Truth or Consequences


An administration that thinks the terms photo op and follow-up have more or less the same meaning was never going to be of much use to the people of New Orleans in their time of need. But the alacrity with which the feds began to abandon the city can only be owed to one thing: race. Could it be that when the rest of us saw the desperate people after the hurricane and thought that we must help them, those in power calculated that faces this angry, this hurt, and this black could not inspire the sustained sympathy of most of their fellow citizens? How else to explain the difference between the federal response in New Orleans and that on the Mississippi coast? The politics of race as a national strategy has a modern history of half a century, so someone is benefiting from it. And as Amitai Etzioni points out in his essay in this issue, “Leaving Race Behind,” even minorities themselves have something to lose if racial politics goes away. Still, Etzioni sees an opportunity for the nation to get beyond race, given the reluctance of the growing Hispanic population to be characterized in racial terms. Where could we begin such an ambitious course? Perhaps, Etzioni argues, with the federal government itself. Why not remove racial categories from the next U.S. Census, which would discourage the government and the rest of us from quantifying our racial differences?

In her article “On the Outside Looking In,” however, Nancy Honicker, an American academic in Paris, offers a note of caution. Because the French republic has such a firm official commitment to égalité, it outlaws the compilation of racial data for the general population. This would be noble if égalité were actually practiced in France. But the riots in November exposed the racial problems in French society just as Katrina did in ours. And thanks to the French government’s principled myopia, there is no reliable data on race with which to begin to address those problems.

In spite of his many trespasses against Oprah and the Republic of Letters, I feel just the smallest warm spot in my heart for James Frey. If nothing else, he made us look prescient as well as wise to be publishing William Zinsser’s new essay on how to write a memoir, which will be a chapter in a 30th anniversary edition of his classic book, On Writing Well. But Zinsser wrote the piece before the Frey uproar, in a simpler time when, Zinsser says, “It never occurred to me that I should mention that, above all, a memoir should be true. That’s the fundamental strength of the form.” Rousseau and Henry Adams and a few other others might offer some rebuttal, but our writer will have the last word here—at least for now.

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Robert Wilson's most recent book is Barnum: An American Life. He was the editor of the Scholar for more than 17 years.


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