It is possible that the most stunning story of the past week is not the brutal midterm loss suffered by the Democrats but the release of former President George W. Bush’s memoir, Decision Points, and his attendant book-promoting public appearances.
Sitting with NBC’s Matt Lauer, President Bush breezily defended his use of waterboarding torture, explaining that he relied on the judgment government attorneys who advised him the practice was legal. He also told Oprah he was "sick" about not discovering weapons of mass destruction in Iraq, but he went onto confidently assert that the world is better off without Saddam Hussein. But for me the jaw-dropping, headline-making revelation of this week is President Bush’s assertion that the low point of his presidency came when 33-year-old hip-hop artist Kanye West went off-script during a Hurricane Katrina benefit concert, looked into the camera and asserted, "George Bush doesn’t care about black people."
Of this moment the president writes:
I faced a lot of criticism as president. I didn’t like hearing people claim that I lied about Iraq’s weapons of mass destruction or cut taxes to benefit the rich. But the suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all-time low.
Public outrage about the president’s assessment of this moment as a definitive low is both predictable and understandable. After all, one might expect that thousands of American deaths and the brutal entrance of the United States in the terrorist age on September 11, 2001, would be a reasonable moment to recall as the worst of his presidency. The economic devastation of 2008 is also a good candidate, as are the disgusting disclosures about American troops dehumanizing and torturing detainees at Abu Ghraib. Even if Hurricane Katrina were the defining event, many might expect the president to view the terrible loss of life, breathtaking destruction of property, and massive displacement of American citizens in the aftermath of the levee breach as worse than with the singular assessment of a young, if vocal, critic.
Still, I think there is a lesson in the President’s anxiety about having been labeled racist. It is a lesson about America’s relationship to race and racism and one that might help us better understand our own history, motivations, anxieties and political choices.
President Bush describes Kanye West’s statement as his presidential low, a personal nadir. Recall that the nadir of American history is the time between 1877 and World War I. These are the decades immediately following the end of Reconstruction. After fighting a brutal and bloody war to preserve the Union and to end intergenerational chattel slavery, American Reconstruction lasted for an astonishing decade from 1866–1876. These were some of America’s greatest years in terms of the nation’s willingness to pursue the vision of the founding documents. In these years black men ran for and held office, black families gained a toe hold as property owners, black and white laborers experimented with cooperative organizations and former Confederates were expected to accept that black people were full citizens.
But the 1876 presidential election provoked a crisis in the transition of national leadership (not unlike that of Bush v. Gore 2000). In response, America’s political parties chose backroom bargaining and partisan power-sharing over American ideals. Together they cut a deal that allowed Rutherford B. Hayes to ascend to the American presidency in exchange for an immediate end to Reconstruction. The parties were hastened and supported in this choice by the vocal and angry organizing of white Americans in the North and South. The visible evidence of black citizenship embodied in black male office-holders, black voters and black property ownership disgusted, angered and terrified white Americans who felt their grip on power slipping away under the policies of a strong, empowered, national government. They argued for states’ rights, organized into klans, created racist cultural images, spread rumors of black criminality and decried economic competition by new laborers. These white Americans called themselves patriots and pressured both parties to abandon strong central government by ending Reconstruction.
With this 1877 compromise America plunged in the nadir. The decades of the nadir are marked by unthinkable racial terror, the destruction of black civil and political rights, the erosion of black economic capacity, the imposition of segregation, and the violent assertion of white supremacy as a governing norm. This is America’s most shameful chapter. Her nadir. Her low point. Perhaps because the tentacles of the nadir reach so deeply into the twentieth century, it is a period that retains an unmatched ability to shame contemporary Americans. Even a causal encounter with the fully documented, indisputable and indescribable racial horrors of those decades annihilates American triumphalism that asserts the United States as a unique and consistently free and equal nation. As late as 1944, Swedish economist Gunnar Myrdal described racism as the American Dilemma. Racism and its material effects on the lives of black Americans have always stood in direct contrast to an American creed that emphasizes liberty, equality and fairness.
Empirically, racism may be as American as apple pie, but morally, ethically and philosophically, racism is a betrayal of America. In this sense, when Kanye West pointed to the Bush administration’s non-response as an act of racism, he called Bush a traitor.
West was not the only one who felt this way. More than 80 percent of black Americans reported in a November 2005 national survey that they believed America’s responses to Hurricane Katrina would have been faster if the storm’s victims were mostly white. Black Americans were not alone in this assessment of the racial lessons of Katrina. On September 8, 2005, The Economist described the aftermath of Katrina as "The Shaming of America." Americans take great pride in understanding themselves as a prosperous, just and fair nation steeped in relative equality and uncompromised liberty. The televised dehydration deaths of elderly, black people in a major urban center did not fit this triumphant narrative.
The disconnect between American identity and racial suffering was clear in the images of Katrina survivors who called on their government as citizens but were rhetorically relegated to the status of refugees. Parnell Herbert, a New Orleanian and Katrina survivor whose story is recorded in the oral history text, Overcoming Katrina: African American Voices from the Crescent City and Beyond, explains that even the visual images of Katrina told the story of black Americans laying claim to their rights as citizens. He says: "Something that really surprised me was the number of African-Americans in New Orleans who had large American flags in their homes. Were they flags that once draped a loved one’s casket?"
This is the shame that leads President Bush to assess West’s comments as his personal nadir.
And President Bush is technically accurate. In the weeks following Katrina the Pew Research Center conducted a national survey and found that 67 percent of Americans believed that President Bush could have done more in his handling of the relief effort and nearly 60 percent rated the response of the federal government as only fair or poor. The Katrina disaster also caused many Americans to reconsider the nation’s security, with 42 percent reporting that the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina made them feel less confident that the government can handle a major terror attack. In the aftermath of the hurricane, job approval ratings for President Bush plummeted and never fully rebounded. In 2006 the Democratic Party won a majority in the House of Representative and the Senate. In 2008 Democrats won the White House. These 2006 and 2008 Democratic wins were, in part, about a repudiation of President Bush as incompetent in the face of domestic disaster and foreign war, but they were also fueled by an American desire to rewrite the narrative of racial inequality to which Katrina so forcefully reintroduced them.
In a previous article for The Nation, my husband, James Perry, and I argued that the racial angst caused by the visible, televised, disproportionate suffering of black Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina was one motivating cause for Americans’ embrace of Senator Obama in 2008. We wrote:
Not only did the Bush administration’s bureaucratic failures in response to Katrina give Democrats a way to effectively critique Iraq but the racial politics of Katrina temporarily and jarringly reawakened America to the painful realities of racial inequality. A yearning to soothe this national shame and heal the gaping racial wound that was reopened by Katrina is partly responsible for America’s enthusiastic embrace of Barack Obama. American willingness to confront racial injustice dissipated as quickly as Bush’s promises to rebuild the city, but Katrina had awakened a deep desire to prove that America is not a nation marred by racism.
And so it was that the televised suffering of black New Orleanians was part of the extraordinary path walked by the first black person to be elected president of the United States. But the American racial story did not end on January 20, 2009. We did not enter into a post-racial America. We carried with us into this new moment all the shame, anxiety and inequality of our nation’s long history.
As an observer, I find the 2010 midterms uncomfortably familiar to the era of Redemption that followed Reconstruction. Current calls for small government and states rights during the administration of a black president sound suspiciously like nineteenth-century efforts to weaken the state so that racial terror could be enacted with impudence against the black men who were then governing. After the aggressively anti-immigrant and more subterranean anti-black sentiments of the healthcare debate and the midterm election, I have wondered if we lost our ability to be shamed by open displays of cultural bigotry and political action motivated by white anxiety.
In this sense I welcome President Bush’s comments. At my most optimistic, I can read his comments as an assertion that nothing is more harmful than racism, nothing more embarrassing, nothing more un-American, nothing we must more fully and completely renounce. I know that is not exactly what he said, but I take a glimmer of hope from the idea that President Bush has reminded us that to be called a racist is not a badge of honor.