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 | http://www.breitbart.com/news/2005/09/07/D8CFNMPG0.html 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 | http://slate.msn.com/?id=2125812&nav=tap2/ 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. . . .
"When the levees broke on Tuesday, Aug. 30, no urge from the political gut overrode his natural instinct to spend another day vacationing at his ranch. When Bush finally got himself to the Gulf Coast three days later, he did his hugging in Biloxi, Miss., which is 71 percent white, with a mayor, governor, and two senators who are all Republicans. Bush's memorable comments were about rebuilding Sen. Trent Lott's porch and about how he used to enjoy getting hammered in New Orleans. Only when a firestorm of criticism and political damage broke out over the federal government's callousness did Bush open his eyes to black suffering."
After ignoring race at first, the media are now filled with stories about the racial impact, as in this AP story; " 'You'd have to go back to slavery, or the burning of black towns, to find a comparable event that has affected black people this way,' said Darnell M. Hunt, a sociologist and head of the African American studies department at UCLA."
There is major pushback from Bush's allies on the blame game, and fingers are being pointed at two Democrats, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana.
The Conservative Voice | http://www.theconservativevoice.com/articles/article.html?id=8129 has this interview:
"Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of BOND, the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny, today harshly criticized Black elected officials and celebrities who claimed that President George W. Bush is responsible for the tragic death of thousands of mostly black residents in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.
"'This is a terrible situation and we need to have compassion. The truth is black people died not because of President Bush or racism, they died because of their unhealthy dependence on the government and the incompetence of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco,' said Rev. Peterson."
Does not being able to afford a car amount to unhealthy dependence on government?
Ramblings' Journal | http://mhking.mu.nu/archives/116652.php rips Blanco in as personal terms as some are attacking Bush:
"The Red Cross has confirmed to Fox News Channel's Major Garrett that they had requested permission to take food and medical supplies to the Louisiana Superdome in the hours immediately after Hurricane Katrina's landfall. That request was denied by none other than Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco. . . .
"The Louisiana Department of Homeland Security is directly under the command and direction of Governor Kathleen Blanco. The same Kathleen Blanco who has whined and blamed the federal government from her perch in Baton Rouge throughout this entire crisis. The same Kathleen Blanco who has stared at cameras with deer-in-headlight-glazed eyes since Hurricane Katrina made landfall. The same Kathleen Blanco who, after being asked about federal help prior to landfall said, 'No.' The same Kathleen Blanco who rescinded Mayor Ray Nagin's order to completely evacuate the city due to dangerous conditions. . . .
"Was Kathleen Blanco's goal the death of as many of those in the Superdome as possible?"
Not all conservatives are casting blame, though. David Brooks | http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/08/opinion/08brooks.html?hp, in his New York Times column, sees an opportunity:
"Hurricane Katrina has given us an amazing chance to do something serious about urban poverty.
"That's because Katrina was a natural disaster that interrupted a social disaster. It separated tens of thousands of poor people from the run-down, isolated neighborhoods in which they were trapped. It disrupted the patterns that have led one generation to follow another into poverty.
"It has created as close to a blank slate as we get in human affairs, and given us a chance to rebuild a city that wasn't working. We need to be realistic about how much we can actually change human behavior, but it would be a double tragedy if we didn't take advantage of these unique circumstances to do something that could serve as a spur to antipoverty programs nationwide."
I certainly haven't heard the administration talking about spurring antipoverty programs. (Brooks favors integrating the poor into middle-class communities to help change their values.)
Andrew Sullivan | http://www.andrewsullivan.com/index.php?dish_inc=archives/2005_09_04_dish_archive.html#112611548003291634 reacts sharply to Rep. Nancy Pelosi saying she told Bush that FEMA chief Michael Brown should be fired because of what went wrong, and that Bush replied: "What didn't go right?"
"The president is still out of it. I must say that the Katrina response does help me better understand the situation in Iraq. The best bet is that the president doesn't actually know what's happening there, is cocooned from reality, has no one in his high-level staff able to tell him what's actually happening, and has created a culture of denial and loyalty that makes fixing mistakes or holding people accountable all but impossible."
If you want an indication of how media coverage has changed, when Pelosi told that story to CNN's Kyra Phillips yesterday, Phillips kept pressing her on whether FEMA was solely to blame, and whether Congress and the Army Corps of Engineers deserved blame, until the House minority leader said: "Kyra, if you want to make a case for the White House, you should go on their payroll." Phillips said she was doing no such thing.
And when the "CBS Evening News" (I don't know if the other newscasts did this) showed Dick Cheney insisting progress was being made -- sounding very much like he was talking about Iraq -- the program played sound of a protester shouting, "Go [bleep] yourself." The same lovely phrase, by the way, that the veep hurled at Sen. Pat Leahy last year.
The New York Times | http://nytimes.com/2005/09/09/national/nationalspecial/09military.html?hp&ex=1126324800&en=905e7a862e1c0023&ei=5094&partner=homepage provides another clue as to why the cavalry was so slow to arrive:
"As New Orleans descended into chaos last week and Louisiana's governor asked for 40,000 soldiers, President Bush's senior advisers debated whether the president should speed the arrival of active-duty troops by seizing control of the hurricane relief mission from the governor.
"For reasons of practicality and politics, officials at the Justice Department and the Pentagon, and then at the White House, decided not to urge Mr. Bush to take command of the effort. Instead, the Washington officials decided to rely on the growing number of National Guard personnel flowing into Louisiana, who were under Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco's control. . . .
"Interviews with officials in Washington and Louisiana show that as the situation grew worse, they were wrangling with questions of federal/state authority, weighing the realities of military logistics and perhaps talking past each other in the crisis."
You think the people who were drowning cared about federal-state authority?
Jay Rosen | http://journalism.nyu.edu/pubzone/weblogs/pressthink/ does an energetic job of rounding up recent pieces, including my column | http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/04/AR2005090401320.html, contending that journalists have turned more aggressive on the Katrina story and that, in my view at least, this is a welcome development. In fact, I say that journalism has dredged up its reason for being in the storm's wake. Here's Rosen's analysis from NYU:
"Spine is always good, outrage is sometimes needed, and empathy can often reveal the story. But there is no substitute for being able to think, and act journalistically on your conclusions. What is the difference between a "blame game" and real accountability? If you have no idea because you've never really thought it about it, then your outrage can easily misfire. . . .
"What is it realistic to expect in a chaotic situation like New Orleans faced in the week after the hurricane? It's not an easy question. An intelligent and nuanced answer to that is worth a lot more to journalists than righteous indignation, because if your rage overcomes your realism you will eventually sound ridiculous even to those who share the feeling. . . .
"If you can think with the situation it doesn't matter (for your journalism) if you break down and emote. If you can't think, and can't draw conclusions that influence your reporting, then bringing passion to the table isn't going to change a damn thing. And I don't believe Katrina has 'saved' the news media from itself, either, although I agree that nola.com | http://www.nola.com, by turning itself into an online forum, has been an inspiration.
"Finally, the challenge for American journalism is not to recover its reason for being, but to find a stronger and better one. The world has changed. It's not enough to be tough."
This blogger's response: Of course being "tough" isn't an end in and of itself. Just getting mad or yelling at people may make for good television, but it isn't necessarily good journalism. My point (and I say this during campaigns, wars and other major stories) is that journalists must hold those in authority accountable, and demonstrate (through reporting, not opinion) when they are misleading the public, and that there's nothing wrong with showing passion in this endeavor. This is harder and riskier than passive, he said/she said reporting. In the case of Katrina, the gap between what officials were saying and what journalists on the ground were seeing was so great that it spurred them on, but that approach need not fade with the storm's aftermath.
Remember the uproar over Armstrong Williams being paid $241,000 by the Education Department (and my subsequent piece about Maggie Gallagher and her $21,000 contract)? Well, USA Today | http://www.usatoday.com/news/education/2005-09-03-education-funding_x.htm has the follow-up:
"One Sunday last October, readers of The Dallas Morning News opened their newspapers to an angry op-ed penned by Marcela Garcini, a self-described 'ninja parent' who took the Dallas school system to task for dragging its heels on No Child Left Behind, saying it was 'limiting the future and opportunities for our children.'. . .
"Garcini wanted readers to know that, thanks to NCLB, students in 'failing' schools now had the right to transfer to better-performing schools. 'It's time to say "basta!"(stop!). Our children don't want, nor does any child deserve, to be left behind.'
"Appearing 23 days before the Nov. 2 election, her piece read like an ad for President Bush's 2002 education reform law, a cornerstone of his domestic policy. But what readers never knew was that, for all practical purposes, it was an ad -- paid for, in part, by taxpayers, through a grant from the Bush administration.
"In 2003 and 2004, Garcini's nonprofit group, the Hispanic Council for Reform and Education Options (CREO), received two unsolicited grants, totaling $900,000, from the U.S. Education Department, to promote school choice and tutoring options for Hispanic children. But in two op-eds in the Morning News and a third that appeared in two Spanish-language publications earlier in 2004, Garcini never disclosed, as was required by law, that CREO had received the government grants.
"Federal investigators probing the department's public relations contracts this week say the department has given nearly $4.7 million to groups including Garcini's to promote administration education priorities since 2002, but that in 10 of 11 cases examined, the groups didn't disclose -- in print, on radio or in other media, such as brochures or handbooks -- that taxpayer funds were used."
Give me a moment while I get over my shock.
Finally, just to show that Katrina affects everything -- even dating -- Wonkette | http://wonkette.com cites this posting from Craigslist under the headline "Women say yes to men who say 'Brown must go'?":
Join me for a quick protest, then maybe get a coke after? - m4w - 31Reply to: email@example.comDate: 2005-09-08, 11:03AM EDT
Me and some friends are going over to the MoveOn.org protest to demand they fire Mike Brown (the head of FEMA)...
Maybe after we can go and get a bite to eat, or volunteer at the DC Armory? Let me know!