The independent news organization of Duke University

Playing the race card

On Tuesday Jan. 25, President George W. Bush addressed African-American leaders in an attempt to sell them on his new controversial proposals for reforming Social Security.

The president has been aggressively pushing his plan to partially privatize the federal programs and allow wage earners to divert some of their Social Security payroll taxes into private accounts. He stated that his proposal would particularly benefit blacks because 'African-American males die sooner than other males do, which means the system is inherently unfair to a certain group of people. And that needs to be fixed.'

So basically, because blacks die before they can collect all their Social Security benefits anyway, Bush"s plan is better. While President Bush is not especially well known for his eloquence or tact, as an African American I found his comments to be especially offensive and ultimately unconvincing when studied in more detail.

Bush"s argument that blacks don"t benefit equally from Social Security because of their death rate is not a new one, but it is one that has been effectively proved wrong by the Social Security Administration, AARP analyses and various economists.

If looked at on a superficial level, the fact that blacks die sooner than whites might lead one to naturally conclude that they receive less from Social Security, a program that kicks in at age 65. However there are many other factors that must be considered.

Bush"s argument doesn"t address the other features of the Social Security program which make up for the disparity in direct retirement benefits and are depended on by many blacks--disability and survivor benefits. African-Americans account for 18 percent of those receiving Social Security disability payments and 23 percent of children receiving survivor benefits. Also, Social Security pays lower-income workers more, relative to what they pay in, than higher-income workers, and blacks are paid less on average than whites.

According to Jeffrey Liebman, an associate professor of public policy at Harvard"s John F. Kennedy School of Government and former adviser to President Bill Clinton, this alone accounts for the gap caused by differences in death rates. He says that lower income people benefit more from Social Security because for them, the program often makes the difference between poverty and a decent standard of living.

Bush"s suggestion that for private Social Security accounts would especially benefit blacks is also flawed because many blacks" low incomes would prevent them from contributing significantly anyway. Charles B. Rangel, an African-American congressman who met with Bush last week and said he was 'really offended' by the remarks, pointed out that unless blacks have better economic prospects, private Social Security account will not help them. He told the president, 'You can"t get out what you can"t put in.'

Paul Krugman, an op-ed columnist in The New York Times, pointed out the misunderstanding of life expectancy numbers reflected in Bush"s argument in his Jan. 28 column entitled 'Little Black Lies.' He points out that while it is true that the current life expectancy for black males at birth is 68.8 years (compared to 75 for white males), that doesn"t always mean that a black man who has worked all his life can expect to die after collecting only a few years" worth of Social Security benefits. 'Blacks" low life expectancy is largely due to high death rates in childhood and young adulthood. African-American men who make it to age 65 can expect to live, and collect benefits, for an additional 14.6 years--not that far short of the 16.6-year figure for white men.'

Despite the many arguments against the theory that President Bush is advancing to gain African-American support for his policy, the thing that I find most despicable has nothing to do with the truth of his claims.

The most glaring problem with Bush"s arguments, one that screamed out at me and prevented me from understanding how his PR people allowed him to say these words to public, is that it explicitly presupposes the higher mortality rates for black Americans without making that fact itself a problem.

In fact, it indicates acceptance and acquiescence to the reality that blacks die sooner. When the president says that the system 'needs to be fixed' he is addressing Social Security--but what about the other overarching 'system,' the one where less access to healthcare, higher unemployment rates, lower wages, less access to education, higher occurrence of crime and poverty and institutional racism create the very environment where low black life expectancy is taken for granted?

Essentially, the president is taking advantage of the fact that blacks die sooner to push his own agenda, and blatantly so, for he did not even attempt to couch the crux of his argument in vague and convoluted language, as politicians often do.

If Bush were actually concerned about combating the problem of blacks living shorter lives, reforming their retirement plans does not seem like the best plan of action.

Perhaps focusing that attention on the environmental and financial factors which lead to staggering disparities would be a better start. The Census Bureau reports that 11 percent of whites do not have health insurance, compared to 20 percent of blacks.

A 2001 study by the University of Michigan found that in the poorest neighborhoods of Los Angeles, Chicago and New York, a 16-year-old black male could expect to die at 59 years old--15 years younger than the average white male his age. Blacks are 2.5 times more likely than whites to die in the first year of life. One CDC study found that homicide deducts about seven months from the life expectancy of the average black male. Black children die of asthma at about three times the rate of whites because of greater exposure to air pollution and less access to health care.

In 2000, the rate of new AIDS cases was 10 times higher in blacks compared to whites. The prevalence of diabetes is 70 percent higher among African Americans than among whites. Rates of death from cardiovascular disease are 30 percent higher among African American adults than among white adults. When it comes down to it, simply being African American is a risk factor. Bush has already accepted this, moved on, and tried to use it to his advantage.

These rates aren"t coincidental or natural, despite our president"s comfort with treating them as such; rather they result from systematic discrepancies in healthcare and education.

As Krugman pointed out, the president"s attitude ironically brings to mind some famous words he spoke not long ago when addressing his Democratic opponents. 'We are challenging the soft bigotry of low expectations.' Looks like the president has decided to make an exception in this case.

Amelia Herbert is a Trinity senior. Her column appears every other Thursday.

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