently unfair." Obviously it "needs to be fixed," doesn't it?

What's so cynical about the whole thing is that Bush, for once, is right. Black men in America, statistically, do die six years sooner than white men. That's irrelevant to the Social Security discussion, because most of those excess deaths occur earlier in life, but it's still a fact -- white men live to 75 on average, black men to 69.

So let's fix it, Mr. President. According to health statistics your administration published last year, one big factor is that infant and neonatal mortality rates for black Americans are nearly three times those for whites. A lot of black baby boys never make it out of the hospital. Let's start with that.

Why would infant mortality in black America be nearly twice as high as in impoverished, repressed Cuba, to cite one comparison? For one thing, the mothers of those doomed black baby boys are twice as likely to be teenagers as the mothers of white baby boys, and those too-young black mothers are twice as likely to have had no prenatal care. Blacks are less likely than whites to have health insurance and more likely to use hospital emergency rooms as their primary source of physician care.

Please, no lectures about personal responsibility and choice. That was the old you. I agree we're all responsible for our decisions, but nobody gets to choose his parents. Nor do black boys choose, in much larger numbers than whites, to grow up in single-mother households, often in desperate, violent, drug-ridden neighborhoods. Black men 15 to 24 are eight times more likely to be murdered than white men that age. Fix it, please.

Black men are also much more likely to suffer from stress-related diseases such as hypertension and to suffer "serious psychological distress" -- if they're poor, that is. If they're not poor, they have fewer mental problems than whites.

That's the real reason we black men go to our reward so soon, Mr. Bush -- poverty. According to your figures, 24.1 percent of black Americans live in poverty vs. 8 percent of non-Hispanic whites. Yet you accept this as a given, so you can make specious arguments to salvage your attempt to privatize Social Security.

Raise the minimum wage. Put some real money into health care, especially prenatal care, and, while you're at it, put some real money into No Child Left Behind -- serious money, Iraq-scale money, enough to put decent teachers and new books in the classrooms of inner-city schools and toilet paper in the bathrooms. Stop slashing every discretionary program your budget-cutters can find. Care as much about what's happening on the streets of Washington, Detroit and Chicago as you care about Baghdad, Mosul and Basra.

Until you do, please, no more crocodile tears for my posse and me.


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