In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we learned that the United States is woefully unprepared to meet the challenges that arise after a natural disaster of catastrophic proportions. (Despite the fact that the current administration spent all of last year telling us that they were the only ones who could keep us safe. But I digress!)
The devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina also revealed to some (and simply reaffirmed for others) the deep divisions that remain in this country, over issues of race, class and poverty.
Many people (particularly those in the mainstream media) seemed genuinely surprised to learn the extent of poverty in the United States, despite the fact that the poverty rate has increased for 4 straight years. Just as Katrina was wreaking havoc, the Census Bureau released new figures which showed that the number of Americans living in poverty rose to 37 million in 2004 — up 1.1 million from 2003. Perhaps if the news media would actually report the news (imagine that!) then they would not have been caught off-guard by this fact.
CNN anchor Wolf Blitzer described the victims of Hurricane Katrina as "so poor and so black." In all fairness to him, I doubt Blitzer was intentionally trying to be so insensitive. Rather, I think the human devastation caused by the hurricane forced Blitzer to step outside of his comfort zone, and made his eyes wide open to the cycle of poverty that has gripped this nation.
Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) Chief Michael Brown (who prior to joining the Bush Administration, was forced from his job at the International Arabian Horse Association for alleged supervisory failures) played the 'blame the victim' game, saying they bore some of the responsibility for failing to heed the New Orleans mayor's mandatory evacuation order. Never mind that many of them didn't have the financial resources to leave.
Former First Lady Barbara Bush went so far as to say that the victims of Hurricane Katrina had lucked out. After meeting with some of the evacuees at the Houston Astrodome, she commented: "What I'm hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
Perhaps the comment that has received some of the widest attention over the past few days, however, came from rapper Kanye West, who went off-script during a televised concert special in honor of hurricane victims. He said "George Bush doesn't care about Black people."
As do many other Americans, I certainly agree with Kanye West. But perhaps we need to dig further, and ask ourselves, what is the root cause of Bush's dismissiveness of the African-American community? It is racism, or something else at work here?
I don't believe that George Bush is a racist. Rather, I believe the issue of class is the root cause of George Bush's attitude towards African-Americans. He was born into a life of privilege, and at just about every stage of his life, has used his father's name to advance his cause, including avoiding the Vietnam War, and getting into Yale and Harvard Business School when he was a less than a stellar student.
Unlike the overwhelming majority of the African-American community, George Bush doesn't know what it is like to have to work hard and prove yourself in the work force. He doesn't understand what it is like to work two jobs and still live below the poverty line, because it hasn't been a part of his experience.
And most importantly: he hasn't made an effort to understand these struggles.
In 1997, President Bill Clinton established a blue-ribbon commission to study race relations in America, headed by Dr. John Hope Franklin. As he left office, President Clinton provided the Congress and the incoming administration with a 26-page report that outlined where he thought we were as a country in terms of "building one America," and where he thought we needed to go.
Sadly but not unexpectedly, the Republican-controlled Congress and Bush White House never acted upon President Clinton's recommendations.
Perhaps the tragedy born out of Hurricane Katrina will afford us the opportunity to have a long-overdue conversation on race relations in this country.