This post is written in conjunction with the Feminist Ethics Course Dialogue project sponsored by Claremont School of Theology in the Claremont Lincoln University Consortium, Claremont Graduate University, and directed by Grace Yia-Hei Kao.
Christopher Carter is a Ph.D. student in Religion, Ethics, and Society at Claremont Lincoln University, and the Senior Pastor at Compton First United Methodist Church. His interests include Ecotheology, Critical Race Theory, and Christian Social Ethics.
“George Bush doesn’t care about black people!” Music artist Kanye West made these scathing remarks during the NBC telethon “A Concert for Hurricane Relief.” West’s anger toward George W. Bush was the result of the frustration that many people had regarding the lackluster federal response to Hurricane Katrina. Five days after Katrina West was asked to lend his star power to the relief effort. In those five days West, like many of us, watched the news broadcasts incessantly hoping to hear something positive; believing that our country – the United States of America – would not abandon any citizen in their time of greatest need. With the help of news broadcasts that portrayed the displaced African Americans of New Orleans as scavengers at best and criminals at worst, whatever hope the African American community had in our government had faded away. Thus we arrive at West’s assertion that “George Bush [i.e. the government] doesn’t care about black people.” As much as I agreed with this statement at the time it was made, reevaluating it in light of Nel Noddings seminal work Caring: A Feminine Approach to Ethics and Moral Education (1984) has caused me to reverse my opinion. Indeed, George W. Bush through the actions of the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA) showed the world that he did care about black people.
In Caring, Noddings examines the grounding and development of human moral action. Noddings claims that the process by which ethical decisions are made can be distinguished by gender. She argues that women, “as ones caring, are not so much concerned with the rearrangement of priorities among principles; they are concerned, rather, with maintaining and enhancing caring” (42). In contrast to the Kantian (or masculine) philosophy that moral decision-making must be grounded in a sense of duty rather than love or sentiment in order to maintain consistent application, Noddings admits that an ethics of care is relationally circumstantial – the closer you are to the person she calls the one-caring, the greater amount of care you will receive.
This line of thought pushes us to ask a relevant, albeit speculative question – how “close” was George Bush to the poor African Americans who found themselves stranded in post-Katrina New Orleans? Was he close enough to care? Care as it is expressed in Noddings is not an abstract sentiment: “it involves stepping out of one’s own personal frame of reference into the others. When we care, we consider the other’s point of view, his objective needs, and what he expects of us” (24). When viewed in this light the question of George W. Bush’s “closeness” to the displaced of New Orleans is circumstantial in that his ability to care seems to be dependent upon his relationships (both current and prior) with poor black people. While supporters of George W. Bush may point to his relationships with Gen. Colin Powel and Condoleezza Rice, judging from his remaining cabinet members and known acquaintances it isn’t a stretch to say that he “probably” didn’t have any poor people (let alone poor and black) in his relationship circle.
In this way, FEMA’s tortoise-like response to the Katrina disaster could be directly linked to George Bush’s caring about, rather than caring for, the poor black people in New Orleans. Noddings uses the expression aesthetical caring to describe “caring about” things or ideas. We care about those in Japan who are suffering from the effects of the tsunami, we care about orphans, we care about the poor. But an ethic of care involves limitations, and our obligation to care is “limited and delimited by relation” (86). In this way, “‘caring about’ always involves a certain benign neglect. One is attentive just so far, one affirms, one contributes five dollars and goes on to other things” (112). George Bush and the leaders of FEMA came, they waved to the crowd, they spoke of deploying the assets necessary to get the situation under control, they said they were “gonna help the people who need help” – they gave money, and then they left. Benign neglect may be too soft a description.
Given that our federally elected officials have limited contact (at best) with those who vote them into office, is it fair to even consider the nature of their relationships with citizens when analyzing their policy decisions? Simply put, yes it is. Consider your own relationships and how they affect your moral decision-making. Personally, I only cared about GLBT marriage rights until I cultivated relationships with specific individuals affected by the laws that grant unequal access to marriage. I only cared about homelessness until I started having real homeless persons stop by my church just to talk. I could go on and on, but the point I am trying to make is that Noddings is correct in her assertion that moving from caring about to caring for requires the creation of a relationship with the proximate other, someone who makes their way into our proximity of caring.
Some might argue that I am asking too much of our elected officials. How can they do their jobs effectively if they spend their time creating relationships with their respective communities? My answer to those critics would be, how could they do their jobs if they didn’t? How could they represent the needs of a particular community if they didn’t even know them? This requires more than visiting a soup kitchen at Thanksgiving. It requires genuine conversation with those who advocate on behalf of the poor and marginalized, it means that our officials must view these people as equals because they share a common commitment to care for their communities. In this sense, justice for the poor and marginalized in our country cannot be granted until our policy makers incorporate an ethic of care into our nations duty based policy making process.
Lastly, someone might argue that once we are adults or circle of relationships tends to shrink rather than expand. We find ourselves surrounded by people who look, think, and act as we do. I accept this criticism, however this doesn’t mean it is impossible to expand our circle of relationships. In an article in GQ Magazine, Devin Friedman wrote extensively about his attempt to find a “black friend” after he realized that his social circle had gotten too white. While it wasn’t easy, it did work. I’m not saying that our President or any other elected official should use Craigslist to create a new relationship. Rather, I am asking us to consider the following question: would you be willing to become a government official’s “poor” (or black/Latino/GLBT/Asian, etc.) friend if it meant they could learn the importance of caring for those whom they normally would not? Perhaps, it might be harder for them to make new friends than I initially thought…