Friday, September 09, 2005

The shaming of America

I will start by saying that racism isn't always conscious. It doesn't always happen in one ceremonious or defining moment, but we (in the community) pretend that we live in an egalitarian society. And for that pretence, some will argue with evidence as clear as a sign post.
This week The Economist magazine redeems itself by standing in the middle. The article titled "the shaming of America" carfelly avoids claiming a racist motivation for the poor response by the US government and even tries to apportion some blame to the supposedly "nonchalant" majority black inhabitants of New Orleans. However, the article also identifies crippling incompetence by the federal government, the kind described by Paul Krugman of the New York times.
Within the article, I find a question that I have come across a lot within the last few days. Would the response to New Orleans have been any different had the inhabitants been white?
America is by large a majority white country, which means that the "system" is basically run by whites (simple law of averages). Given that it is not uncommon in society to find tacit favouritism within groups of the same kind (religion, race, sex, etc), I am inclined to think that a system run by a majority group would favour those who belong to it than any other groups. I hold this theory true for a mojority Chinese, Indian, Black, or other group.
However, what differentiates prejudice from the simple benefits conferred to a specific group by virtue of their larger numbers, is the product of their actions. Put differently, the fruits of their labour. If the majority group (whichever one) acts in a way that alienates, marginalises or sidelines the minority groups, then quite simply, prejudice is firmly on the driving seat. From this understanding going forward, it is then irrelevant how prejudice is subsequently manifested.
So do I think the response would have been different had the inhabitants of New Orleans been majority white? I certainly do!
To quote a comment from Freakonomics:

"If it were even mentioned [that] there was a possibility of 50,000 white people drowning and dying of hunger and thirst, don't you think they [US government] would have organized a massive house-to-house search in New Orleans the very next day and run by the Federal government and the pentagon?"

The article the shaming of America starts:

"EVEN America's many enemies around the world tend to accord it respect. It might be arrogant, overbearing and insensitive—but, by God, it can get things done.

Since Hurricane Katrina, the world's view of America has changed. The disaster has exposed some shocking truths about the place: the bitterness of its sharp racial divide, the abandonment of the dispossessed, the weakness of critical infrastructure. But the most astonishing and most shaming revelation has been of its government's failure to bring succour to its people at their time of greatest need.

The finger-pointing is already under way, with the federal government blaming local government and local government blaming the feds. But if America is to avoid future catastrophes it needs to do more than bicker."


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