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Commentary: Race, Social Class and Hurricane Katrina

By Mark Ashwill

Buffalo, NY – As a clueless Mike Myers looked on, rapper Kanye West deviated from the teleprompter to declare on NBC's nationally televised "Concert for Hurricane Relief" that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." It was one of those rare unscripted moments on live TV that strikes panic into the hearts of corporate executives who, like the White House, disdain spontaneity and prefer to "stay on message."

According to an NBC spokeswoman, "there was a several-second tape delay, but the person in charge was instructed to listen for a curse word, and didn't realize West had gone off-script." West's words did not begin with A, F or S but nonetheless formed a succinct and damning indictment of the president. At a bare minimum, one can't help but question Bush's leadership in responding or, more to the point, not responding in a timely fashion, to this, the worst natural disaster in the history of the United States.

So... does George Bush care about Black people? There's no reason to believe he doesn't on a personal level. Without public pronouncements or overheard off-the-cuff remarks to the contrary, it's a tricky and risky business gazing into the soul of a fellow human being. The larger question is does George Bush care about poor people?

Don't be fooled by his folksy manner, Southern twang and penchant for clearing brush on his Crawford ranch; one thing is clear: his privileged life has not brought him into contact with the millions of Americans, disproportionately people of color, who languish in the lowest income and wealth quintile, and for whom life is not a series of endless opportunities, second chances and bailouts.

What is painfully obvious is that many of the administration's policies - actualized and proposed - are dripping with contempt for poor people and favoritism for the elite. These range from a massive redistribution of wealth to the top percentiles in the form of income and capital gains tax cuts, to the "No Child Left Behind Act," a cruel, hollow contradiction in terms, to the neoconversative vision of the world that finds its most tragic and costly expression in the invasion and occupation of Iraq.

The sad and depressing reality is that while 1 in 8 Americans live at or below the poverty line, 24% of African-Americans are poor, according to the U.S. government's Scrooge-like definition. New Orleans, in which 30% of all residents live below the poverty threshold, is one of the poorest cities in the country. Many, especially those who endured the living hell of the Superdome or the convention center, went from living check to check to having nothing. These were the unfortunates who couldn't hop into their SUVs or book flights to wherever, and who had no choice but to rely on their government, our government, to meet their most basic needs in this, our greatest domestic humanitarian crisis.

Reading the headlines from around the world, I am filled with a sense of shame, embarrassment and anger. The United States, which is known the world over for its wealth, efficiency and can-do spirit failed to coordinate a rapid and effective response upon which the fate of thousands of people hangs in the balance.

Is there a silver lining to this devastation and national disgrace? Never have I seen so many poor American faces on U.S. television, or heard so much discussion and analysis about race and social class in the media since Katrina decimated Alabama, Louisiana and Mississippi, leaving thousands dead, dying and suffering in her wake. Too often, American TV prefers to keep us abreast of weightier stories such as what happened to Natalee Holloway, the Runaway Bride, or the circus that was Michael Jackson's trial.

While 9/11 spurred Americans to look beyond their nation's borders and make a greater effort to learn about other countries, religions and trends, Katrina has forced us to come to terms, if only for a fleeting moment, with issues of race and class that impact not just the victims, but all of us. As pundits of different political stripes have acknowledged, this catastrophe has exposed fault lines in American society, and it isn't a pretty sight. Not to care is not only a form of benign neglect but also an expression of hatred.

This is Mark Ashwill.

Listener-Commentator Mark Ashwill is an administrator, instructor and Fulbright adviser at UB.

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