Katrina, we are told, is all about â€œsecrets.â€ Legions of thinkers have discovered in last yearâ€™s hurricane an invaluable opportunity to preach a precious hidden wisdom on black urban history â€” a subject they eternally rue Joe Barstoolâ€™s ignorance of. Itâ€™s what I call their â€œSociology 101â€: the lesson that the reason so many black people are poor is a tragic cocktail of economic factors and white neglect that hit roughly between Eisenhower and Ford.
So: The poor black New Orleanians huddled last summer in the Superdome were done in when low-skill jobs left the city. The departure of middle-class blacks from the Lower Ninth Ward left poor blacks without role models. Crack cocaine was so cheap that young black men could not resist selling it instead of looking for legal jobs.
But the problem with this supposed wisdom is that it just doesnâ€™t hold water. Poor Chinese immigrants, starting in the late 1800s, were rigorously confined to small urban districts, and yet these were never anything like the New Orleans black ghettoes in terms of violence, unemployment, or out-of-wedlock births.
Despite the exodus of factory jobs from inner cities, immigrants have coped in the same neighborhoods by making their living in other ways: opening small businesses, driving cabs, and so on.
And a white middle-class Scarsdale kid could make more money selling drugs than in most other careers he might choose instead â€” but drug sales have not become a substitute economy in such towns. The difference between the ghetto black male who drifts into selling crack and the white Scarsdale kid who could not imagine doing so is a matter of what is considered normal in their respective communities.
The people arguing for Sociology 101 think that to stray beyond this liturgy can only mean assailing black people as somehow unfit: â€œblack bashing.â€ However, it is Sociology 101 that is â€œblack bashing,â€ in insisting that only the descendants of African slaves are incapable of making lemons out of lemonade as so many others do.
For example, in New Orleans, by the time Katrina hit, poor blacks had been coping with Americaâ€™s tilted playing field better and better over the past decade. In 1990, four times as many black families were living on welfare in New Orleans than were on the welfare rolls in 2002. However, this was because of the removal of the real reason so many blacks were so poor in places like New Orleans: In 1996, welfare was recast from a program paying people to have children into a job-training program with a five-year cap. The old â€œwelfare as we know itâ€ was a vast transformation in the late Sixties of a program originally intended for widows. It deep-sixed what had once been struggling but stable communities. Soon came the lawless black inner cities now so familiar, where barely anyone had a real father, working 9 to 5 was a sometime thing, and heedless boys killed one another in drug-trade turf wars.
The Sixties welfare ideology included a fashionable new Black Power component, which fostered the idea that subscribing to the White Manâ€™s norms was not â€œreally black.â€ Naturally, more black men felt less shame in living outside the law than before: Heroin was hardly unknown in black ghettoes in the old days and was priced accessibly, but did not become a staple grocery.
To treat it as a puzzle that black communities fell apart when hit by â€œwelfare as we know itâ€ and â€œKill Whiteyâ€ is like wondering what happened on a charred lot where only a chimney stands, refusing to consider that fire burned the house down â€” and insisting, instead, that the house must have fallen apart gradually because of heat, wind, and rain.
So, what Dan Baum in The New Yorker has described as the â€œobesity and missing teeth, the raggedness and strange Englishâ€ of so many Katrina victims on TV screens last year was a snapshot of a community just nine years past a 30-year public-policy carjacking. The catastrophe is only of true value to the race discussion if we understand that this, and not Sociology 101, was a â€œsecretâ€ Katrina revealed.
The received wisdom is that poor blacks had been â€œignoredâ€ until they turned up on TV in the Superdome. â€œThese citizensâ€™ plight had been ignored by the government and the national media for decades,â€ Baum continued. But come now â€” the Community Reinvestment Act of 1977, the CETA jobs program, the national debate after the Rodney King riots, Enterprise Zones, workfare, Bill Clintonâ€™s National Dialogue on Race, welfare reform, No Child Left Behind, the Faith-Based and Charity Initiatives â€” can we really pretend that Katrina is showing us that America has â€œignoredâ€ black poverty?
What Katrina revealed was the result of one especially unsuccessful attempt to address black poverty: 30 years of teaching poor black people not to work for a living.
The real â€œsecretâ€ Katrina has uncovered is the depths of spiritual self-doubt in the hearts of a tragic number of even successful black people, at a time when there are more middle-class black families than poor ones. Over the year since Katrina, I have encountered countless black panelists, talk-show hosts, and callers-in who consider it an unassailable fact that Katrina was â€œall about racism.â€
The truth is that FEMA, in its disarray, would have had trouble handling a water-main break in Hoboken, much less a hurricane in New Orleans. I find it entirely plausible that if a hurricane had hit Newport, R.I., instead, FEMA would have been equally unequal to the rescue task. One would think that 9/11 would suffice as proof: Al-Qaeda had been waging war for a decade, but the federal government didnâ€™t take it seriously enough until the day of disaster.
But many black people, despite obsessively covered counterevidence such as this, are utterly unable to imagine that the Bush administration could be inattentive to middle-class whites as well. They can see Katrina only in personal, racial terms. Early this year The Journal of Black Psychology published a study showing that black people who perceive racism as a significant problem in their lives tend also to exhibit signs of paranoia. People given to seeing Katrina as â€œall aboutâ€ racism are examples of the legacy that slavery and Jim Crow left to the black American psyche â€” a gnawing sense of inadequacy, which seeks compensation in the status of the noble victim. Another secret Katrina reveals, then, is that behind the rhetorical gusto in charges that Katrina was about racism lies profound insecurity.
The eager acceptance of Sociology 101 and its supposed demonstration by Katrina is itself rooted in self-doubt. Too often in black discourse, it is treated as some kind of victory to insist that blacks cannot compete. Even if Sociology 101 held up to examination, one would think black people would avoid embracing it out of pride, as families deny alcoholism or suicide in their histories â€” or as blacks are often reluctant to face the fact that most African slaves were sold to Europeans by African middlemen.
After all, upon what logical or moral authority can we stipulate that black Americans are the only group in human history for whom initiative must be treated as a dirty word? A common answer is that as involuntary immigrants brought here on slave ships, we cannot be expected to have the initiative that, say, Caribbean and African voluntary immigrants have. The problem is that legions of perfectly functional and/or successful black people disprove the idea that history has left blacks devoid of initiative. Most groups would take pride in that, and would viscerally resist the notion that there was something inherent in their group that made them unable to deal with the fact that life is unfair. They would search for other explanations as to why a segment of their people had lagged behind.
To embrace powerlessness as a group definition is, as human psychology goes, odd: It makes sense only among people who do not feel whole inside. For me, the most awful thing about Katrina has been watching innocent poor people having to pick up the pieces of their lives. But the second most awful thing has been watching so much of the black commentariat making it so clear that they have, as it is put in the Halls of Ivy, internalized the views of the oppressor â€” that is, Bull Connor got to them.
At one of the innumerable convocations on Hurricane Katrina over the past year, a panelist black or white has needed only to utter the term â€œsocietal racismâ€ to get applause â€” as if saying that and then going upstairs for wine and cheese were what the civil-rights revolution had been for. But we get nowhere if we let Katrina teach us that racism is all there is to attend to in poor blacksâ€™ past, present, or future. Yes, racism exists. No, the playing field is not completely level. But it never will be, and history records no group that made the best of itself with the mantra, â€œWeâ€™re not up to it.â€