Those ever watchful for the playing of the so-called race card are usually expert at the unseemly game. Their highly attuned sense of aggrievement makes them as jumpy as a first-time poker player who thinks he has a hand better than the one he actually has. And so it was yesterday that the Daily Caller boldly proclaimed it had a royal flush. Instead, the conservative Web site had a fist full of nuthin’.
“Obama’s other race speech,” screamed The Daily Caller’s homepage in bright red. The site declared that then-Sen. Barack Obama (D-Ill.) “says feds ‘don’t care’ about black New Orleans.” The speech in question was a June 2007 address to the Hampton University Annual Ministers’ Conference in Hampton, Va. A speech that ABC News’s Jake Tapper reminds us was covered by the mainstream press at the time.
The new fauxtroversy centers on what Obama said about the government’s response to New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. The Daily Caller swears that it is proof that Obama was overtly dabbling in racial grievance before a black audience. But Talking Points Memo’s Benjy Sarlin correctly points out that Obama “never mentioned race while discussing the disaster in his speech.”
Yes, the future president highlighted the disparity in treatment of Florida after Hurricane Andrew and of New York after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001, compared to that of Louisiana, and particularly New Orleans, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. He specifically blamed the Stafford Act, which requires states to kick in $1 for every $10 in disaster relief they get from the federal government. The requirement was waived for Florida and New York.
“Now here’s the thing, when 9/11 happened in New York City, they waived the Stafford Act — said, ‘This is too serious a problem. We can’t expect New York City to rebuild on its own. Forget that dollar you got to put in. Well, here’s 10 dollars.’ And that was the right thing to do. When Hurricane Andrew struck in Florida, people said, ‘Look at this devastation. We don’t expect you to come up with y’own money, here. Here’s the money to rebuild. We’re not going to wait for you to scratch it together — because you’re part of the American family.’ … What’s happening down in New Orleans? Where’s your dollar? Where’s your Stafford Act money? Makes no sense. Tells me that somehow, the people down in New Orleans they don’t care about as much.”
Having covered New Orleans’s rebuilding, I know that the sentiment of federal neglect Obama expressed in that Hampton University speech was widely shared in the state of Louisiana. And it was brought home to me during an interview with then-Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco (D) in her office Baton Rouge, one month before Obama’s now-infamous speech.
When I asked the governor if she were as baffled as I by the level of resistance in Congress and in the White House to helping Louisiana with post-Hurricane Katrina recovery (the continuing refusal to waive the onerous 10 percent match required by the Federal Emergency Management Agency comes to mind), Blanco let ’er rip.
“It’s all political,” she began. “You know, this country’s run on politics. But when a disaster comes that is not what you expect, you expect a human reaction, not a political reaction. And I will tell you, there’s a void,” Blanco drawled, “a total void of human response. And it’s extremely discouraging as an American citizen. It makes me angry and extremely disappointed.”
Two politicians — one white, one black — both hammering away at the “void of human response” to the suffering from fellow Americans. But because the black pol had the temerity to express his anguish in that down-home cadence we blacks are known to slip into when we’re with “family,” he’s playing the race card. Or as Tucker Carlson, editor in chief of the Daily Caller, put it, “This isn’t a dog whistle — this is a dog siren.”
No, this is ridiculous. As Joan Walsh writes in Salon, “There was absolutely nothing objectionable in Obama’s speech.”