In conversation this week with a fellow student at UMCP, I brought up the subject of the government's commendable decision to distribute $2,000 debit cards to Hurricane Katrina victims so that they can purchase food, shelter, and other essentials. To my surprise, he expressed skepticism that the policy would do any good. Why not, I asked? This student, whom I otherwise respect and well like, said to me (ensuing quotes recalled to the best of my memory) "Come on, you don't really expect these people to spend the money on food, do you? They'll just use it to buy booze!"
Give me a break, I laughed. If I'd been through all that they've been through this past week, I'd need a stiff drink too! My partner insisted, however, that he was not joking. "Think about it," he said to me, "They're black and they're poor. They're from the New Orleans ghetto. How do you think they got there in the first place? They're hooked on booze." Shocked, I realized he wasn't joking at all and my good humor deserted me. I vehemently refuted his offensive and ridiculous statement, and so ended the conversation.
Now you can say, yes, it's not a big deal. The fellow in question is definitely a nice and decent guy, and his views are definitely held by a minority of people on this campus and in this country. But that doesn't make it OK. It wasn't acceptable for former first lady Barbara Bush to say, as she did this past week, that owing to the fact that many Katrina victims were poor, the storm is "working very well for them."
All my life, I can remember being surrounded in a multi-cultural environment, even as my family moved up the rungs of the economic ladder. I'd always thought of racism as a relic discarded in the '60s, in much the same way I used to think sex discrimination was behind us after the '70s. We had the Civil Rights Era, I thought, and now we live in the Enlightened Era where surely no one in America holds on to those antiquated and poisonous notions of race. (Or religious discrimination either, but a post-9/11 world has shattered that belief as well.) Since coming to college last year, I've encountered, almost for the first time, people who have not had the benefit of exposure to many different kinds of people, and whose prejudices reveal it.
My high school, Montgomery Blair HS of Silver Spring, MD, was an amalgamation of 3,000+ white, black, Hispanic, and Asian students: seemingly every group was well-represented--white suburbia; English as a Second Language (ESL) immigrants; middle-class Asian children of immigrants; the majority African-American population of the area; gay, straight, or ambiguous; jocks, theater players, and dorks; rich, poor, or in between. We may not have all had the same circle of friends or known each other intimately, but we were all at least aware of the conditions each of us existed in, and we were brought together by the awareness of the common experience we were sharing.
I don't think it must have ever occurred to the guy I mentioned above that poverty is not indicative of slothliness and alcoholism. Some people--in fact, a lot of people that we don't give much thought to--work hard all their lives just to secure that bare minimum to get by on. It's easy to forget that while we're coasting on to our assumed future success while attending a high-priced university, we're the fortunate ones. Would that we were all so lucky!
Somehow, I understood just what Richard Cohen meant when he lamented that Chief Justice nominee John Roberts was "too perfect to know the people." He wasn't suggesting that Roberts should have lower educational qualifications or that Roberts was bigoted or anything like that. Cohen was referring to the obvious disparity between the lives of our elected officials and those of the majority of people they represent. There are in fact "Two Americas", as John Edwards would say. If we've learned anything from Katrina, it's that we musn't let the former get out-of-touch with the needs and concerns of the latter. The type of unfamiliarity I've seen displayed lately isn't just unseemly; it can be costly.