He said Clinton's proposed commission to investigate the slow governmental response to Hurricane Katrina was "unnecessary" because "we know what caused it"a veiled reference to white racism and Republican neglect. He said the African Americans in prison were "victims of poverty" and so were the African-American single mothers of children born out of wedlock. And then, just for fun, he added that blacks need to investigate the "ravages of the Democratic Party and see if there's anything worth salvaging."
There is a thin line between righteous and self-righteous anger. An African-American friend, well acquainted with my political impatience, once said, "Joe, if you were black, you'd be in the streets with a machine gun." And so I can sympathize with Rangel and Belafonteto a point. White racism is the original American sin; it helped create the culture of poverty that exists in places like New Orleans' Ninth Ward. And George W. Bush's dominant Republican Party was reborn in racism, having sided with Southern segregationists in the 1960s. But the tendency of some black baby boomersthe civil rights generationto attempt to make gains by browbeating white people and ignoring the responsibility of the "victims" themselves has been a total loser. By alienating Middle America, they have helped "ravage" the Democratic Party. Their anger is irrelevant to the questions on the table: What can we as a society do to create opportunities for the poor? And, perhaps more important, how can we regain a national sense of community?
"This is a nation that can go from shock to trance in two weeks," Senator Obama said last week. The current debate on poverty is likely to blow away by the time hurricane season ends. But Katrina and Rita offer those who actually care about poor people a chance to rethink their strategy. Certainly it is time to move beyond victimhood and race-based aggrievement to something more intelligent and inclusive. There are nearly twice as many poor white people living in the U.S. as poor blacks; the black poverty rate diminished dramaticallyfrom 33.4% to 22.5%during the Clinton Administration (it has risen to 24.7% under Bush); and the recent increase in poverty has been most pronounced among Hispanics. The most effective thing the Congressional Black Caucus could do to fight poverty would probably be to invite white and Hispanic legislators who have significant numbers of poor people in their districts to join its ranks and rename itself the Congressional Antipoverty Caucus. One could also argue that the only way to build a coalition to fight povertyand preserve affirmative actionin this conservative era would be to base preferences on economic need rather than race.
People like Rangel and Belafonte might do well to listen more closely to the next generation of black leaderspeople like Obama and Congressmen Harold Ford of Tennessee, Artur Davis of Alabama and Sanford Bishop of Georgiawho emphasize both the need for more money to fight poverty and the need to change the behavior patterns of the poor. "Our priority has to be with whatever works, as opposed to the conventional wisdom within our group or our party," Obama said last week, adding that liberal and conservative solutions to poverty are not mutually exclusive. "It's not either/or. It's both/and."
It was painful watching Senators Obama and Clinton, both of whom may harbor presidential ambitions, sitting there politely as Belafonte attacked their proposals and their party. Democrats have suffered from a politically correctand rather condescendingunwillingness to speak truth to anger ever since the civil rights movement turned militant after the death of Martin Luther King Jr. The party has come to seem craven, weak and untrustworthy in the process. The only exception to this pathetic tradition was Bill Clinton's criticism of Sister Souljah's racist rap lyrics during the 1992 presidential campaign, a carefully planned gesture that was compromised by its transparency as a political tactic.
In spontaneous situations, like Belafonte's rant last week, the response is almost always paralytic silence. It would have been quite appropriate and humanand long past timefor either Clinton or Obama to push back, "Harry, do you think we'd have food stamps or Medicaid without the Democratic Party? Didn't you notice how life improved for the working poor after President Clinton passed the earned income tax credit? Tonight, when you're sipping Chablis in your New York City apartment, there will be thousands sleeping on cots in shelters. We're trying to help them. Your anger doesn't help."