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One Year Later, Katrina Didn't Close the Racial Divide

The pain that storm unleashed should have brought us together in compassion -- instead of separating us via racial rancor and finger-pointing.
 
 
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A few months ago New Orleans Mayor Ron Nagin effusively praised the Bush administration for stepping up efforts to aid the city's recovery. Now he's singing a different tune, saying that the government has bombed badly. And he blames it on one thing, racism. The mayor's compliments and bitter blast tells much about what Katrina did and didn't do to close the racial divide.

But that's not the only sign that the divide is still gaping. A month before Nagin's outburst, the feds announced that they'd investigate the horrific incident where police in the white-flight New Orleans suburb of Gretna turned back at gunpoint hundreds of desperate, panic stricken, mostly poor blacks attempting to flee Katrina's devastation. Gretna officials wailed that race was not the motive. They claimed that that they didn't have the resources to deal with the crowds. That's malarkey, and their words in the first hours after Katrina hit prove it.

They lambasted the flood victims as criminals and claimed they threatened life and property. These are well-worn racial code words. Though there was absolutely no evidence of any wrongdoing by the overwhelming majority of the victims, police and officials equated black with criminal. If those fleeing in headlong frenzy for their lives were white, and middle class, city officials would likely have embraced them with open arms and bent over backwards to provide whatever food and shelter they could.

While the federal investigation is welcome, it took way too long. State and federal officials should have immediately put city officials on the legal hot seat for their disgraceful action. But despite repeated demands by civil rights groups and two protest marches by national civil rights leaders, the Louisiana attorney general took months to investigate. And despite an ACLU demand, it has refused to make its findings public. Given the glacial pace of most federal civil rights probes, Katrina will be a faint memory by the time the Feds finish. The likelihood of any action is probably nil.

The first tip that race would constantly shadow the Katrina debacle was the wide gulf in black and white reaction to Bush and the government's initial fumbled relief efforts. In polls most blacks relentlessly hammered Bush as mean-spirited and callous for his foot-dragging. The conspiracy mill churned furiously. Many blacks publicly, and even more privately, groused that there was a hidden racial hand in the turgid response. Many cheered hip-hop artist Kanye West's verbal lash of Bush that he hates black people. Most whites criticized the sluggish federal response, but attributed it to bureaucratic bungling, not racial malice.

A year later, the polls would likely show the same racial division on Bush and the government's Katrina bungle. It's too painful for many whites to think that the federal government, their government, would cold-bloodedly leave Americans to die, even if most of them were black and poor. And it's too painful for many blacks to believe that racial indifference wasn't the prime motive for the government to leave so many poor blacks to twist in misery in New Orleans.

In the year since Katrina raged through the Gulf, race has played out in big and small ways. The Congressional Black Caucus and civil rights leaders complain that Bush and Congress have reneged on their pledge to provide billions for relief and rebuilding, that thousands of mostly poor blacks are still scattered to the nation's four corners, and they remain homeless, jobless, and dependent on dwindling government subsidies. Meanwhile, Bush has virtually

dropped poverty from his vocabulary, and there's no public clamor for him to put it back. City officials in Houston and other cities blame Katrina victims for crime, poverty, and assorted social ills.

In a recent poll by the Louisiana Recovery Authority, a majority of whites said they did not want New Orleans to return to its pre-Katrina racial demographics. That was a covert way of saying that they did not want the city to be majority black. Some privately whispered that the displacement of so many blacks made the city safer, cleaner, and less poverty stricken. In contrast, the majority of blacks told pollsters they wanted New Orleans to remain a majority black city. The great fear was that the displacement would dilute black political strength.

Race was also rammed into the mayor's race. When Nagin was first elected, many blacks regarded the former corporate communications exec, and political novice, as a safe, bland, business friendly guy that wouldn't cater to black interests. Katrina changed that. Nagin transformed his winning campaign against white Lt Governor Mitch Landrieu into a holy racial crusade and became the unlikely symbol of black political power.

Katrina was race neutral, and the pain and suffering it unleashed should have brought people together in an on-going spirit of compassion and giving, not racial rancor and finger pointing. It didn't then, and a year later it still hasn't.

Earl Ofari Hutchinson is a political analyst and social issues commentator, and the author of the forthcoming book The Emerging Black GOP Majority (Middle Passage Press, September 2006), a hard-hitting look at Bush and The GOP's court of black voters.