Storm's aftermath pushes poverty crisis to surface

September 09, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - As a political commentator, Kanye West makes a great rap artist. During a TV fundraiser last week for Hurricane Katrina victims, the hip-hop star departed from his prepared script to blurt out, among other nuggets, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."

I winced. Mr. West's anti-Bush remarks were not only inappropriate (one hopes that the donations from Bush supporters are just as welcome as everyone else's) but shortsighted.

The sluggish official response to Katrina left more than black folks in its destructive wake. It also left plenty of public officials, in addition to Mr. Bush, to share the blame.

The real question now is, what will we, as Americans, learn from the Katrina tragedy?

The sad, sad truth is that politicians as a rule do not like to invest in solutions that may not occur until after they are out of office.

It is not that the politicians didn't care about black people but that they did not care enough about people in need, regardless of their race, especially the poor who, lacking the resources of the movers and shakers, get moved and shaken.

That's why I think questions about whether New Orleans storm victims would have gotten quicker help if more of them were white misses the larger point: that they would not have been left behind in the city's evacuation plan had they not been poor.

In New Orleans, where the population is, according to the last census, 67.1 percent black and the poverty rate approaches 30 percent, the faces of the moved and shaken, transmitted around the world by TV, turned out to be almost all black.

Katrina ironically put the perennial issues of race and poverty back on the front page of America's attention, at least for a little while.

After years on the nation's front burners, race and poverty received barely a mention during the 2000 and 2004 presidential campaigns. Both issues seem to have been pushed to the margins of national discussion by the late 1990s economic boom, the big drop in urban crime and the rise in goodwill surrounding black cultural-crossover achievers as diverse as Oprah Winfrey, Colin Powell and Tiger Woods.

But don't be fooled: Issues of race and class always lurk just beneath the surface of American life, poised to erupt like a Hawaiian volcano, even on the heels of a hurricane. Who would have guessed Katrina would spark America's biggest racial eruption since the O.J. Simpson murder trial?

Katrina suddenly made America's invisible poor very visible. News media that previously had given little attention to the black poor, in my view, almost gave them too much attention in New Orleans. By shortchanging attention to the region's many victimized whites, as well as others, TV gave a distorted picture of poverty, homelessness and joblessness as being only black problems.

A further irony: The U.S. Census Bureau reported a few days after the storm that the national poverty rate climbed in 2004 for the fourth year in a row (to 12.7 percent from 12.5 percent in 2003). The increase was borne completely by non-Hispanic whites, the only ethnic group that saw its poverty rate rise.

Poverty, like hurricanes, is not limited to blacks. Washington is known to be a place where everyone is responsible, but no one gets blamed. I hope, after all of the finger-pointing and blame-shifting about Katrina's devastation is done, Washington will step up to provide the leadership to pursue a new goal:

Leave no disaster victim behind.

Clarence Page is a columnist for the Chicago Tribune, a Tribune Publishing newspaper. His column appears Tuesdays and Fridays in The Sun.

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