George W. Bush has been unfairly tagged with the label “racist” in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. It’s true that the response of the government — at all levels, but especially the federal government and it’s feeble emergency agency — was inadequate and incompetent, and that the poor suffered the most, and that the poor of New Orleans are disproportionately black. It’s also true that Bush displayed an appalling lack of basic human compassion in his slow reaction to the suffering.
But our president is almost certainly not an overt racist. He’s just a run-of-the-mill overly privileged American who appears to have no soul. I’m reasonably sure he doesn’t harbor ill will for anyone based solely on race. Instead — like many people in similar positions and status — he’s incapable of understanding how race and class structure life in the United States. His privilege has not only coddled and protected him his whole life, but also has left him with a drastically reduced capacity for empathy, and without empathy one can’t be fully human.
This is not a partisan attack; such a soulless existence is not a feature of membership in any particular political party. Nor is it exclusive to men. Though we tend to assume women will be more caring, this deficiency among the privileged crosses gender lines; probably the most inhuman comment by a public figure after Katrina was made by the president’s mother, Barbara Bush. After touring the Astrodome stadium in Houston, where many who were displaced by the disaster were being warehoused, she said, “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this — this is working very well for them.”
In our president all we see is an extreme version of a more general problem in an affluent but highly unequal society, in which people on the top have convinced themselves they are special and therefore deserve their positions.
For his entire life, Bush has sat on the very top of the privilege pile. He is white in a white-supremacist society; a heterosexual man in a patriarchal culture; born into wealth in a capitalist economy; and a U.S. citizen in a world dominated by his nation. In the identity game, it’s hard to get a better roll of the dice.
The downside to all this for folks like Bush is that privilege doesn’t guarantee intelligence, empathy, wisdom, diligence, or humanity. Privilege allows people without those qualities to skate through life, protected from the consequences of being dull-witted, lazy, arrogant, and inhumane. The system of privilege allows failed people to pretend to be something more. And, unfortunately, that system often puts those failed people in positions of power and forces everyone else to endure their shortcomings.
That’s probably the most pressing race problem in the United States today — a de facto affirmative-action program for mediocre middle- and upper-class white men that places a lot of undeserving people in positions of power, where their delusions of grandeur can have profound implications for others. If the deficiencies of George Bush and people like him were simply their problem, well, most would find it hard to muster much sympathy. But they become our problem — not just the United States’, but the world’s problem — when such folks run the world. Let’s go back to Bush’s resume.
Whatever one’s ideology or evaluation of Bush policies, it’s impossible to ignore how race, gender, class, and nation privilege have worked in his life. By his own admission, Bush was a mediocre student, gaining access to two of the most prestigious universities in the United States (Yale and Harvard) through family connections, not merit. His lackluster and incomplete service in the Texas Air National Guard during the Vietnam War was, to say the least, not the stuff of legend that will be told and retold around the family hearth.
After that he went into the oil business, where he also failed. He then used money he had managed to take out of a failed oil endeavor to buy into the Texas Rangers baseball team, his one great “success” in the business world. From there, despite having no relevant experience, he was molded by Republican Party operatives into a successful gubernatorial candidate. After a thoroughly uninspired first term, he was re-elected governor before moving on to the White House, where the most successful public-relations team in U.S. political history has kept him afloat despite two illegal and failed wars, a frightening rise in the national debt, tax cuts for wealthy that have contributed to the gutting of the already weak social safety net, and most recently the criminally negligent response to Hurricane Katrina.
Welcome to the United States of Meritocracy. How is it that a society can hold onto fantasies about level playing fields and equal opportunity when every day we turn on the television sets and see Smiling George the Frat Boy President?
The problem, of course, isn’t limited to Bush; he’s a fraud, but only one of many. In my life I have worked in offices of the federal government, non-profit organizations, for-profit corporations, and universities. In each, I have seen mediocre white men rise to positions of power for reasons that have more to do with the informal networks based on identity than on merit.
No doubt, as a white man, my own career has been aided by this system. I also have seen women and non-white people advance by playing a similar game, but far less often and typically only when they internalize the value system of the dominant culture.
That does not mean there are no white men who are talented and hard-working or who do not deserve the success they have achieved. It is only to recognize that this system of unearned privilege will regularly put into positions of power people who are unfit for the duties they take on. That means — independent of the strong moral argument for equality and justice — subverting a system of white supremacy and white privilege is in all our interests. In fact, the fate of the world may depend on it.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center, http://thirdcoastactivist.org/. He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books). He can be reached at [email protected] .