Obama points to danger of `passive indifference'

September 16, 2005|By Clarence Page

WASHINGTON - Timing, like money, isn't everything, but in politics it sure beats whatever is in second place.

With that in mind, it is significant that Sen. Barack Obama, D-Ill., who has turned down innumerable invitations, chose this particular time to do his first nationally televised sit-down interview since taking office.

If ever there was a time when America needed to hear the unifying come-together voice that Mr. Obama unveiled during his memorable keynote speech at the 2004 Democratic National Convention, it was now. Hurricane Katrina has left the biggest eruption over race and class that America has seen since, oh, the last century.

"There is not a black America and a white America and Latino America and Asian America," Obama declared in his DNC speech to great applause. "There's the United States of America."

That was then. That's not quite what the senator said when asked Sunday on ABC's This Week by host George Stephanopoulos whether there was racism involved in the lack of evacuation planning for poor residents of New Orleans.

He blasted disaster planners who were "so detached from the realities of inner-city life in New Orleans ... that they couldn't conceive of the notion that [residents] couldn't load up their SUVs, put $100 worth of gas in there, put some sparkling water and drive off to a hotel and check in with a credit card."

"There seemed to be a sense," he said, "that this other America was somehow not on people's radar screen. And that, I think, does have to do with historic indifference on the part of government to the plight of those [low-income citizens] who are disproportionately African-American."

He added that "passive indifference is as bad as active malice."

Nice.

His "One America" speech celebrated how far we Americans have come. His acknowledgement this time of the "other America" recognizes how far we still have to go.

So does a new national poll by the Pew Center for the People and the Press, which shows white and black attitudes about the Katrina tragedy are worlds apart:

Sixty-six percent of African-Americans polled thought the government's response to the crisis would have been faster if most of the storm's victims had been white. A mere 17 percent of whites shared that view.

Seventy-seven percent of whites felt race would not have made a difference in the government's response. Only 27 percent of blacks agreed with that.

Yet the poll also offers encouraging signs of agreement and hope:

About half of the respondents, black and white, faulted state and local governments, as well as the federal government, for their sluggish response to Katrina and its aftermath. It is also encouraging to note that comparable percentages of Republicans, Democrats and independents - and blacks and whites - said they donated something to help the hurricane victims.

As an alternative to Rev. Jesse Jackson, Democratic Party Chairman Howard Dean and other celebrity partisans showcased by broadcast media in turbulent times, Mr. Obama's common-sense appeal points the way to a dream most Americans still share, regardless of race or party. Despite the success of small-government politics, Americans across racial lines are a generous people, as long as we think our money will do some good.

Unfortunately, as Mr. Obama told Chicago Tribune reporter Jeff Zeleny last weekend, the Democratic Party often has dropped the ball on its core constituents.

"We as Democrats have not been very interested in poverty or issues relating to the inner city as much as we should have," he said.

He's right. In their mad dash to win coveted middle-class and mostly white suburban swing voters, both parties pushed issues of race and poverty offstage in recent presidential contests, especially since the welfare reform law of 1996.

New Orleans made America's invisible poor visible again, and most Americans did not like what they saw. It is there, in our shared disgust over this tragic abandonment of the most needy in our own country, that we might find a new politics, a coalition of the poorly served, if we can find the right leaders.

Mr. Obama, for one, is showing great promise.

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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