Perceptions of race and the faces of poverty

Posted: Sep 10, 2005 12:00 AM

It feels like O.J. all over again. In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, we are reminded that black America and white America see things differently.

We saw this vividly during O.J. Simpson's criminal trial. When his not-guilty verdict was delivered, black Americans cheered while whites - dumbfounded and nearly unanimous in their belief that Simpson was guilty - scratched their heads.

How could we see things so differently?

Now we see this racial schism again in the aftermath of Katrina. Blacks - again not all, but many if not most - see the federal government's slow response to the hurricane's ravages as evidence of President George W. Bush's racism.

Rapper Kanye West became suddenly more famous, especially among whites who had never heard of him, when he said during a hurricane relief concert: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

That message has been amplified by some non-blacks, notably Michael Moore and Howard Dean, while some blacks - notably Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice - have refuted the racism charge. As Rice said during a visit to her home state of Alabama: "Nobody, especially the president, would have left people unattended on the basis of race."

I believe that's true. Most (not all) Americans take pride in practicing racial neutrality in their lives. Moreover, no one intentionally left people unattended, either in New Orleans or elsewhere in Katrina's some 91,000-square-mile path. More likely, "incompetence" - especially locally - will be the finding of whatever commissions evolve to investigate what went wrong.

In the meantime, the race message has trickled down and polluted the mainstream: Bush doesn't care about blacks.

I bumped into this perception in a restaurant a few days ago when a mixed-race table had a small meltdown while debating Bush's response. I happened to be seated nearby and, because I know the people, was invited to participate.

One member of the party, an African-American woman, looked at me with what I think I can report accurately as pain. "Bush doesn't care about people who look like me," she said matter-of-factly. This from an elegant professional woman clearly not of the Al Sharpton school of reactionary politics.

I have been critical of Bush's performance the past several days because I think he missed an opportunity to lead "big-time," as his vice president would say. He missed a chance to save lives, to save national pride, and to create a Teflon legacy of compassionate conservatism to bestir the hearts of his worst critics.

He missed the boat at the point when he could have made a difference - after the floods and while people were held hostage in the Superdome - and I think he knows it.

Nevertheless, I don't think Bush has a racist bone in his body. More likely - and more to the point here - he suffers an affliction common to many of us. That is, an unfamiliarity and discomfort with poverty.

For most of us, especially whites, New Orleans was a big, fun town where you get offered a drink as soon as you're off the plane - a noisy, hot, humid, sexy, sensual dreamscape where adults walk down the French Quarter's narrow streets drinking "Hurricanes," gazing at beautiful women who turn out to be men, marveling at the music and the mirrored miracle that is Galatoire's, and waking up to chicory coffee and beignets.

We don't see the poverty on the periphery because, to be blunt, it spoils our movie. Poverty, especially when we're on vacation, becomes invisible. If we do happen to catch an accidental glimpse, we avert our eyes. Katrina put an end to that denial by exposing what we didn't want to see - the other New Orleans that is poor and, like the city, mostly black.

Not just a little bit poor, but embarrassingly poor in Earth's richest nation. Too poor to leave in many cases, though some were also stubborn, we're learning. Too poor to own or rent a car, or to buy the gas that was hitting $3.50 a gallon in the hours shortly after the storm. Way too poor to buy a plane ticket or rent a motel room.

Too poor to be noticed? That's a question for all hearts to answer.

The stories out of New Orleans will continue to break all but the hardest hearts in the next several weeks and months, but the one that needs to die soonest is that America turned her back on blacks. America, starting with the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana, turned her back on the poor.