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A Nation's Castaways

An often-invisible underclass, now front and center: Evacuees from New Orleans receive personal hygiene bags before resuming their long relocation trip to Dallas.
An often-invisible underclass, now front and center: Evacuees from New Orleans receive personal hygiene bags before resuming their long relocation trip to Dallas. (By Scott Saltzman -- Bloomberg News)

The fact is, the most vulnerable victims of Katrina, though largely black, are also poor whites and Latinos. The poor are paying the highest price.

So it is no wonder that Katrina has re-ignited the debate over race and class.

There are those who argue, as does Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Center for Contemporary Black History, that "the class element is inextricably bound to the race element." It has always been so because of the way policies and laws historically have been framed.

Roger Wilkins, the George Mason University historian, sees the historic sweep of the legacy of slavery in the helpless straits of folks marooned by the storm. Seen through that arc of history, Wilkins says that Monday's unmasking of the vast inequality within New Orleans is a "day a reckoning" for the United States: of reckoning with a history of ignoring the poorest of the poor that dates back to our earliest days.

"The worst education in the country is ladled out to the poor kids in big cities. And we're incarcerating black males at a higher rate than any time in our history. After all this time, one in four black people is still impoverished," says Wilkins.

The history of marginalizing black folk in America, especially poor ones, runs so deep that it occurs like second nature. It is one reason, say several prominent black intellectuals, that the response to the devastation of Katrina was so slow.

Racism runs "so deep that the folks who are slow to respond can't see it," says Russell Adams, professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University. "That's the unperceived character of racial behavior, of what I would call hidden racism where you don't know that this situation has a racial character to it, just like fish have trouble defining water."

Scholars are in agreement that race has shaped the lives and prospects of African Americans for generations. They part company on the extent to which racism continues to hinder black prospects in America today.

Many conservative thinkers espouse a race-neutral analysis. Racism doesn't cause poverty, they say, poverty is the result of a pattern of dependency that has set in among poor blacks.

In New Orleans, "you are dealing with the permanently poor -- people who don't have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves and getting things done and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life," says Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

"This is a natural disaster that is exacerbated by the problems of the underclass. The chief cause of poverty today among blacks is no longer racism. It is the breakdown of the traditional family."

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, cautions against the use of the "nasty, circular, unprovable" argument of race because "this is a matter of the incompetence of the American infrastructure. It's not a matter of somebody in Washington deciding we don't need to rush [to New Orleans] because they're all poor jungle bunnies anyway."

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