Tuesday, August 29, 2006

Is Kanye West still right a year later?

It was just about a year ago when Kanye West, obviously frustrated with Hurricane Katrina relief, said the now oft quoted, “George Bush doesn’t like Black people.” I believe he was right, then, and I believe he is still right. That doesn’t make George Bush a bigot. Kanye could have been talking about many white people in powerful positions. It’s just the way things seem to be. Lots of good people would feel insulted if they were called bigots, not knowing all the ways in which institutional racism conditions their behavior and makes them bigots.

I am ashamed to relate that when I was 16, I said to a black friend that my grandmother said that she would always hire a black housekeeper because “white women don’t work hard, and are too difficult to manage... too uppity.” I thought it was complimentary when I said it, but in the years that have passed I have heard it echo off what I sometimes think of as an entirely hollow cranial cavity. As a kid, I didn’t even hear that stuff when I said it. I didn’t say the “N” word, and resented it as a part of a vocabulary that was a bit too low class for me. Please understand that I never heard the word at home—not even code words. I rarely heard it in my neighborhood among the kids, and never among their parents. In fact, I had no class consciousness as a kid, and was so naïve that I didn’t even understand it when it bit me in the ass at a prep school.

Bush is probably not so different, with the exception that he was always rich, and I have never been. I imagine that he didn’t hear the “N” word at home or in his neighborhood, that he loved Motown, and admired African-Americans in some important cultural ways that would never have been personally perceived as bigoted. He would take affront to the use of such a word because he is an extrovert, a hand-shaker, and a good barbeque guest. Even the occasional off-color jokes would, to him, not seem made out of bigotry, but out of humor. Powell and Rice would seem to point to his lack of bigotry, but what could explain the lack of quick action in the wake of Katrina.

The lack of action was begun at a level way below Bush’s. Institutional racism started at the local and regional municipal levels. People were going to save the rich first, the tourist attractions second, the better neighborhoods third, and others, fourth. I can imagine the same thing happening in my own home town, Pittsburgh. It’s the way it would happen in Washington, DC, too, and DC’s as “chocolate” a city as New Orleans. Having an African-American mayor, it seems, is no protection against institutionalized racism. After all, you need to learn how to play “the game”—whatever that is—if you want to get elected. And if you get elected once, you have to play even harder to get a second term, or position yourself for higher office. If that’s true of African-American mayors, why would we expect any different from a white mayor, or governor, or president?

Today, Bush claimed full responsibility for the slow response after Katrina. That’s nice of him. It can’t hurt him because he’s not running for re-election, and it can’t help anyone because it’s just one of those hollow gestures. Bush may not like Black people, Kanye, but I’m guessing he’s insufficiently introspective to know it. He sees himself as everyone’s friend, and it would distress him to define himself in terms of bigotry. It means he would have to change, and change is uncomfortable, especially for a two term President of the United States.


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