Do populist conservatives care about their fellow countrymen? If so, you would think that they would oppose discrimination against their fellow countrymen and thus welcome a memo by the Department of Justice with the intent of decreasing discrimination in the response to the flooding in Louisiana.

Shockingly, that is not how populist conservatives reacted at all. “President Mob Boss sends message to flood-hit Louisiana,” Liberty Unyielding blared. “Obama Just Sent An Offensive Memo To Louisiana Flood Victims,” The Federalist shouted. “Obama irks La. flood victims with memo warning them not to discriminate,” the conservative Washington Times reported.

Offensive. Right, because populist conservatives are so politically correct that they would never want to “offend” anyone.

Rod Dreher, an author for The American Conservative, pretty well summarizes the reactionary mindset (in his own mindset) behind the people who are offended by anti-discrimination messages. Offended by a simple piece of guidance about federal law and best practices in disaster response. He accuses the so-called “elites” of being “out-of-touch” with “average Americans” (quote marks and choice of wording is mine — those phrases can’t exist without quote marks).

What he wrote directly was:

It’s like, Is that really what you think of us? That we’re just a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate?

It’s like: The people of your Louisiana are not our countrymen, they’re aliens whose bizarre emotions we must attempt occasionally to anticipate and manage.

(Italics his.)

And yet, according to the memo the Department of Justice sent, there were documented instances of discrimination in the disaster response to Hurricane Katrina and Hurricane Rita.

In one case:

A federal court found evidence of intentional discrimination in actions by St. Bernard Parish, which neighbors New Orleans, when the parish sought to restrict rental housing opportunities, including actions to halt the development of rental housing and enacting a permit requirement for single-family rentals that exempted renters who were “related by blood” to the homeowners. Additionally, the parish changed zoning rules to reduce the availability of rental housing, which was widely perceived in the parish as being planned to house African Americans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Because of these actions, the parish faced a HUD initiated investigation, a DOJ lawsuit, and several private lawsuits alleging violations of the Fair Housing Act and it ultimately paid more than $5 million in damages and attorneys’ fees to settle the cases.

I throw the question back at Dreher, since he raised it, Are the people of your Louisiana your countrymen? Do you feel black Louisianans should have had access to housing rentals in St. Bernard Parish? If so, what do you have against the DOJ trying to make sure they do?

There are a lot of examples cited that allege discrimination against blacks and Latinos in disaster responses that were “not limited to Hurricane Katrina” and also not limited to the South. Examples from Hurricane Sandy and wildfires in California in 2007 were cited as well. If one went through the examples one by one, one might be able to find some that they think are not accurately construed or that aren’t really discrimination. (Is the fact that the rate of auto ownership, which is cited in the memo, different among different ethnic groups an example of racial discrimination, for example?)

That is not Dreher’s intent. Dreher assumes the accusations of discrimination having taken place are true.

The administration says in the memo that there is ample evidence from Katrina, Rita, and disasters elsewhere that agencies at the local level discriminated against minorities.

If true — and I assume it is — the administration is right to be watching out for this. It shouldn’t have happened, and it must not happen again.

So, once again, why is the administration wrong to be watching out for discrimination?

Back to the first quote:

…and it must not happen again. But man! After spending a day in a shelter and around the city watching local law enforcement, the National Guard, and others busting their butts to help people of all races, to see that memo made me furious. It’s like, Is that really what you think of us? That we’re just a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate?

In short, he appears to have done a 180 degree turn just after having said the administration should watch out for discrimination. They should watch out for it, “but man” were they wrong to have sent a memo putting the area and the responders on alert to be watching out for it. You will notice that Dreher didn’t actually cite any evidence or argument as to why they shouldn’t have sent that memo, considering that he assumes allegations of past discriminatory practices in disaster response are true, but just that it appears to have hurt his feelings or those of others. It was, in short, “offensive.”

Dreher is not a Trump-voter, but many of the blogs that expressed the most outrage about the DOJ memo are very pro-Trump and supportive of his so-called “anti-PC” agenda. Dreher did praise Trump for supposedly having shown “respect” by having visited the flooded area and posing in front of cameras.

Dreher’s characterization of the memo is, of course, inaccurate. Since it included references to alleged discrimination that took place at disasters spread around the country, it could not accurately be taken to imply that Louisianans are “a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate.” Examples from the response to Katrina did, however, make up a large amount of the examples. If one assumes that all the discrimination was egregious and motivated by explicit racism, then yes, there were some bigots who are prone to discriminate. To admit that you “assume” discrimination happened but then be outraged at the idea that some Louisianans discriminated is to believe in discrimination without discriminators.

Since Louisiana is a state with more than one person living in it, and more than one person was involved in the response, saying that discrimination happened isn’t saying that everyone involved discriminated. In some instances the memo cited local governments engaging in allegedly discriminatory practices. In some instances it cited actions by private individuals.

But here we get to a bigger problem with many conservatives’ views towards race and discrimination, and that is that they assume all discrimination must be explicitly racist, and thus they take an offended view at any suggestion that they or someone they identify with might have engaged in discrimination.

“Police officers don’t wake up every morning thinking about how they can kill black men and get away with it,” is a line that many conservative blogs have written variations on. It’s a straw man. Serious people who argue that police or others harbor implicit bias against black men that results in them being shot at a high rate do not argue that most officers are murderous Klansmen but rather that an officer who is entering a tense situation and fearing for his safety might be just a little bit more scared and a little bit more likely to pull the trigger when he encounters a black male suspect. That happens at a subconscious level. That’s how the argument goes. It may be hard to definitively prove the argument in practice, and it may even be that if it is true there that is little that can be done to change the subconscious workings of the brain, and it may be true, too, that to whatever degree it does happen, #BlackLivesMatter has vastly exaggerated the scale of the problem. Those topics that can be discussed and disputed, but to raise these straw man arguments about what serious critics of the police are saying is to avoid the actual issue.

When you get to talking about disaster response, you have the possibility of these subconscious biases manifesting themselves, but you also have a lot of factors about the law. Discrimination in the legal sense is regulated by laws, laws like Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, and court rulings and precedents. Zoning laws come into question and what kinds of effects those laws could have on different populations. It is much more complex than how “discrimination” is used in the colloquial sense of non-lawyers, so it stands to reason that a lot of well-meaning, unbiased, ordinary people would need guidance on how to engage in disaster response in accordance with those laws.

St. Bernard Parish had to pay out $5 million as a result of being found in violation of those laws for a policy that the implementers theoretically could have felt wasn’t straight up discrimination. Would Dreher like to see cities and counties in his own community have to pay out $5 million in damages? Would he like to see them either discriminate or be accused of discrimination and spend money on it? I would assume not, so he ought to be glad that the people involved in the rescue efforts have access to information that could help them.

And if they aren’t “a bunch of rednecks dying to discriminate,” then they should be glad, too, to be reminded of what the law means in theory and practice.

Feature photo of Hurricane Katrina flooding photographed by US Navy.

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