Rupert Cornwell: The richest country on earth has failed lamentably to wipe out its racial and social evils

Share
Related Topics

Around the world, from its pedestal of self-appointed virtue, the United States inveighs against the evil of racial and sectarian divisions. Hurricane Katrina has shown how all the wealth and power of the richest country on earth has not succeeded in removing that blight from its own society.

New Orleans, admittedly, is a very special case. It has long been a byword for civic inefficiency and corruption. Such shortcomings are, however, masked by a beguiling blend of indolence, exoticism and fatalism, whether about potential floods or the material injustices of life. Therein lies the city's myth, and so much of its charm for white outsiders like Bush.

But the truth is different. Yes, blacks may run its politics (after all, African-Americans constitute two-thirds of the city's population, a reality which after the 1965 Civil Rights Act could no longer be denied). But the economic power that matters has always been in white hands. A third of the citizens of New Orleans citizens live below the poverty line, and they are overwhelmingly black.

Unlike on 14 September 2001, when he spoke at Ground Zero, during President Bush's visit to the stricken region on Friday, the son of privilege almost unerringly struck the wrong note. No one, it seemed, had told him about the extent of the devastation. His closest contact with the misery on the ground in New Orleans proper was from a few hundred feet aloft in his presidential helicopter. At one point he even waxed nostalgic about his boozing expeditions to the city of packaged sin, during his frat-boy youth.

But do not blame Bush alone. All presidents are symbols. This one symbolises the ever-growing inequalities of race and wealth in 21st-century America, that no amount of prattle about "compassionate conservatism" can bridge.

Would the authorities have been so inept to respond if a similar calamity had overtaken Boston, Cincinnati or some other prosperous city in the US heartland? Of course not. Would the government have waited five days to mount an all-out relief operation had the colour of the skin of those waiting in some God-forsaken sports arena been white, not black? Of course not.

The United States's habitual solution to the problem of race is to forget it - or to pretend that its black minority is a minority no different from the others that have flocked to the country in search of a better life. But the latter groups came of their own volition. The slaves did not. In America, natural disasters often lay bare this simple truth, and that is why floods, fires and hurricanes are apt to be followed by social and political upheaval.

There is much talk now - and a myriad deeds to prove it - of Americans' generosity and ability to come together in a time of trouble. But in the 10 years I have lived here, I have never seen America as uneasy with itself, as ashamed of itself, as it is now. Just as it has ripped trees from the ground and houses from their foundations, Katrina has torn away many of the country's comforting delusions about itself.

So will the tragedy of New Orleans really bring to its senses the sanctimonious, white-run America that preaches self-help and discipline as a substitute for social spending, and fortified by its sense of virtue, continues cutting taxes for the wealthy and aid for the poor? Don't count on it.

Oh, yes, the Congress will hold hearings into the débâcle when it returns from the summer recess this week - Washington has always excelled at allocating blame. But quickly the political agenda will return to inequality as usual. Next on the agenda of the Republican-controlled legislature will be cuts in Medicaid, the government health-care scheme for the neediest, and the elimination of the estate tax (what we call death duty).

Alas, George Bush is a stubborn man, who can still not even bring himself to admit that the relief effort has been so badly managed. Fortunately, the devastation caused by Katrina has not been shared by all - but the cost of repairing it surely should be. If ever there was a moment for increasing taxes on the better-off, rather than cutting them, and for expanding welfare and other aid for the least privileged in American society, it is now.

But much the same was true of the war in Iraq, a conflict for which 1,900 American soldiers have given their lives, but which has not touched the lives of 95 per cent of the citizenry. Katrina will be little different. The only Americans to make sacrifices are those - overwhelmingly black and poor - who suffered directly from the storm. Thus it has always been, and thus it will remain.

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher

Negotiable: Tradewind Recruitment: PMLD Teacher A specialist primary school i...

Recruitment Genius: Online Media Sales Trainee

£15000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Now our rapidly expanding and A...

Recruitment Genius: Public House Manager / Management Couples

£15000 - £20000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: Are you passionate about great ...

Recruitment Genius: Production Planner

£20000 - £30000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This fast growing reinforcing s...

Day In a Page

 

Political satire is funny, but it also causes cynicism and apathy

Yasmin Alibhai Brown
As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

As in 1942, Germany must show restraint over Greece

Mussolini tried to warn his ally of the danger of bringing the country to its knees. So should we, says Patrick Cockburn
Britain's widening poverty gap should be causing outrage at the start of the election campaign

The short stroll that should be our walk of shame

Courting the global elite has failed to benefit Britain, as the vast disparity in wealth on display in the capital shows
Homeless Veterans appeal: The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty

Homeless Veterans appeal

The rise of the working poor: when having a job cannot prevent poverty
Prince Charles the saviour of the nation? A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king

Prince Charles the saviour of the nation?

A new book highlights concerns about how political he will be when he eventually becomes king
How books can defeat Isis: Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad

How books can defeat Isis

Patrick Cockburn was able to update his agenda-setting 'The Rise of Islamic State' while under attack in Baghdad
Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

Judith Hackitt: The myths of elf 'n' safety

She may be in charge of minimising our risks of injury, but the chair of the Health and Safety Executive still wants children to be able to hurt themselves
The open loathing between Barack Obama and Benjamin Netanyahu just got worse

The open loathing between Obama and Netanyahu just got worse

The Israeli PM's relationship with the Obama has always been chilly, but going over the President's head on Iran will do him no favours, says Rupert Cornwell
French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

French chefs get 'le huff' as nation slips down global cuisine rankings

Fury at British best restaurants survey sees French magazine produce a rival list
Star choreographer Matthew Bourne gives young carers a chance to perform at Sadler's Wells

Young carers to make dance debut

What happened when superstar choreographer Matthew Bourne encouraged 27 teenage carers to think about themselves for once?
Design Council's 70th anniversary: Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch

Design Council's 70th anniversary

Four of the most intriguing prototypes from Ones to Watch
Dame Harriet Walter: The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment

Dame Harriet Walter interview

The actress on learning what it is to age, plastic surgery, and her unease at being honoured by the establishment
Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Art should not be a slave to the ideas driving it

Critics of Tom Stoppard's new play seem to agree that cerebral can never trump character, says DJ Taylor
Bill Granger recipes: Our chef's winter salads will make you feel energised through February

Bill Granger's winter salads

Salads aren't just a bit on the side, says our chef - their crunch, colour and natural goodness are perfect for a midwinter pick-me-up
England vs Wales: Cool head George Ford ready to put out dragon fire

George Ford: Cool head ready to put out dragon fire

No 10’s calmness under pressure will be key for England in Cardiff
Michael Calvin: Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links

Michael Calvin's Last Word

Time for Old Firm to put aside bigotry and forge new links