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post #1 of 1 (permalink) Old 09-06-2005, 12:14 AM Thread Starter
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Floods reaffirm ugly truth of racial divide

Floods reaffirm ugly truth of racial divide
September 6, 2005
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Katrina could end the careless pursuit of small government in the US, writes Jonathan Freedland.

THE waters flow in and the waters flow out, washing away all that once lay on the surface - and revealing what lies beneath. So it is with all floods in all places, but now it is the United States which stands exposed. And neither the US nor the world much likes what it sees.

The first revelation was not spoken in words, but written in the faces of those left behind. TV viewers could not help but notice it, and Americans could not deny it. The women pleading for their lives in handwritten signs, the children clinging to tree branches, the prisoners herded onto a jail roof - they were overwhelmingly black.

This will not be news to most Americans. They know that a racial divide still haunts their country, as it has from its founding. Race is America's fatal flaw, the weakness which so often brings it low.

Thomas Jefferson, the author of the Declaration of Independence, could see the danger. "I tremble for my country when I reflect that God is just. His justice cannot sleep forever," he wrote in 1785, reflecting on the crime that was slavery.

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Time and time again, the US has been forced to wake up to the racial injustice which has been its historic curse. It was the source of a civil war in the 19th century and of repeated battles through the 20th. From the desegregation and civil rights struggles of the 1950s and 1960s to the Los Angeles riots, the US has undergone periodic reminders that it is in the relationship between black and white that it has failed to honour its own, animating ideals.

Katrina has rammed home that message once more, with lacerating force. White Americans, who regarded New Orleans as a kind of playground, a place to enjoy the carnal pleasures, have learnt things about that city that they would probably have preferred not to know. They have discovered that it was mainly white folks who lived on the higher, safer ground, while poorer, black families had to huddle in the cheaper, low-lying housing - that race, in other words, determined who got hit.

They have also learnt that 28 per cent of the people of New Orleans live in poverty and that 84 per cent of those are black. Or that some people in that city were so poor, they did not have the money to catch a bus out of town - that race, in other words, determined who got left behind. Most Americans want to believe that kind of inequality belongs in the past. But Katrina has shaken them from that delusion.

They have had to face another painful truth. Their Government has proved itself incompetent. Yes, it could act quickly once it had decided to act - but it idled for days. This disastrous performance will surely saddle the remainder of George Bush's presidency, just as the botched Desert One rescue of US hostages from the besieged US embassy in Tehran hobbled that of Jimmy Carter.

Americans expect competence from their leader as a minimum requirement. And if an image of a crashed helicopter in the Iranian desert could undo one president, surely pictures of a US city reduced to a Somali or Bangladeshi kind of chaos spell disaster for this one.

But the shock may do more than shift perceptions of the Administration. For 25 years, the dominant US ideology has been to shrink the state. "Government is not the solution to our problem," declared Ronald Reagan. "Government is the problem." After decades of energetic government programs, from Franklin Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930s to Lyndon Johnson's Great Society in the '60s, the state was compelled to retreat. Taxes would go down and the Government would do less. Bush personifies that ideology with more vigour than anyone since Reagan. Yet now, after Katrina, the national mood might alter. Americans have seen where small government leads.

The authorities in Louisiana, including the military, pleaded long ago with Washington to reinforce the levees that were designed to save New Orleans from a great flood. The Army Corps of Engineers asked for $US105 million ($136 million): the White House gave it $US40 million.

It is conceivable that Americans will now call a halt to their quarter-century experiment in limited government - and the neglected infrastructure that has entailed. There are some tasks which neither individuals nor private companies can do alone - and evacuating tens of thousands of people from a drowning city is one of them.

The New York Times's resident conservative columnist, David Brooks, wonders if there could now be a "progressive resurgence". There is a precedent. After an earlier Louisiana disaster, the floods of 1927, there was public outrage that not a single federal dollar had gone to feed or shelter the victims; the army had even demanded reimbursement from the Red Cross for the use of its tents. From now on, the public resolved, the Federal Government would have to protect the vulnerable. That shift paved the way for the activism of Franklin Roosevelt and all that followed. Nearly 80 years on, history might be about to repeat itself.

The Guardian


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