For reasons good and bad - mostly bad - the media establishment has decided that Hurricane Katrina should be a "teaching moment" about race and class issues. One might be more inclined to think this is a teaching moment about our preparedness to respond to a major terrorist attack - presumably Osama Bin Laden isn't boning up on his Barbara Ehrenreich because of the fallout in New Orleans. But, hey, that's what the cognoscenti have decided.
And that's OK, I guess. One of the remarkable things about the Bush presidency is that all of his predictable enemies hate his guts even though the usual class and race cards haven't been dealt very much. Oh sure, the left doesn't like his tax cuts or his economic policies generally, but compared to the relentless class warfare assaults his dad or Ronald Reagan endured, Bush has gotten off nearly scot-free.
Meanwhile, race has been next to a non-issue during his presidency. Bush appointed better qualified and higher ranking blacks to his cabinet than anyone before him. He punted on affirmative action, for fear of sounding "insensitive." His "soft bigotry of low expectations" rhetoric on education sent the message that he cares. And despite the NAACP's best efforts to demonize him, Bush has avoided the usual traps set for Republican presidents.
So it should be no surprise that some folks feel the need to vent, particularly given the natural instincts for rage and blaming when we see those images from New Orleans.
But here's the problem: As of right now, all the demands for a "new conversation" or "national discussion" on race and class are fairly one-sided. This is the same old pattern. Liberals, white and black, lecture conservatives, white and black, about how conservatives are racist (or race traitors) if we don't agree with them. Anybody who lays any significant measure of blame with any but the usual culprits - institutional racism, white racism, white institutional racism, etc. - is denounced for "blaming the victim."
What we're hearing right now isn't even the sound of one hand clapping, it's the sound of one finger wagging. For example, New York Times columnist Nicholas Kristof informed his readers that the tragedy of New Orleans is almost entirely about poverty. He wrote that "in some ways the poor children evacuated from New Orleans are the lucky ones because they may now get checkups and vaccinations." He then proceeded to run through some of America's embarrassing statistics on immunization and the like, laying the blame firmly at Bush's feet.
Kristof's finger-wagging is indiscriminate, leaving out the fact that, for example, vaccination rates in the United States hit a record high on Bush's watch in 2004.
"If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets," he intones, "it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital."
Let's have no more of this nonsense. First, China requires parents to abort their "extra" children (the quota being reached at one). Perhaps that has something to do with the extra care Beijing's parents put into child-raising. Second, China is a very different place. The poor of Beijing are indisputably poorer than the poor of Washington, and yet they take their children to get immunized.
And this raises the larger point: Cultural factors are enormously important. For example, the U.S. vaccination rate for toddlers in 2003 was only seven points higher for those above the poverty line than it was for those below it. Whatever that says about America, it says more about culture than it does about class.
More to the point, since the days of the Great Society, the U.S. Government has thrown literally trillions of dollars at the poor. It undoubtedly helped some and it indisputably hurt others.
The people it hurt most are poor blacks, helping to erode social and family bonds. We are told, for example, that out-of-wedlock births are a uniform cultural phenomenon these days. This is simply a lie. Seventy percent of blacks are born out of wedlock, most of them poor. Murphy Brown notwithstanding, upper-income women overwhelmingly wait to get married before they have their kids. Nothing is a better predictor of a child's success in life than if he comes from a stable, two-parent family. It doesn't matter if they're rich or poor. The problem, as the University of Pennsylvania's Amy L. Wax recently noted in the Wall Street Journal, is that there's a shortage of poor black men willing to take on the serious responsibilities of marriage and parenthood. Of course, many are. But nowhere near enough of them.
Of course, welfare policies that encouraged family breakdown are not the only villain. We've witnessed a profound cultural transformation over the last 40 years, in which social and personal customs have been rewritten. In some case the increase in personal liberty has been welcome. In other cases it came at an enormous cost for those without the resources to cope when the bill for risky behavior comes due.
If we must have this "conversation" again. Let's start there.