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.
  • 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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