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Unspeakable Tragedy: Race and Katrina

Bob Batchelor

After Katrina, America was poised for a national conversation about race that never actually took place. What happened to squander the opportunity?

Under the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina, the Louisiana Superdome -- the "crown jewel of the New Orleans skyline" -- quickly became a cesspool of waste, sewage, and most lurid of all, death. The city's poor who flocked there for relief had no food, running water or air conditioning. The ill-equipped emergency shelter, like the nearby Convention Center, became a symbol of the storm's devastation -- and the Bush administration's failure to aid the people suffering in the drowned city.

News programs scurried to broadcast the lurid tales of mayhem amid the flooded ruins. The plight of disadvantaged African Americans left behind to virtually fend for themselves in the wake elicited a national outcry. Millions of viewers sat spellbound as the news filtered out of the city. Rapper Kanye West summed up the private thoughts many dared not speak publicly, proclaiming that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" on a nationally televised hurricane-relief program. Clearly Katrina put race back on the national agenda.

Unfortunately, under ordinary circumstances, many Americans are quick to dismiss racism as simply a defective character trait or a sign of overt stupidity. But it runs deeper, straight to the heart of the country's national fabric. As historian John Hope Franklin recently told the Associated Press, "The New Orleans tragedy speaks in a loud but eloquent voice that racial inequities in the United States persist. As far as race in America is concerned, Katrina was just another example of the failure of the people of the United States to come to terms with a centuries-old problem�and make a forthright effort to solve it." Huffington Post columnist Rev. Byron Williams notes that "the Katrina response, or lack thereof, was in part society's inability to see the humanity of those stuck in the quagmire of the social underside." Simply being born an American, a person is infused with race and the legacy of slavery, and America's continued inability to solve the race issue is its most crippling defect and exacerbates most, if not all, societal ills.

The chaos in New Orleans revealed the depths of racism that exists in the United States, but many hoped the catastrophe would touch off a renewed national dialogue on racism and possibly eliminate it once and for all in the post-Katrina America. However, after the disaster triage and governmental finger-pointing devolved into a post-storm bureaucratic nightmare of red tape, and the sensationalist images and stories disappeared, so did the discussions of racism. It may be that Americans are so ashamed of the heritage of slavery and the current state of those living in poverty that they can only examine race if it comes from the mouths of cartoon characters (think of Token Black, the African American on South Park), standup comics like Chris Rock and Dave Chappelle, or rap musicians. But though West's audacious claim touched off an initial media frenzy, the frank dialogue never materialized, and today, America is no closer to solving its race problem.

Looking back, the failure of this dialogue to materialize seems to prove West's point yet again. Race slipped from the national agenda in part because George W. Bush did not keep the issue at the forefront. Of course, politicians going back to the Founding Fathers have failed to adequately address the race issue. Still, rather than initiate a national dialogue on race, Bush instead chose to make a feeble play for black voters, choosing, finally, to speak before the NAACP in late July, after declining its invitation the last five years. Bush gave a masterful performance in front of an unfriendly audience, taking the anger out of the room with witty self-deprecation, a nod to black history, and just enough owning up to past Republican errors to appease his auditors.

In this speech Bush summed up his thoughts on race in America: "In the century since the NAACP was founded, our nation has grown more prosperous and more powerful. It's also grown more equal and just. Yet this work is not finished. The history of America is one of constant renewal. And each generation has a responsibility to write a new chapter in the unfinished story of freedom." But has his presidency has taken up the challenge of assuming this responsibility? The answer is a resounding no.

Although the president is criticized for routinely flubbing multisyllabic words, he is a master of modern American corporate speak, in which a CEO is applauded for focusing on looking to the future without ever acknowledging current or past errors. For example, the president played up his post-Katrina discussions with NAACP CEO Bruce Gordon without conceding any slip-ups on the part of his administration: "We talked about the challenges facing the African American community after that storm. We talked about the response of the federal government. And most importantly, we talked about the way forward. We talked about what we can do working together to move forward."

At another point in the speech, he revealed the real reasons he finally addressed the organization: "You must understand I understand that racism still lingers in America. It's a lot easier to change a law than to change a human heart. And I understand that many African Americans distrust my political party. I consider it a tragedy that the party of Abraham Lincoln let go of its historic ties with the African American community. For too long my party wrote off the African American vote, and many African Americans wrote off the Republican Party."

As striking as the language is, especially coming from Bush, the key word in his statement is vote. The Republican Party probably sees little difference between its success at winning over former Democratic voters in strongholds like Western Pennsylvania, Michigan, and Ohio and capturing the black vote. Republicans see an opportunity to win back black voters, which political strategists assert could be critical in the 2006 midterm elections and the 2008 presidential race. So the speech wasn't about healing wounds deep within the national fabric, the appearance was to win the African American vote.

Despite his lip service and political pandering in this speech, Bush has done little to help African Americans. According to NAACP statistics, blacks are twice as likely to be unemployed compared to whites, significantly less likely to own homes (75 percent for whites compared to 48 percent for blacks), and have an average median net worth of $10,000 versus $81,700 for whites. This didn't stop Bush from using his NAACP address to call for the repeal of the estate tax. The president invoked the name of his "friend" Bob Johnson, the billionaire founder of BET and owner of the NBA Charlotte Bobcats franchise, saying "He believes strongly, for example, that the death tax will prevent future African-American entrepreneurs from being able to pass their assets from one generation to the next. He and I also understand that the investor class shouldn't be just confined to the old definition of the investor class." Curiously, progressive economists have shown that only 59 African Americans (of approximately 38 million) will pay the estate tax this year.

A president who cares about African-Americans would look out on the nation and be disgusted by what is happening in black communities. He would place race on the national agenda. If the weight of the office can push terrorism and security to the top of the agenda, then it can do the same for racism. Though the Bush administration has czars for everything from cyberterrorism to AIDS, there's no czar for racism, no money behind completing the "unfinished story of freedom." The National Priorities Project estimates that the war in Iraq has cost more than $300 billion, yet poverty-stricken Americans at home slip further into despair.

But as easy as it is to blame the president for the current state of racism in America, the lack of leadership within the African American community must be cited as well. The fact that West -- a musician -- was the most significant black political figure to emerge from the devastation in New Orleans reveals the paucity of leadership among blacks. No black leader today wields enough influence to rise above the political fray and put racism on the national agenda. Leaders who immediately come to mind, such as Jesse Jackson and Al Sharpton, have put too much faith in the political process. Like the American labor movement, African Americans since the 1960s have been co-opted by the Democrats, virtually handing over power to an organization that is more concerned with winning office than standing up for ideals. There is merit in sustained voter registration drives and raising money for candidates, but these tactics have not brought the urgent need to confront racism to the forefront.

Because politicians are predominantly concerned with getting elected rather than defending principles, it seems unlikely that the leadership needed in today's conditions will come from an African American senator or congressperson, even the wildly popular Barack Obama. Is it pollyannaish to wonder when the next Martin Luther King Jr. or Malcolm X will appear? Neither held political office or aligned too closely with a political party. They drew from religious backgrounds and followings but were able to bring their causes to the national stage. Ultimately, racism is more than a political issue that can be fixed through party affiliation.

For the good of the nation, racism must be quashed. The most important lesson lost after Katrina -- and repeatedly brought to light in Spike Lee's recent When the Levees Broke documentary -- is that building a better world means retaining our humanity. In today's polarized society, this may seem out of reach, but it is an attainable aspiration.

* * *

Bob Batchelor is an award-winning business writer and historian. He teaches Public Relations in the School of Mass Communications at the University of South Florida in Tampa. Visit him on the Web at www.bobbatchelor.com.

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