Race, Class Re-Enter Politics After Katrina

By Terry M. Neal
washingtonpost.com Staff Writer
Thursday, September 22, 2005; 11:02 AM

Many Democrats believe the great economic and racial divides exposed by Hurricane Katrina will give their party a chance to make the case for a change in leadership, beginning with next year's midterm elections. However, some Democrats, including key members of the Congressional Black Caucus, fear that focusing too explicitly on the issue of race could have detrimental political implications.

Only a couple of last year's Democratic presidential nominees -- John Edwards, Al Sharpton, Dennis Kucinich -- made poverty a central theme of their campaigns. And Sharpton was the only one to regularly talk about race relations. Most realize that talking race begs being labeled a racist, an agitator, or a troublemaker. Yet, race remains the most powerful undercurrent in politics today.

This week, thousands of people from around the country are descending on Washington for the 35th annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation The conference will focus primarily on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, poverty and race. The caucus hopes to raise more than $1 million this week for the victims of Katrina.

Sen. Barak Obama (D-Ill.), one member of the 43-person caucus and the only African American senator, wants to make sure that addressing poverty and race stays at the forefront of the national debate. Addressing the conference last night, Obama said: "The incompetence [in the federal response to Katrina] was colorblind."

"What wasn't colorblind was the indifference. Human efforts will always pale in comparison to nature's forces. But [the Bush administration] is a set of folks who simply don't recognize what's happening in large parts of the country." (Read more about Obama's speech here.)

And he blamed GOP policies for exacerbating the divide laid so bare by Katrina.

"I understand why people would be cynical, when [Bush] makes the decision to give tax breaks to Paris Hilton instead of providing child care and education," the senator said.

National polls taken in the wake of Katrina demonstrate the racial divide, with vast majorities of blacks believing the response to the hurricane was slower because most of its victims were poor and/or black, and the majority of whites believing just the opposite. In a Washington Post/ABC poll, 68 percent of those who were directly affected by Katrina -- that is, those where were evacuated -- said they believed "the federal government would have responded more quickly to rescue people trapped by floodwaters if more of them had been wealthier and white rather than poorer and black."

On Wednesday, I had an opportunity to ask this question directly to some of the members of the CBC at a small, reporters' roundtable in House Democratic Leader Nancy Pelosi's (Calif.) Capitol Hill office. She was joined by three members of the caucus, Reps. James Clyburn (D-S.C.), Mel Watt (D-N.C.) and Bennie Thompson (D-Miss.). I was one of about a half-dozen African American journalists invited to attend.

Ostensibly, the purpose of the meeting was to address the party's post-hurricane agenda, including:

  • Establishment of an independent commission to investigate federal response to Katrina. President Bush has declined to push for an independent commission, and House Democrats, at Pelosi's behest, are boycotting what was supposed to be a bipartisan congressional investigation. 
  • Establishment of an anti-fraud commission to prevent profiteering by contractors and monitor spending of taxpayer dollars. Democrats are complaining that much of the $62 billion Congress has already approved is going to politically connected companies and "fraudulent contractors" with little oversight.

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