My staff and I were recently in New Orleans for the commemoration of Hurricane Katrina. We visited the lower ninth ward and other areas as my mind reflected on the darken sadness of it all. The reality is that many of the displaced local residents will never come back. They cannot afford to return due to the 25% hike in rent and home ownership. There is a small mindset in the Gulf Coast region that elements responsible for the crime, drugs, and indolence should have been cleansed from the city long ago.
A year ago the Levees broke in New Orleans, permitting the mighty waters of the Gulf to wreak havoc and destruction on the city's ninth ward. In Katrina's wake, news cameras captured footage that seared painful images into the minds and hearts of countless Americans. The water destroyed all in its path, killing thousands and leaving many others stranded, fighting to survive. The nation watched in horror as elderly men and women struggled to free themselves from homes that had become submerged in contaminated water; as children called out for help whilst corpses of their neighbors floated by; as men, women and infant children remained trapped in the Superdome without food, water and life saving medications, unable to defend themselves against the antagonism of the city's thugs. The ubiquitous shocking images that came out of the Gulf Coast one year ago not only caused this nation to question the government's slow response, at all levels, but opened our eyes to the awful truth that in the wealthiest, most powerful nation on earth there are those who live in abject, debilitating, poverty, many of whom are black. While certainly disheartening, perhaps this solemn manifestation was Katrina's silver lining. It has provided us yet another opportunity to seriously address the complex issues of race and class which have haunted America’s urban and inner cities since her inception-issues that have torn them apart at the seams.
Why does it seem that a disproportionate number of Blacks are still in crisis? Katrina brought much needed attention to the plight of indigent Blacks in New Orleans, but such poor quality of life is not unique to the Gulf Coast. Millions of minorities endure the same plight all over this country regardless of race. The aforementioned numbers tell their story of failure and disappointment and beg the question: why, in the wealthiest nation known to men, does the situation for Blacks continue to be the harshest and so bleak?
Throughout my career I have continuously advocated personal responsibility as the only way for many American Blacks to rise from the depths of despair to realize that every opportunity in America is their opportunity. While I have not turned away from this fundamental belief, Katrina has caused me to reflect on this nation's history of racism, and put in proper perspective its impact on their lives today. The immoral act of human slavery and years of systemic racism has helped to create a cycle of poverty in this community that many have been unable to escape. Sadly for a period in their history, they were denied education in the U.S., including reading and writing. Post slavery, many Blacks, especially those in the south, were still denied basic rights until arguably the late 60's. Today many Blacks unbelievably are still caught in this cycle that began over 400 years ago. Uneducated, they are unable to find work that is adequate to support a family and are subsequently unable to send their children to better schools than the ones funded by their minimal tax dollars, meaning the child receives the same sub-par education the parent did and the cycle of poverty is unbroken.
While past injustices still unfortunately negatively impact the mindset of American Blacks today, the truth remains that this viscous cycle can only be broken by the very people trapped inside. There are many who argue that the government should still play a significant role in moving Blacks ahead in life, and believe that anyone who argues against such policies are racist or self haters. To these critics I point to the large number of government programs that have failed Blacks over the past forty years. While centuries of government sponsored discrimination have hindered the progress of blacks, handouts are not the remedy. Moreover, it is not racist and insensitive to say that Blacks must pick themselves up by the bootstraps, but it is insane to ignore the legacy of slavery and de jure segregation.
The glass ceiling has been lifted, meaning the only impediments to the success of many Blacks are Blacks themselves. Instead of government programs we need more Black mentors like Dr. Cosby to go into cities across the nation and work to break the destructive cycle of poverty. Just as she forced us to rebuild New Orleans, Katrina has forced us to open our eyes to the desperate state of many Blacks in America, thereby giving us an opportunity to rebuild the lives of people whose success and progress is inextricably linked to the history of this nation, both past and present.