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Race, Class Re-Enter Politics After Katrina

  • Oppose making permanent the Bush tax cuts, and opposing permanent elimination of the estate tax, given the massive costs associated with Katrina recovery.
  • Advocating temporary relief from or suspension of a new bankruptcy bill, passed by Congress earlier this year, that will make it much more difficult for people to file for bankruptcy protection.
  • In addition, Pelosi said she would push for financing at least a portion of the Katrina recovery effort through a massive bond project, coordinated by a federally backed regional authority.

    The members of the black caucus also complained that the administration's cutting of jobs and housing programs in recent years exacerbated poverty levels, and they criticized him harshly for suspending the Davis-Bacon Act, the federal law requiring employees receiving federal contracts to pay the minimum wage of the region. Instead, workers can be paid as low as the minimum wage. (Read a related editorial from the Miami Herald here.)

    Not that any of these proposals are going anywhere. The Democrats are essentially powerless in Washington, but some believe increasingly that the ongoing Iraq war, the souring economy, gas prices and the response to Katrina have laid bare the dangers of governing with one party controlling all branches. The three CBC members talked about class and poverty, but avoided directly addressing the question of race until I asked if they believed that the federal response to Katrina was slow in part because so many of the victims were poor and black.

    It was not a question they were eager to answer.

    For the first time, the members looked at each other, waiting for someone else to talk. There was some uncomfortable laughter. Some rolled eyes. The body language told the story. But again, race is not something anyone wants to talk about, not even members of the caucus.

    Watt decided to take the question -- carefully.

    "No one was left behind intentionally because they were black," he said. "But most of those who were left behind were poor. And wherever you go, these who are poor are going to be disproportionately black in some areas, disproportionately Hispanic in some areas, and disproportionately Native American in some areas."

    But as to whether race was a direct reason for the slow response, Watt said, "No, I don't believe that. I don't believe I can responsibly say that."

    Thompson, whose district was affected by the storm, asserted that the government's response was quicker and more efficient for the mostly white areas along the Gulf Coast in his state and Alabama than in the mostly black parishes of New Orleans.

    And Clyburn offered that "institutional racism" and "de facto" racism, rather than overt racism and hatred, still play a role in American politics, and could have been a factor in the response.

    "Nobody wants to talk about poverty," he said. "Nobody wants to talk about race. Nobody wants to talk about the nexus of the two."

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