Katrina and the Inequality President

News & Politics

Recent coverage of Hurricane Katrina has shed a harsh light on the Bush administration's indifference to the well-being of African Americans. Now we need to beam that light onto the long-standing pattern of racism in President Bush's five-year record. Using the rainbow cabinet for cover, he has pursued a series of policies that punish and reward people on the basis of race.

It is obvious now that the devastation caused by Katrina was preventable and that New Orleanians lost out to Bush's other priorities--the tax cut for America's upper ranks as well as the Iraq war and subsequent occupation, costing $400 billion total. These decisions frame the dynamics of Bush's disregard for people of color. He has gutted the public programs that help the poor and people of color maintain a basic standard of living, and done away with the civil rights protections that defend our humanity.

Bush opposes the historically successful programs that have provided educational opportunity for people of color, including bilingual education and affirmative action, but he started out with his own plan to reform public education. The controversial No Child Left Behind legislation set rigid test standards and authorized the federal government to defund low-performing schools. While defending himself with sound bites about the "soft bigotry of low expectations," Bush refused to fully fund programs to provide the extra support and teacher quality that low-income children, who are disproportionately of color, need to succeed. In the program's first three years, the administration fell short of fully funding NCLB by a shocking $27 billion. A 2004 study by the Harvard Civil Rights Project found that districts with higher concentrations of people of color continue to have lower graduation rates than majority-white districts in every state.

The president's economic policies have aggravated the racial income gap. He blocked congressional attempts during his first term to raise the federal minimum wage. The average African-American income was 65 percent of white income in 2000, but fell three points in 2003. Bush's current agenda to privatize Social Security, which he vowed to revive just days before Katrina hit, would increase poverty among seniors of color. Without it, fully 60 percent of African-American seniors would be poor, along with 55 percent of Latinos and 26 percent of American Indians. 

In environmental matters, the administration selectively enforces the requirements set out in the National Environmental Policy Act, making it difficult and expensive for landless American Indians to claim reservation land, but quite easy for industry to exploit the earth's resources. When tribes seek land trusts, they are asked to spend upwards of $800,000 on environmental impact studies and assessing alternatives to setting up new reservations, the latter not at all an element of the act itself. But industrial developers have been allowed to use outdated and irrelevant studies to gain permission for natural gas extraction.

Some journalists are calling Katrina survivors "refugees," perhaps hoping that characterization will evoke images of innocent people fleeing hardship. But refugee status won't help them with this administration, which sees refugees not only as foreigners, but also as terrorists and criminals. The Office of Refugee Resettlement has been taken over by the ubiquitous Department of Homeland Security, and has established a policy of automatically imprisoning nationals seeking asylum from 33 countries designated as housing terrorists--all countries of color or Muslim countries. Haiti isn't on that list, but the United States considers Haitian asylum seekers a threat to national security, and summarily repatriates 90 percent of them without asking a single question about why they fled. The recently passed REAL ID Act allows an immigration judge to deny asylum based on utterly subjective factors such as lack of eye contact or displaying little emotion during a hearing.

Bush apparently recognizes his race problem. He has developed several slick coping mechanisms to deflect accusations of racism. First, he trots out black and brown cabinet members. Condoleezza Rice has now stated unequivocally that racism had nothing to do with the Katrina response. It's unclear what the Secretary of State has to do with national disaster preparation, but her presence reinforces the notion that African Americans present a matter of foreign rather than domestic policy.

Second, the administration routinely hides damaging information, as it has done recently by refusing to release a report on bilingual education that the government itself commissioned. The report reveals that bilingual education does indeed help immigrant students learn English, an unpalatable notion among Bush supporters. Third, the administration buys support, as it did in shamefully paying commentator Armstrong Williams $200,000 to "report on" NCLB's supposedly terrific results. Finally, Bush cynically, and untruthfully, claims to protect the interests of people of color; he did, after all, insist that privatizing Social Security would benefit African-American men.

The public should indeed demand an accounting of the Katrina tragedy, and also one of the nation's performance on education, environment and economy, with data broken down by race. While we're making demands, we should also tell the president to keep his hands off Social Security and end the occupation of Iraq.

Two weeks ago, Diane Sawyer asked President Bush if we shouldn't draw a distinction in New Orleans between people taking survival supplies and those taking VCRs. He replied that "it should be zero tolerance," whatever the case. Now is the time to declare zero tolerance for this administration's government-sponsored racism, making no distinction between the president's intentions, whatever they may be, and the road to misery he has paved for millions of people of color. 

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