The race men are at it again, turning the tragedy of New Orleans into a morality tale about racism in America. Jesse Jackson, Al Sharpton, Rep. Maxine Waters (who qualifies, despite her gender), rapper Kanye West, and a host of lesser-known black leaders and spokesmen were quick to see racism in the agonizingly slow evacuation of New Orleans following Hurricane Katrina. Jackson compared the situation at the infamous Superdome to "the hull of a slave ship." West ranted that "George Bush doesn’t care about black people." Even Sen. Barack Obama, who initially said that class was the biggest factor in why many New Orleans residents failed to make it out of the city before disaster struck, seemed to blame the president for racial insensitivity. "I mean, it’s puzzling, given his immediate response during 9/11, that he did not feel a greater sense of empathy towards the folks that were experiencing this enormous disaster," Obama said on ABC’s "This Week" on Sunday.
But if there was any real lesson about the effects of racism to be learned from this tragedy, it is that American generosity is colorblind. Americans of all colors have opened their hearts, their pocketbooks and their homes to those who have lost everything to nature’s fury. To date, Americans have donated nearly $1 billion in private aid, and the federal government has committed an additional $60 billion to the victims, the most visible of whom were the mostly black residents stranded in New Orleans.
Even the pictures that emerged as victims were being rescued belied any hint of racism. Most of the National Guardsmen and other military personnel saving lives were white, while most of those being saved were black, not surprising given the demographics of the respective groups. Blacks made up 68 percent of New Orleans’ population, but only about 20 percent of all military personnel and an even smaller proportion of National Guard troops.
But if white indifference doesn’t explain why so many of those left stranded happened to be black and why it took so long to bring them to safety, what does? Government surely failed its most vulnerable citizens, but not because of race. A majority of New Orleans’ black (as well as white and Latino) residents made it out of the city before the storm hit, despite the breakdown in government communication and assistance. They did so because they didn’t depend on government in the first place. Those left behind were disproportionately dependent on government because of age, infirmity or poverty — in many instances, all three factors played a role.
New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates in the nation. Nearly one-third of its citizens live below the poverty line. But as Michael Tanner, director of health and welfare studies at the Cato Institute, points out, the federal government has given billions of dollars to New Orleans’ poor since George W. Bush took office. Tanner estimates that the Bush administration has spent some $10 billion in welfare assistance in Louisiana, including $1.2 billion in cash assistance and $3 billion in food stamps, as well as public housing, Medicaid and more than 60 other federal anti-poverty programs. But all that money did not buy self-sufficiency, the commodity that largely differentiated those who escaped the deluge from those who got stuck at the Superdome and Convention Center.
So where was government when its wards most needed it? Local and state government were nowhere to be seen, and not because, as some now claim, state and local officials, too, were victims of Hurricane Katrina. Gov. Kathleen Blanco, safely in Baton Rouge during the storm, admitted in an interview with CNN that aired this past weekend that she waited until Aug. 31 — two days after Katrina made landfall — to ask for federal troops in New Orleans. When CNN anchor Miles O’Brien asked Blanco when exactly she made a specific appeal, Blanco said: "I’m lost. . . . I don’t even know what today is," finally acknowledging, "I made that request perhaps Wednesday." But surely not even racial demagogues like Jackson would argue that Blanco — who would not have been elected governor but for black voters — delayed deploying troops at her disposal or asking for more federal troops because those trapped were black.
Blaming racism for the fate of New Orleans in the aftermath of a natural disaster and ignoring the heartfelt generosity and commitment of so many Americans of all races to help the victims rebuild have only compounded the tragedy.