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National NOW Times >> Winter 05-06  >> Article

Guest Commentary: Perspectives on Katrina

By Deborah Peterson Small, Guest Writer

Lately, there has been considerable media focus on the racial fallout from the Hurricane Katrina disaster. A recent poll by the Pew Research Center found that more than two-thirds of blacks believe the response by government officials to the Katrina crisis would have been faster if the victims had been white, while more than 77 percent of whites disagree with that assessment. The Bush administration is busy trying to repair the damage and shore up support among black leaders by appealing to their friends in the black clergy.

The tremendous racial divergence in opinion on this issue reminds me of the response to the O.J. Simpson and Rodney King verdicts. In both of those racially charged cases there was a stark difference between how blacks and whites viewed the same events. The huge racial divide which persists in this country is once again revealed by the dramatically different perceptions of the way the Katrina disaster was handled.

I think this difference in perception and the media's response to it has a lot to do with the way blacks and whites approach the issue of racism. Many whites rightfully reject the notion that President Bush and administration officials failed to respond efficiently to the people trapped in New Orleans because they were predominantly black and poor. Their view of racism is defined as overt racial animus and they don't think this President acts from that space. On this point I would agree. I think the problem comes from the failure of whites to acknowledge the pervasiveness of structural racism and the impact it has on the daily life of most African-Americans, especially the poor.

When blacks talk about modern-day racism we are generally referring to institutional racism, namely a whole host of processes and policies that are designed to advantage whites at the expense of others and concentrate the nonwhite urban poor in pockets of chronic disadvantage. Many studies over the past decades have mapped racial outcome disparities in urban settings, and it is clear that urban political economies do not operate in ways that are race-neutral. African Americans, Latinos and other minorities are placed at a disadvantage in disproportionate numbers by these systems.

Less obvious but no less real are the ways in which the nation's historical legacy of racial stratification operates in the current period to undermine the prevailing paradigm of equal opportunity. From its inception, America has defined race in a way that privileges "whiteness" in every dimension of life. The notion of who qualifies for membership in this group has evolved since slavery, but those still excluded from it bear a crippling burden of negative stereotyping by the majority, as well as other, more active forms of social marginalization.

All this means that race and racism amount to far more than a problem of interpersonal relationships; they are active generators of the economic, physical and other problems of place that still afflict the predominantly black poor and were in stark evidence among the New Orleans Katrina victims.

When rapper Kanye West says, "George Bush doesn't care about black people," he isn't accusing the President of thinking like a Klansman or Archie Bunker type. He knows, like the rest of us, that Bush appears to have many prominent black friends. However, it is hard to ignore Bush's obvious discomfort with the poor and disadvantaged.

Despite regularly clothing himself in the mantle of "compassionate conservatism," Bush's record is long on conservatism but exceedingly short on compassion. His administration has cut millions of dollars from social welfare and anti-poverty programs, opposed government funding for reproductive health services for poor women, and promoted school vouchers as an alternative to investment in urban schools. His attorney generals have promoted ever harsher and more punitive criminal justice policies that lead to increased incarceration of minorities and the poor. To assert that his policies demonstrate indifference is hardly demagogic or extreme. We need to work on developing ways to distinguish the role of societal structures in perpetuating negative outcomes for the poor.

While in many urban areas a disproportionate percentage of the poor are black or Hispanic, there are many pockets of white poverty desperately in need of attention. The tragedy on the Gulf Coast provides a unique opportunity to develop alliances with those struggling to rebuild their lives that focus on the role of poverty in limiting social and economic mobility.

Deborah Peterson Small is executive director of Break the Chains, an organization that promotes drug policy reform. She is the co-chair of NOW's Advisory Committee on Women and Drug Policy.

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