Katrina Pushes Issues of Race and Poverty at Bush

By Michael A. Fletcher
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, September 12, 2005

Hurricane Katrina has thrust the twin issues of race and poverty at President Bush, who faces steep challenges in dealing with both because of a domestic agenda that envisions deep cuts in long-standing anti-poverty programs and relationships with many black leaders frayed by years of mutual suspicion.

In the storm's aftermath, the White House has been scrambling to quell perceptions that race was a factor in the slow federal response to Katrina and that its policies have contributed to the festering poverty propelled into public view by the disaster.

Last week, Bush summoned faith-based relief organizations and religious leaders -- many of them African American -- to a White House meeting to discuss his vision for providing long-term help for impoverished people displaced by the storm.

He dispatched Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to her home state of Alabama. He also has had his political surrogates reach out to civil rights groups that previously felt ignored by the White House.

"Katrina has been an attention-getting experience for this administration," said Bruce S. Gordon, president and chief executive officer of the NAACP. "It's clear that the administration has not had [black and poor people] as high on their priority list as they should have."

Angry about how an affiliate of the NAACP portrayed him in a 2000 political ad, Bush has rejected invitations to speak at the organization's past five conventions, making him the first sitting president in more than 80 years not to address the group. NAACP Chairman Julian Bond has excoriated Bush as a reactionary conservative. In the past week, however, Gordon has had multiple conversations with top administration officials and fielded calls from aides to White House Deputy Chief of Staff Karl Rove.

"They wanted to be sure they knew what we were thinking," Gordon said.

Bush also has resolved to tackle the poverty that ensnared 28 percent of New Orleans residents and many others on the Gulf Coast. Many of those poor people were unable to heed warnings to evacuate as the storm approached, compounding the disaster as tens of thousands of mostly black residents overwhelmed sparse government provisions when they sought shelter at the Superdome and convention center in New Orleans.

"Sometimes it takes a natural disaster to reveal a social disaster," said Jim Wallis, editor of Sojourner's, a liberal evangelical journal.

During Tuesday's White House meeting with 20 religious leaders and representatives from relief groups, Bush vowed to provide job programs, health care, life-skills training and housing aid to those displaced by the storm. Echoing a position taken by some civil rights leaders, he asserted that it was insensitive to refer to the poor people fleeing New Orleans as "refugees," a term that for some evokes people fleeing their native country.

When some people at the meeting said that New Orleans residents and local businesses should reap much of the economic benefit from the huge investment that will be required to rebuild the city, Bush readily agreed, according to one participant.

"He didn't receive many of these concerns as some kind of 'race' issue," said C. Jay Matthews, a Cleveland minister who attended the meeting. "There was a feeling that maybe what we have been doing up to now to fight poverty maybe hasn't been effective and we need to move toward long-term solutions."

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