Hurricane Katrina has thrust the twin issues of race and poverty at President Bush, who faces steep challenges in dealing with both because of a domestic agenda that envisions deep cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and relationships with many black leaders frayed by years of mutual suspicion.
In the storm's aftermath, the White House has been scrambling to quell perceptions that race was a factor in the slow federal response to Katrina and that its policies have contributed to the festering poverty propelled into public view by the disaster.
Last week, Bush summoned faith-based relief organizations and religious leaders -- many of them African American -- to a White House meeting to discuss his vision for providing long-term help for impoverished people displaced by the storm. He dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to her home state of Alabama. He also has had his political surrogates reach out to civil rights groups that previously felt ignored by the White House.
"Katrina has been an attention-getting experience for this administration," said Bruce S. Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. "It's clear that the administration has not had [black and poor people] as high on their priority list as they should have." Angry about how an affiliate of the NAACP portrayed him in a 2000 political ad, Bush has rejected invitations to speak at the organization's past five conventions, making him the first sitting president in more than 80 years not to address the group. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has excoriated Bush as a reactionary conservative. In the past week, however, Gordon has had multiple conversations with top administration officials and fielded calls from aides to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove. "They wanted to be sure they knew what we were thinking," Gordon said.
Bush also has resolved to tackle the poverty that ensnared 28 percent of New Orleans residents and many others on the Gulf Coast. Many of those poor people were unable to heed warnings to evacuate as the storm approached, compounding the disaster as tens of thousands of mostly black residents overwhelmed sparse government provisions when they sought shelter at the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans [...] Whatever approach the administration takes as it moves forward, any Katrina-inspired increase in federal outlays to alleviate poverty would represent a sharp turn for an administration that has moved to reshape government by reducing outlays for social programs by encouraging individual ownership of -- and responsibility for -- everything from housing to health care and retirement accounts. Meanwhile, White House budget makers have projected deep cuts in traditional poverty programs, including food stamps and public housing....
Gulf Coast Isn't the Only Thing Left in Tatters; Bush's Status With Blacks Takes Hit
September 12, 2005
From the political perspective of the White House, Hurricane Katrina destroyed more than an enormous swath of the Gulf Coast. The storm also appears to have damaged the carefully laid plans of Karl Rove, President Bush's political adviser, to make inroads among black voters and expand the reach of the Republican Party for decades to come.
Many African-Americans across the country said they seethed as they watched the television pictures of the largely poor and black victims of Hurricane Katrina dying for food and water in the New Orleans Superdome and the convention center. A poll released last week by the nonpartisan Pew Research Center bore out that reaction as well as a deep racial divide: Two-thirds of African-Americans said the government's response to the crisis would have been faster if most of the victims had been white, while 77 percent of whites disagreed.
The anger has invigorated the president's critics. Kanye West, the rap star, raged off-script at a televised benefit for storm victims that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Howard Dean, the chairman of the Democratic National Committee, said in Miami last week that Americans "have to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not."
At the White House, the public response has been to denounce the critics as unseemly and unfair. "I think all of those remarks were disgusting, to be perfectly frank," Laura Bush said in an interview with the American Urban Radio Network, when asked about the comments of Mr. West and Mr. Dean. "Of course President Bush cares about everyone in our country."
Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the administration's most prominent African-American, weighed in, too. "Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race," Ms. Rice said, en route to her native Alabama to attend a church service....
Here's the thing: frankly, I really don't believe that race had anything to do with the government's inept response. Despite Our Glorious Leader's tiff with the NAACP, that really does seem to be more about what he perceives as an attack that left him feeling highly insulted. He doesn't really have the sort of catalog of actions that make you think, "Man, Our Glorious Leader is quite the racist swine, isn't he?"
What this is about, however, is class. Poverty. And in New Orleans, you had, to use an overexercised metaphor, a perfect storm of collision between class and race -- because most of the poor in New Orleans are black -- and people judged based on those images.
Of course, one of the odd things about this country is that, while we acknowledge the existence of the poor, we don't really quite acknowledge the existence of class -- we see our strata as: the very rich, middle class, working class, and the poor. And middle and working class largely view themselves as somewhat interchangeable. But race, on the other hand, is easily visible, and race relations have a long, frequently ignominious and frequently acrimonious history in this country. It's much easier to make the accusation that someone is racist; it's much more difficult -- and harder to explain -- the accusation that someone is classist. That, however, would most likely be George W. Bush's peculiar failing. After all, this term, it seems that the administration is finally getting around to dealing with the budget deficit -- or they were before this. And the programs on the chopping block are, for the most part, those benefiting people who don't have all that much -- welfare, Medicare and Medicaid and other entitlement programs, while tax cuts for the wealthy, including the ever ridiculous estate tax elimination, were an administration priority.
Because the racial aspect is most visible, the administration sent Condoleezza Rice off on her Gulf Coast Rainbow Tour -- despite the fact that, as the nation's premier diplomat and foreign relations officer, she can quite reasonably make the case that her presence is entirely irrelevant to anything important -- so that she could effectively declare to us all, Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race. He supports you! for he loves you! understands you! he's one of you! If not, how could he love me? (Because you're wealthy, Ms Rice, and you're willing to toe the company line; now get down off the balcony and go do your regular job.) And if Ms Rice truly believes that nobody would have left people unattended on the basis of race -- the one part of the italicized statement that is an actual quote -- then what country has she been living in all her life?
Host of 'Hardball'
Lorrie Slonsky and Larry Bradshaw are paramedics from San Francisco who were attending an EMS conference in New Orleans at the time that Hurricane Katrina hit town.
Their tale of attempted evacuation and eventual survival has spread since they were able to escape from New Orleans and return home. On Monday, they joined MSNBC's Chris Matthews to tell their story.
[...] LORRIE BETH SLONSKY, HURRICANE SURVIVOR: And this is where this group had doubled, like Larry said, like, probably 400, 500, 600 people.
And we were making our way up the on-ramp when it started pouring down rain. And here we are, a group of people just about reaching the crest of the on-ramp when shots were fired, which wasn't unusual, because we had been hearing shots and sirens and helicopters all day long. But what was frightening was that they were so close to us.
And when the shots went off, our group just scattered. And we came down to probably a handful of people. And this is the point where Larry had approached the sheriff's department. I believe they're called deputies there with his badge and his hands up and asked if we could approach. And they still had their guns pointed directly at Larry and me and our group of folks.
And they allowed us to approach. And Larry explained that we were told to come across the bridge, so that we could get on these buses. And we were turned back. We were told we absolutely could not come on to the bridge, that the deputy had told us, we are not going to have another New Orleans, and we're not going to have another Superdome on the other side of the bridge, which is Gretna.
So, pretty discouraged, we did turn around and started to go back down, where we discovered an embankment area on I think it is called the Pontchartrain Expressway. And we a group of about 50, 60 70 people, found an area that was protected. It was concrete this way and this way. And we made ourselves inside of it.
MATTHEWS: What happened then, Larry?
BRADSHAW: Right at dusk, as we were sort of settling in, feeling like we could ride this out for three or four days, five days, until enough buses came to transport us all out. ... All of a sudden, a Gretna sheriff's patrol car showed up and an officer jumped out with his shotgun aimed at us, screaming and yelling and cursing at us to 'get off the F-ing freeway' and was just unapproachable, just would not let us talk, would not let us say anything, was waving the gun in the face of the families and children, and just chased us out of the camp. It is now dark. It's martial law.
SLONSKY: Shoot-to-kill policy.
MATTHEWS: Well, was this a race thing, Larry and Lorrie Beth? I want to bottom-line this. Was this a racial incident, where there was prejudice against people? Was your group largely African-American or mixed or what?
BRADSHAW: It was predominantly African-American. And the only two explanations we ever got... I saw the Gretna sheriff quoted in "The Independent" on Sunday and he said, we couldn't let "these people" cross the bridge or Gretna would have looked like New Orleans, burned, looted and pillaged. So, I believe it was about race.
MATTHEWS: Lorrie Beth, is that your assessment?
SLONSKY: It is absolutely my assessment. It had to do with a group of predominantly African-American folks and maybe -- I can count on one hand how many white people. And he said it clearly himself, the sheriff, in newspaper accounts. ... He is not denying that....
'Racist' police blocked bridge and forced evacuees back at gunpoint
By Andrew Buncombe in Washington
Published: 11 September 2005
A Louisiana police chief has admitted that he ordered his officers to block a bridge over the Mississippi river and force escaping evacuees back into the chaos and danger of New Orleans. Witnesses said the officers fired their guns above the heads of the terrified people to drive them back and "protect" their own suburbs. [...] Arthur Lawson, chief of the Gretna police department, said he had not yet questioned his officers as to whether they fired their guns.
He confirmed that his officers, along with those from Jefferson Parish and the Crescent City Connection police force, sealed the bridge and refused to let people pass. This was despite the fact that local media were informing people that the bridge was one of the few safe evacuation routes from the city.
Gretna is a predominantly white suburban town of around 18,000 inhabitants. In the aftermath of Katrina, three quarters of the inhabitants still had electricity and running water. But, Chief Lawson told UPI news agency: "There was no food, water or shelter in Gretna City. We did not have the wherewithal to deal with these people. If we had opened the bridge our city would have looked like New Orleans does now - looted, burned and pillaged." [...]
But so. Race was mostly a local issue, not a federal one. The federal issue was primarily staggering ineptitude, compounding local and state ineptitude, colliding with the class issues to make misery for the people who didn't or, more likely, couldn't get out of the city.
That said ... if it had been Gretna itself that suffered, rather than New Orleans, the federal response would likely have been snappier. After all, from Bush's point of view, those really were his people, in a way that those in New Orleans could not have been. After all, they had money! They voted for him!
That Our Glorious Leader is racist is probably a vile canard -- but one which will likely stick, in much the way that the various lies his people threw about during the recent campaign also stuck. One wonders how much he'll like it.
Sidenote the first: In the category "What a difference a day (or a couple weeks) makes":
During the last 12 months, much has been said about the role of the African-American community in American politics. As a swing group that has historically voted as a unit, blacks have had a disproportionate influence on national politics throughout most of the 20th century. In the new millennium, however, the role of African Americans is still being defined.
Democrats and Republicans alike often sound "preachy" in their discussions with blacks. Hypothetical solutions and "if I were you" speeches lost their luster years ago. Republicans often argue that the most severe problems with black America arise out of the brokenness of its families and its internal drift for a moral foundation or historic Christian values. While these statements are true, just saying "Cosby is right" will not reverse trends that have been accelerated by wrong-headed policies of the past. Further, noting that a lack of personal responsibility is at the core of the black community applauds keeping blacks from any socio-economic strata. [...] Monday, July 25 was a watershed moment for me. I met with the president of the United States in a small meeting with other leading African-American community activists and religious leaders. The efforts listed below will have a strong appeal to the "New Black Church" that is emerging in America. [...]
Sidenote the Second: According to recent estimates, humanitarian aid and the moderate rebuilding efforts currently underway -- mostly involving reinforcing failed levees and pumping water -- are costing $700 million a day. The war in Iraq costs something like $1 billion per week. Where on earth is all this money coming from, anyway?Posted by iain at September 13, 2005 01:08 PM