Katrina in Black and White

By Howard Kurtz
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, September 9, 2005; 10:21 AM

Just about everyone has now seen or heard about rapper Kanye West declaring on an NBC benefit broadcast: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." (NBC cut the offending comment from its West Coast feed, but there's always the Internet.)

The general reaction was that, whatever the slowness in Bush's response to Katrina and the tragically flawed government mishandling of the aftermath, this was an unfair and over-the-top charge.

But that doesn't mean it hasn't helped spark a debate.

Just yesterday, a Pew Research Center survey found that 71 percent of blacks say the disaster shows that racial inequality remains a major problem in the country, while 56 percent of whites feel this was not a particularly important lesson of the disaster. And how's this for a racial perception gap: Sixty-six percent of blacks say the government's response to the crisis would have been faster if most of the storm's victims had been white, while 77 percent of whites disagree.

The DNC chairman is not shying away from the question, according to this AP account:

"Race was a factor in the death toll from Hurricane Katrina, Howard Dean told members of the National Baptist Convention of America on Wednesday at the group's annual meeting. . . . 'We must . . . come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not,' Dean said."

A couple of observations: The fact that we are talking at all about poor, black urban residents is a departure from the usual media and political conversation, which barely acknowledges their existence, except when some study comes out. There is an academic debate about the causes of poverty (discrimination, welfare, family breakdown, culture of dependency) but little debate among Washington politicians chasing middle-class votes.

To say that the president does not care about thousands of people killed and many more left homeless--even if most of them are black--seems absurd on its face. (And the white residents who got out of New Orleans have, for the moment, no city to go back to, so this is hardly just a minority issue.) But to debate whether Bush's policies have helped African-Americans--the administration argues that they have benefited from tax cuts, No Child Left Behind and Medicare drug benefits like everyone else-- is eminently fair. Even if it took an enormous tragedy to prompt that debate.

Now comes Slate Editor Jake Weisberg with the following indictment:

"I don't think Kanye West can support his view that George W. Bush just doesn't care about black people. But it's a demonstrable matter of fact that Bush doesn't care much about black votes. And that, in the end, may amount to the same thing.

"Blacks as a group have voted Democratic since the 1930s. The GOP has not courted them in any real way since the 1960s, focusing instead on attracting white constituencies hostile to civil rights and African-Americans in general. Even many conservatives now accept blame for this ugly, recent history. In July, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, apologized to the NAACP for those in his party he said had been 'looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization.'

"Yet the underlying racial dynamic of party politics hasn't changed at all under Mehlman's boss. Though he appointed the first and the second African-American secretaries of state, Bush seldom appears before black audiences. Beyond his interest in education, he has little to say about issues of social and urban policy. Bush has never articulated an approach, other than faith-based platitudes and tax cuts, to bettering the lives of African-Americans. And indeed, has not bettered them. The percentage of blacks living in poverty, which diminished from 33 percent to less than 23 percent during the Clinton years, has been rising again under Bush. . . .

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