What's All This Then?

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Friday, September 16, 2005

It’s a little bit like the O.J. Simpson case - but with a difference. When his not guilty verdict was announced, it was greeted with dismay by a majority of whites and with joy by a majority of blacks. Whites thought the evidence was compelling and couldn’t believe that any jury wouldn’t see it the same way. With blacks, I’m not sure that it was because they agreed that he wasn’t guilty as much as they felt that it was some kind of victory by a poor, downtrodden black man over a racist society. Of course Simpson was the antithesis of poor and downtrodden, but reality had nothing to do with how they viewed the trial and its outcome, particularly after Simpson’s lawyers introduced a sub-text of racism and put the Los Angeles police department on trial for use of the "N" word.

And now here we go again.

A national poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press found the same kind of differences in how people felt about the government’s response to Katrina. Had the majority of the victims waiting to be rescued been white, would the response have been quicker? 66% of blacks said yes. Only 17% of whites polled agreed. Did race make any difference in the speed of the government’s response? Of course not said 77% of white respondents. 27% of blacks polled agreed. Both about the same distance apart in what they believed.

What can we make of this? Can we extrapolate from what people of different skin pigment believed about the response of FEMA and DHS to come close to the truth about what actually happened? About whether race did or didn’t play some role in the slowness of those agencies to act? Actually, I think we can.

If we can assume that truthful answers were given to the pollsters, we can also assume that if those who said that race made no difference in the speed of the government response were those doing the responding, they would have done so with as much speed as they were capable of mustering without regard to the color of the beleaguered citizens. Most likely, if the thought of race didn’t even enter their minds as they went about their duties, they wouldn’t have been that aware of the racial make up of the people they were helping. They would have known it subliminally of course as they encountered seas of black faces. But it wouldn’t have been something they took into account at a conscious level as they began deploying people and equipment and supplies. Certainly it wouldn’t have made a difference in the speed of that deployment.

Polls can sometimes produce an incorrect result - but not often. So there is a high probability that the white people answering the Pew poll were reflective of the white people who headed up and worked for DHS and FEMA - and unless you want to believe that there is a lingering degree of subconscious racism in most white people that would cause them to discriminate against people of color without them even knowing it, there is no reason to believe that federal employees who happen to be white are any different from the rest of us. There may even have been some FEMA and DHS employees among the population that Pew used for this poll.

I do not dismiss out of hand the notion that a person can be influenced by a bias that he doesn’t even know he has - and would vehemently deny he has if you were to suggest it as a possibility. Indeed I have known people who I believe were anti-Semitic without knowing it at a conscious level. And I’m sure the same thing applies to race. We are all influenced by our history whether we like it or not - and some things become ingrained in populations and in individuals. They become part of our thought processes and our language. But there is no evidence that any sub-conscious bias was at work here.

The sad thing that this and similar polls reveal is the difference in perception between what blacks and whites think about each other. But perception is not reality. The reality is that the FOGS or FOFOGS running FEMA and DHS would have responded the same way if New Orleans had been populated by gay Martians.

Here’s a question that the Pew people should have asked and that I would recommend they ask if they do any more polling on this subject:

If the President of the United States had been an African American version of George Bush - a conservative with similar values and management style to Dubya’s - but with a black skin - and if maybe the head of either FEMA or DHS was also a black man whose background was similar to that of either Michael Chertoff or Michael Brown, do you think the Federal response to the victims of Katrina would have been any different?

Asked that way, I think you’d find very little disparity between the answers of black and white respondents, because the potential for racial bias by a majority against a minority has been removed in that scenario. Unless of course some of the black respondents are themselves avowed racists. Whitey haters. That would screw up the poll results big time.

I prefer to think that the attitude of both races in this tragedy is better reflected in my post of September 14 than any kind of poll. The leter from a bookseller in from Austin. Worth reading more than once.