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Examining Race, Class and Katrina


It's difficult to talk about Hurricane Katrina without discussing class and race. President Bush addressed the issue in his speech last night from New Orleans.

President GEORGE W. BUSH: Within the Gulf region are some of the most beautiful and historic places in America. As all of us saw on television, there's also some deep persistent poverty in this region as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.

MONTAGNE: The images of Americans left behind to face flooded streets and chaos in shelters have generally focused on the poor and black. Now that the first stages of the relief effort are winding down, NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams reports on how differently blacks and white view the government's response to the disaster and what happens next.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Many residents of New Orleans who did not get out of the city were poor and black. Helen Cheeks(ph) was one of them. She sought shelter at the convention center and felt abandoned.

Ms. HELEN CHEEKS: Two babies have died, a woman died, a man died. We haven't had no food. We haven't had no water. We haven't had nothing. They just brought us here and dropped us.

Ms. DONNA BRAZILE (African-American Native of New Orleans): Look, as someone who grew up in poverty, it pains me to see that the poorest and the most vulnerable of our citizens were treated the way they were treated. I'm not yelling racism, I'm not doing the politics stuff because my family, my people are hurting and I want to help them.

WILLIAMS: Donna Brazile is an African-American and a native of New Orleans. She was Al Gore's campaign manager in the 2000 presidential election.

Ms. BRAZILE: We thought the government would come in and help us. I mean, what has scared the living Jesus out of everybody is that they let us suffer. They let us die.

Professor ABEL BARTLEY (Clemson University): There's definitely a racial component. You would not expect to see white Americans spend four days without food or water with the press covering it every day and every minute and there be no response from the federal government.

WILLIAMS: That's Abel Bartley, a professor of American history at Clemson University. He's an African American. Two-thirds of African Americans believe the federal government would have acted more quickly to help the storm's victims if the people left behind had been white. That was the finding of a poll by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press. White Americans disagreed; 77 percent of whites said the color of the faces had nothing to do with the troubled government response. John Barry is the author of "Rising Tides: The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927."

Mr. JOHN BARRY (Author): I'm not a great fan of the Bush administration, but I think the accusations of racism are not well-founded. You know, I just don't believe that those people sat on their hands because New Orleans was poor and black.

WILLIAMS: What is not in doubt is that the issues of race and class are being politicized. For instance, several outspoken conservative commentators have seized on the looting after the hurricane and identified it as urban menace, associated largely with poor blacks. On the other side of the political spectrum, Democratic Party Chair Howard Dean said the storm revealed that the Bush administration has not paid attention to the poor, particularly the black poor. Even entertainers joined that chorus. Rap artist Kanye West.

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rap Artist): ...set up the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible. George Bush doesn't care about black people.

WILLIAMS: First lady Laura Bush felt compelled to defend her husband.

Mrs. LAURA BUSH (First Lady): I think all of those remarks were disgusting because, of course, President Bush cares about everyone in our country.

WILLIAMS: Why the government moved so slowly may never be agreed upon.

Mr. DAVID SHIPLER (Former New York Times Reporter): There's a different sense of history in the United States when you're white and when you're black.

WILLIAMS: Former New York Times reporter David Shipler, a white man, has written books on race and class in America.

Mr. SHIPLER: I think race issues are not spoken about in a very clear or honest way. So when they get forced upon us as they have been during Hurricane Katrina, it's almost a splash of cold water in people's faces.

WILLIAMS: This is not the first time that a crisis forced race and poverty onto the national agenda. In the 1960s, Michael Harrington's book, "The Other America," poverty in the United States plus riots in Watts and beyond, helped launch the Johnson administration's war on poverty. By the 1980s, the pendulum had swung. President Reagan talked about welfare queens driving Cadillacs. A truce of sorts was reached in the 1990s. President Clinton and a Republican Congress transformed welfare into a program that required that the poor find jobs. Now the issue is back.

Prof. BARTLEY: You see a lot of Republican politicians in Mississippi and others who now seem to be singing a different tune.

WILLIAMS: Professor Abel Bartley.

Prof. BARTLEY: For years, they built their reputation attacking government and attacking things that help the poor, help the underclass, and now they realize, `Oh, those things are actually needed.'

WILLIAMS: Now the question is whether there'll be a new round of attention to poverty. A Census Bureau report showed an increase of 17 percent in Americans living in poverty since President Bush has been in office. Doug Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute says the Bush administration was considering an antipoverty program before the hurricane.

Mr. DOUG BESHAROV (American Enterprise Institute): And it was going to be an antipoverty strategy based on place, community revitalization but a community-oriented approach to poverty because there are pockets of extreme poverty in this country and one way to identify the people in most need is to go to those pockets and try to help the people there.

WILLIAMS: Some Democrats draw or paint questions of rich and poor, black and white in bolder strokes. They grill Supreme Court nominee John Roberts more aggressively about his views on issues like equality and affirmative action. This might not have happened without the hurricane. Author John Barry.

Mr. BARRY: And the reason I write about disasters is because I believe that a society in crisis reveals its true nature. And right now this hurricane has sort of ripped away some of the covering fabric and exposed to plain view some of the problems that American society has.

WILLIAMS: Author John Berry, whose book on the 1927 flood, looks at how the catastrophe revealed differences among rich and poor before the Great Depression and how that flood changed politics in the rural Deep South creating an economic populism that attracted black and white.

Mr. BARRY: The question remains whether the ripping away very violently of all the covering and the exposure of this truth of American society from Katrina is going to change the way people think or whether three months from now, they'll forget about it. And nobody knows the answer to that question.

WILLIAMS: One hint that the White House knows that it ignores issues of race and class at its peril, later today, a service for hurricane victims will be held at Washington's National Cathedral. The president will address the congregation. The sermon will be delivered by T.D. Jakes, a conservative evangelical preacher from Texas who is black. Juan Williams, NPR News, Washington.

MONTAGNE: This is NPR News. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

Juan Williams
Juan Williams, one of America's leading journalists, is a news analyst, appearing regularly on NPR's Morning Edition. Knowledgeable and charismatic, Williams brings insight and depth — hallmarks of NPR programs — to a wide spectrum of issues and ideas.