Wednesday, October 26, 2005

Bringing Change?

Has the trauma of Katrina triggered, as many suggested it would, any significant change regarding how poverty, race, and inequality work in the United States? Or, at least, how they're discussed?

Robert Jensen says no:

...dramatic and painful images of black people packed into a sports arena-turned-shelter have tweaked the consciences of many. But tweaked consciences are notorious for lapsing back into complacency quickly when no political pressure is applied. Lots of well-off white people may have felt bad about what they saw in New Orleans, but such feelings are not morally admirable unless they lead to action that can change things. That means moving from an emotional reaction to a political analysis, and from speculation about whether things might change to a commitment to making things change.

Racism and racialized poverty in the United States are systemic and structural problems. They are not simply the result of confusion on the part of people in power; they are institutionalized. Progress comes when those systems, structures, and institutions change. That requires collective action, not individual fretting.

It’s true that the collective political project of overcoming racism is intertwined with the very personal struggle to overcome our complacency. It’s true that history can provide dramatic moments in which things can change quickly. But it is na├»ve -- to a degree that suggests purposeful ignorance -- to believe that a single emotionally charged experience such as viewing the images of racialized suffering in New Orleans will have a long-term effect on systems, structures, or institutions.

...These events don’t create change. Progressive change comes when people commit to take the risks necessary to push change.

The hand-wringing that the white affluent segment of the United States indulged in after the hurricane was a common way middle-class people deal with their sense of guilt when they are confronted by what they have largely chosen to ignore. But this problem is hardly unique to the United States. It happens in virtually every country in which some segment of the elite has convinced itself that the grotesque levels of inequality are acceptable.
I see echoes of what Jensen has to say in coverage of Rosa Parks' death. She was a valiant woman, no doubt, and virtually everyone in the mainstream looks upon her with pride and admiration nowadays. We're glad that she and others stood up to slay that nasty beast of formal racism and apartheid back in the sixties.

But today, unlike in the sixties when millions of people were willing to stick their necks out at great personal risk, few seem willing to step up to the plate and launch the sort of popular, mass movement needed to address issues related to social marginalization and apartheid in a neoliberal world.