By MARC SANDALOW
San Francisco Chronicle
September 23, 2005
Hurricane Katrina's winds ripped away barriers that kept one city's poor out of sight and, for most people, out of mind. As the world watched, the deadly storm thrust the nation's enormous economic disparities into plain view.
President Bush touched on the issue in his address to the nation last week and again at a prayer service at the National Cathedral. First lady Laura Bush talked about it in an interview this week. Members of the Congressional Black Caucus have spoken forcefully about it on the floor of the House of Representatives.
Much as pictures of hoses and German shepherds turned on protesters shamed the nation into confronting racial prejudice in the 1960s, the image of impoverished hurricane victims waiting in vain for government help is forcing a national conversation on race and urban poverty.
"This is an important moment," said William Julius Wilson, a professor at Harvard's Kennedy School of Government who has written extensively on race and poverty.
Were it not for the natural disaster, "the tendency would be to question why 'those people' don't get their act together. The tendency would be to focus on individual shortcomings," Wilson said. "Katrina was an outside force everyone understands. There was great sympathy for the victims. (Americans) don't usually have the same feelings of sympathy or empathy if you just focus on the conditions of poverty in urban areas."
As another storm barrels toward the Gulf Coast, there are already signs of lessons learned. Hundreds of buses have evacuated residents of Galveston, Texas, too poor to afford their own cars or transportation, a precautionary measure New Orleans didn't take.
Yet it remains a question whether New Orleans' calamity will become a turning point in the nation's attitude toward its urban poor, or another fleeting moment of concern. Riots in Detroit, Newark and Watts in the 1960s and the post-Rodney King riots in 1992 prompted a similar outcry to remake the inner city, but little action.
"One can always hope, but I worry this will be a repeat of that experience," said Alan Curtis, president of the Milton S. Eisenhower Foundation, which finances anti-poverty programs. "After the 1960 riots, there was a lot of talk and a lot of commissions, but there was no real sustained action."
As political leaders and the news media turn their attention to the plight of the poor, there is wide disagreement over what to do. Bush has promoted his "ownership society," with an emphasis on entrepreneurship, while Democrats advocate an expansion of the social safety net with more spending on health care, education and job training.
Each side recognizes there is a heightened audience for the message. The conservative Heritage Foundation issued reports this week on how to help the poor through such favorite Republican ideas as school vouchers. The liberal Center for American Progress drew a standing-room-only crowd in Washington this week by inviting former Sen. John Edwards of North Carolina, the Democratic Party's vice presidential candidate in 2004, to discuss how Katrina exposed the "two Americas" he talked about during the campaign.
"We know better, but we don't act because we don't want to look," Edwards said. "The Superdome made those people impossible to ignore, but we could look down the streets of every city in America and see enough poor and forgotten families to fill all the sports stadiums in America."
Some advocates say no one should have been surprised by the poor underbelly of New Orleans, an impoverished segment whose counterparts could be found in almost every big city in the country.
"I was taken aback when reporters and others watching this tragedy were saying: 'This is not America,' " said Rep. Barbara Lee, D-Calif.
"I thought, 'Wait a minute. This is the America I know. This is the America that each and every member of the Congressional Black Caucus knows all too well.' "
Poverty rates have grown in the United States during each of the past four years, with about 37 million Americans - roughly one-eighth of the population - living below the poverty line, which is defined as an individual earning less than $9,827 a year or a single parent with two children earning less than $15,219.
About 1 in 4 African Americans lives in poverty, and the poverty rate for black families headed by a single mother is almost 40 percent.
New Orleans ranks among the nation's poorest cities, with about a quarter of its residents living in poverty before Katrina struck. Louisiana's poverty rate is the second worst in the nation.
Not all of Katrina's victims were poor, and not all of New Orleans' afflicted were black. But the enormous hardship that befell poor blacks prompted Bush to mention their disproportionate suffering.
"This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity," Bush said at a National Day of Prayer and Remembrance service a week ago.
"As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality. Let us deliver new hope to communities that were suffering before the storm. As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency."
Many African Americans greeted Bush's words with great skepticism, saying there is nothing in his past to suggest a commitment to racial justice.
Ishmael Reed, the Oakland, Calif., author and poet who has written extensively about African Americans, pointed to Bush's 2000 stump speech at Bob Jones University, where interracial dating was banned, to Bush's refusal to reject South Carolina's flying of the Confederate flag, and to rumors spread by the Bush campaign about Sen. John McCain's fathering a black child (the McCains have an adopted daughter from Bangladesh).
"If the Bush family didn't have such a track record of using racist appeals in campaigns, maybe people wouldn't be so suspicious of the government response to Katrina," Reed said. "It's going to take more than words."
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