Jewish World Review Sept. 14, 2005 / 10 Elul,
Compounding the tragedy?
The race men are at it again, turning the tragedy of New Orleans
into a morality tale about racism in America. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton,
Rep. Maxine Waters (who qualifies, despite her gender), rapper Kanye West,
and a host of lesser-known black leaders and spokesmen were quick to see
racism in the agonizingly slow evacuation of New Orleans following Hurricane
Katrina. Jackson compared the situation at the infamous Superdome to "the
hull of a slave ship." West ranted that "George Bush doesn't care about
black people." Even Sen. Barack Obama, who initially said that class was the
biggest factor in why many New Orleans residents failed to make it out of
the city before disaster struck, seemed to blame the president for racial
insensitivity. "I mean, it's puzzling, given his immediate response during
9/11, that he did not feel a greater sense of empathy towards the folks that
were experiencing this enormous disaster," Obama said on ABC's "This Week"
But if there was any real lesson about the effects of racism to
be learned from this tragedy, it is that American generosity is colorblind.
Americans of all colors have opened their hearts, their pocketbooks and
their homes to those who have lost everything to nature's fury. To date,
Americans have donated nearly $1 billion in private aid, and the federal
government has committed an additional $60 billion to the victims, the most
visible of whom were the mostly black residents stranded in New Orleans.
Even the pictures that emerged as victims were being rescued
belied any hint of racism. Most of the National Guardsmen and other military
personnel saving lives were white, while most of those being saved were
black, not surprising given the demographics of the respective groups.
Blacks made up 68 percent of New Orleans' population, but only about 20
percent of all military personnel and an even smaller proportion of National
But if white indifference doesn't explain why so many of those
left stranded happened to be black and why it took so long to bring them to
safety, what does? Government surely failed its most vulnerable citizens,
but not because of race. A majority of New Orleans' black (as well as white
and Latino) residents made it out of the city before the storm hit, despite
the breakdown in government communication and assistance. They did so
because they didn't depend on government in the first place. Those left
behind were disproportionately dependent on government because of age,
infirmity or poverty in many instances, all three factors played a role.
New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation.
Nearly one-third of its citizens live below the poverty line. But as Michael
Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, points
out, the federal government has given billions of dollars to New Orleans'
poor since George W. Bush took office. Tanner estimates that the Bush
administration has spent some $10 billion in welfare assistance in
Louisiana, including $1.2 billion in cash assistance and $3 billion in food
stamps, as well as public housing, Medicaid and more than 60 other federal
anti-poverty programs. But all that money did not buy self-sufficiency, the
commodity that largely differentiated those who escaped the deluge from
those who got stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center.
So where was government when its wards most needed it? Local and
state government were nowhere to be seen, and not because, as some now
claim, state and local officials, too, were victims of Hurricane Katrina.
Gov. Kathleen Blanco, safely in Baton Rouge during the storm, admitted in an
interview with CNN that aired this past weekend that she waited until Aug.
31 two days after Katrina made landfall to ask for federal troops in
New Orleans. When CNN anchor Miles O'Brien asked Blanco when exactly she
made a specific appeal, Blanco said: "I'm lost. . . . I don't even know what
today is," finally acknowledging, "I made that request perhaps Wednesday."
But surely not even racial demagogues like Jackson would argue that
Blanco who would not have been elected governor but for black voters
delayed deploying troops at her disposal or asking for more federal troops
because those trapped were black.
Blaming racism for the fate of New Orleans in the aftermath of a
natural disaster and ignoring the heartfelt generosity and commitment of so
many Americans of all races to help the victims rebuild have only compounded
JWR contributor Linda Chavez is President of the Center for Equal Opportunity. Her latest book is "Betrayal: How Union Bosses Shake Down Their Members and Corrupt American Politics". (Click HERE to purchase. Sales help fund JWR.)