Saturday, September 03, 2005

Katrina, Race, and Simple Answers

For several years, I was an assistant to the manager of a welfare office here in Houston, and one of my primary duties was to handle complaints that had gone beyond the unit level, and the person making the complaint wanted to speak to head honcho. I wasn’t the head honcho, but I was the closest that they usual got to him. One of the things I observed over time was how issues of race entered into these complaints.

Particularly, if the person making the complaint had been interviewed by a case worker of another race, they would often charge that racism had played a role in them not getting the benefits they wanted in the amount or in the time that they believed that they should have… but some times, they would make claims of racism even if the case worker was the same race. In those cases, they would claim there was a larger conspiracy to prevent their race from getting the right amount of benefits or timely service.

Black folks would tell me that if they were white, they would have been treated differently. White folks would tell me if they were black, they would have been treated differently. Hispanic folks would tell me that if they were white or black, they would have been treated differently. I have spoken with many people of other races who also work in government bureaucracies, who have have observed this same phenomenon

I had the advantage of knowing the bureaucracy, the policy, and the people involved, and I know that race had nothing to do with it. Regardless of the race of the people they dealt with, Case workers invariably just wanted to stay on top of their work, get cases finished, and not be cited with an error by a quality control auditor for having worked the case incorrectly. However, there were policies that often prevented people from getting what they wanted… and often those policies did not make sense even to us. There were also staff shortages and work load issues that resulted in people not having their cases completed timely. Race was not the issue, but what I came to conclude was that when things do not make sense, and people feel ill-treated, people look for simple explanations that explain why. And unfortunately race is one of the first things we notice about people that we do not know, and so it is also one of the first things to get blamed whenever we have a negative experience interacting with people of other races.

In less politically correct times, it use to be said that all Chinese people look alike. My wife tells me that Chinese people have said the same thing about white people. In fact, in Vietnam, I recall hearing about an American GI that was convicted of some crime on the basis of the testimony of some Vietnamese civilians. He was later proven to be innocent, but when asked why they identified him as the one who had committed the crime, they said "How can you tell one from another? They all look alike." Of course, if you aren’t use to seeing Asians, their distinctive features are all that you notice. However, if you spend a lot of time around Asians, and get to know them, soon you discover that they don’t all look alike.

Likewise, if a white man were to car jack another white man, the first thing the white man would be thinking was not that all white people were not to be trusted, but rather than some dirty scumbag had stole his car. However, if a black man car jacked him, he would be far more likely to reach conclusions about black people in general. The same is true in reverse.

Prejudice, to some extent, is a survival characteristic that is hard wired in our brains. If we eat pickled herring, and we get sick, we will likely be prejudiced against that kind of fish. That would be less likely to happen, if we had been eating pickled herring all of our life. We would be more likely able to distinguish between the bad experience with that particular pickled herring, and pickled herring in general. If we run across a skunk, and trying to pet it, we will likely be prejudiced against skunks for life. However, as rational human beings, we should be aware of this tendency towards hasty generalizations based on particular experiences, and resist that temptation when it comes to entire groups of people.

Certainly, we should expect that elected representatives would have more sense than to encourage such prejudice.

In Houston, all Houstonians are moved by the suffering they see. Everyone is asking what they can do to help. Millions of dollars were raised on a radio station in the space of a few hours, at the spur of the moment. Whites, Hispanics, Asians, Blacks, and all the various combinations thereof that make up Houston are trying to help all of those who are streaming into our city in need of help. People are opening up their homes to complete strangers.

In New Orleans, rescuers of all stripes are risking their lives to save people of different races. Just as with Americans on the battlefield, people are willing to die to save people that have neither race, nor creed in common with them.

What a shame it is then, to see certain Democrats trying to make political hay by taking the cheap political shots of accusing people of being racists. How completely anti-American this is.

Those who are suffering, are suffering not because they are black, pink, or green, but because of a natural disaster that turned out to be more devastating than was originally thought, and a large bureaucracy has had many inexplicable inefficiencies and simply mishandled many aspects of the disaster… which of course pundits, sitting safely on their butts can analyze and comment on, as if they would have handled it so much better had they been the ones actually trying to organize such a massive effort, in a chaotic situation, made worse by the “Big Easy” "laissez les bon temps rouler [Let the good times roll]" attitude that makes Louisiana both charming, and irritatingly French (and all that goes with being French).