Incompetence, Not Racism

By Richard Cohen
Tuesday, September 20, 2005

If you told me that George W. Bush is a dummy, I would argue with you but understand why you thought so: all those idiotic statements. But if you told me, as some have been implying, that Bush is a racist or that he doesn't care about black people, I would not only say that you're wrong but add, "Not the George Bush I know."

Of course, I don't know George Bush personally. But in his first presidential campaign, I traveled with him and tried, as he might say, to look into his heart. Conveniently enough, he sometimes wears it on his sleeve -- never more so, as I discovered, than when he talks about poor kids and racial and ethnic minorities. His feelings for them -- especially for poor kids -- are genuine. This is what I believed then and this -- his incompetent performance regarding Hurricane Katrina notwithstanding -- is what I believe now.

Others believe differently. The most non-nuanced statements came from the rapper Kanye West. Appearing on an NBC special to raise money for flood victims, West attributed the slow recovery effort not to ineptitude but to the fact that "most of the people are black." He followed that up a moment later with: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." NBC snipped that comment from its West Coast feed, but no matter: West was clearly not speaking only for himself. National polls showed a racial divide in appraising how the government did after Katrina. Blacks by and large thought race played a role in the laggard relief effort.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, functionally unemployed all these years, put it a bit differently. Appearing Sunday on local New York television, he didn't exactly say that Bush was indifferent to the plight of New Orleans's poor blacks, but he did say this about Bush: "One has to suspect why he had such delayed compassion." Sharpton did point out, as Bill Clinton did in his Sunday TV appearances, that in New Orleans, poor and black are largely synonymous, but still the damage was done: George Bush is no friend of black people.

I have two problems with all this. The first is not just that it's unfair -- Bush, in this case, was an equal opportunity bungler -- but that it rests on a stereotype: Republicans tend to wear lime green pants in the summer and dislike black people all year round. There was more than a little truth to this at one time. The GOP, after all, became a safe haven for Southern bigots who fled the Democratic Party (as Lyndon Johnson knew they would) in the civil rights era. The fight for the rights of blacks turned Dixie as Republican as it once was Democratic. To its everlasting shame, the GOP continues to benefit from raw bigotry.

But Bush is not cut from that cloth. He is a contemporary Republican, a person of another generation who, you may have noticed, has a black woman as secretary of state and had a black man before her. Under him, the GOP began an outreach to black Americans, and unless the Democrats wake up it will ultimately succeed. As Karl Rove well knows, all he has to do is pick up a small percentage of the black vote and he ends the current 50-50 electoral split. Bush, who won an impressive 27 percent of the black vote in his reelection bid for Texas governor, could have been the man to do this. His task is a lot harder now.

My second problem is that yelling racism stops creative thinking. Questions about how reconstruction should be managed, about how relief money should be used, about who will be resettled and where -- all of them fraught with racial issues -- will not be addressed. Instead, as we have already seen, the feds will simply throw gobs and gobs of money at New Orleans and its poor -- never mind how it is spent. Bush has reacted like a conservative's stereotype of a liberal -- just spend the damn money and hope it does some good. This, more than anything, shows true contempt for the poor, regardless of race.

We owe the poor our special consideration. We especially owe the black poor an appreciation of their plight and their dolorous history. But in general it was incompetence, not racism, that slowed the relief effort -- incompetence on the local and state levels, too, and incompetence on the part of black as well as white public officials. The search for racist scapegoats does the poor no good. This relief effort ought to start, above all, with some clear thinking.

cohenr@washpost.com


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