It was a disarming thought, and one that several pundits were quick to seize upon. Jesse Jackson told CNN that “The I-10 causeway. . .looked like . . .the hull of a slave ship." DNC Chairman Howard Dean, pronounced that "we must . . . come to grips with the ugly truth that skin color. . .played a deadly role in who survived and who did not." The New York Times ran a news article that began, "The white people got out. Most of them, anyway. If television newspaper images can be deemed a statistical sample, it was mostly black people who were left behind." Rapper Kanye West was even more blunt, veering from the script during NBC's hurricane relief telethon and blurting out, “George Bush doesn't care about black people." Many Americans agree. A poll by the Pew Research Center reveals that two-thirds of American blacks believe that the federal government was slow to respond to this crisis because the majority of the victims were black.
On this point, I want to be clear. This notion that race was a factor in the relief effort is not only dishonest, it is reprehensible. The reason why most of those stranded in the Superdome were black is because two-thirds of the city’s residents are black. In fact, much of the city’s local representatives are black. New Orleans has a black city Council. They have black elected representatives. They have black judges. All of whom failed to send any buses to evacuate New Orleans’ residents before the hurricane hit. Are the black Democrat elected representatives in New Orleans also racist because they utterly failed to coordinate a timely rescue effort? Of course not.
It is true that the majority of people trapped in New Orleans during the storm were black. But so were the majority of people who escaped. The key factor distinguishing the two groups was that the majority of those left behind were poor. They lacked transportation. Both the local and federal government failed to develop evacuation procedures for people without cars. The people who couldn’t afford transportation were left behind.
The sad fact is that 30 percent of New Orleans residents live below the poverty line. One of the effects of Hurricane Katrina was to bring their plight into focus. The response to their plight, however, is even more telling. The need to crouch this tragedy in racial rhetoric reveals an assumption, now so ingrained in our culture, that the problems of black people—whether its high crime rates, or being victimized by a natural disaster—are primarily the result of white racism.
Implying that rescue workers only saved white families or that President Bush gave the order to let black people drown not only obscures complex issues like race relations, but it also buries the root cause of this tragedy—poverty in our urban centers. This is a very real problem. It has a perverse effect on people of color. And it gets completely obscured when people like Jesse Jackson or Kanye West complicate this tragedy by using race to further divide this Country.
When these people employ racially divisive rhetoric to describe the New Orleans disaster, they shift the dialogue away from the real problems that plague our urban centers. Notice, none of our so called black leaders are discussing economic solutions that are needed to empower urban communities. No one is even placing the problem in its proper political context. Instead, they are simply using this tragedy as an excuse to play the race card. Plainly, their goal is to stir racial tensions. This is how they make a living. They give ethnic groups, who already feel marginalized, something to pump their fists at. But they don’t talk about solutions. One only hopes that after they’re all done blaming President Bush for this natural disaster, our so-called black leaders can pause just long enough to thoughtfully deal with the problem of urban poverty that is at the heart of this tragedy.