Katrina and the Question of Race

There was a time, when the Democrats could solidly count on Afro-Americans and other minorities to vote for them. Things have changed quite a bit, thanks partly to the faith-based initiatives launched by President Bush. Bush and his lieutenants have been steadily making in-roads among the black electorates who are increasingly becoming disillusioned with the Democratic leadership and its embrace of ‘too liberal’ agenda like the gay marriage and abortion rights. The Republicans have been wooing the Afro-Americans with the jingle “give us a chance, and we will give you a choice.” The Republican strategy has been to shake the democratic base to capture 16 to 20 percent of urban black votes, instead of the typical 10 percent.[1] And they have been quite successful with this strategy, as testified by the Presidential election results last year from Ohio where Bush got 16% votes among the Afro-Americans.

Then came Katrina, torpedoing or at least putting that Republican strategy to task to win Afro-American votes. The latest death toll stands at 880.[2]

As some New Orleans residents are now slowly returning to the hurricane-hit city, Americans are asking: what went wrong with the most powerful nation on earth in its emergency response to a natural disaster? They are also painfully coming to the grip that race (yes, that never-ending age-old problem) still matters in federal response to disasters.

During a September 2 NBC telethon for the victims of the hurricane, rapper Kanye West, whom the Time magazine dubbed the “smartest man in pop music” and “Hip Hop’s Class Act,” declared that “George Bush doesn’t care abut black people.” He also riffed against the Iraq and generally made the case that America is essentially a racist country.[3] (It is worth pointing out here that most residents of New Orleans have been black, with an average yearly income of only $11,000, well below the national average. They did not have resources to leave when the disaster hit the city. The Census bureau reports that the percentage of Afro-Americans living in poverty has risen each year since Bush took office, reversing the trend set during the Clinton era.)

Acel Moore, a columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer, echoed the sentiments of most Afro-Americans: “If a comparable natural disaster hit a predominantly white, upper- or middle-class community, state and federal governments would have stepped lively. The evidence shows that the White House, Congress, and the federal courts are controlled by conservative ideologues whose policies do not favor African American and other people of color and the poor.”[4]

During the Sunday morning show “This Week,” the conservative ABC commentator George Will was heard saying (Sept. 11, ’05) that the high out of wedlock birth rate amongst the Blacks (something like 80%) may partly be responsible for why so few father-like figures were there to care for their illegitimate children in the stranded city.

On the first few days of the crisis, TV cameras showed two contrasting pictures – Afro-Americans were looting stores while the White residents of New Orleans were asking for food. Was this done deliberately to show the criminality of one race?

There is no end to such finger pointing. Some people blame the city mayor Ray Nagin for not having any evacuation plan ready before the levees gave in. (Hundreds of city buses and trucks were not used for evacuating residents.) Others blame the Bush Administration for beefing up the defense budget while reducing the FEMA funding and appointing an incompetent director to run it. Understandably, now the director has resigned and the President has taken the blame for his administration’s failure in disaster planning. His popularity is at an all time low. The Anti-Bush section is calling for his impeachment.

During his Friday (September 16) eulogy at the National Cathedral, President Bush understandingly sought amends to ‘clear away the legacy of inequality’ between the races. He has promised spending whatever it takes, which may easily top 200 billion dollars, to revive the U.S. Gulf coast. It is a tough-sell when the federal budget was already expected to be in the red by some $314 billion over the coming fiscal year even before Hurricane Katrina hit.[5] Unless the Republican-majority Congress delivers on Bush’s pledge, in all likelihood, Katrina will be a major setback for the Republicans in the next year’s election. The latest Gallup poll reports that 72% of Afro-Americans agree with rapper West.

And add to this, the insulting and unsympathetic comments from fellow Republicans. Commentator Linda Chavez, a former Bush nominee for secretary of labor, characterized Katrina’s victims as people “for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life.” U.S. Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican from Baton Rouge, Louisiana, was heard saying lobbyists that “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” No matter how hard Bush may try to heal the wound, the Afro-American community may not easily forget such offensive remarks. After all, it is in times of difficulty that one can distinguish true friends from pretenders.

One of the fundamental responsibilities of government is to secure the lives of its people. And that requires defect-free planning. Katrina has shown Bush administration’s utter failure in planning to protect its citizens in times of a serious disaster. America’s early-warning system is still poor for natural disasters and that the leadership structure to head responsibility in disaster response is faulty. (Seven top guys in the FEMA organization were all political appointees with no serious job-related credentials.)[6] Katrina has also bared the fact that government’s ability to warn and move people quickly is dismally poor. There is hardly any infrastructure set up to receive and care for evacuees.

Most importantly, Katrina showed that the most technologically advanced nation is no match to fight against nature. So, what the wars and the anti-war protests around the world could not do, Katrina seems to have humbled the most powerful leader on earth. Whether this defeat would eventually make America drift towards an isolationist role from a neocon-scripted internationalist role is too early now to predict. But keep tuned.


[1]. GOP will feel anger of black electorate by Dick Polman, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 18, 2005.

[2]. http://www.dispatch.co.za/2005/09/19/Foreign/

[3]. Rapper strikes a discordant note by Jonah Goldberg, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 2005, p. D7.

[4]. Response slowed by who victims are by Acel Moore, The Philadelphia Inquirer, September 11, 2005, p. D7.

[5]. http://today.reuters.co.uk/news/newsArticle.aspx?

[6]. As heard over the NPR, Morning Edition, September 19, 2005.