An Imperfect Storm
How race shaped Bush's response to Katrina.
With the exception of Secretary of State Condi Rice, nearly every black person I've seen quoted in the press or on television—and most every white liberal—believes that African-Americans suffered disproportionately from government neglect in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Those being pulled from waist-deep corpse water sometimes put the case much more bluntly.
But what is the evidence that race itself—as opposed to such determinants as poverty, bad luck, geography, bureaucratic incompetence, and daunting logistics—deepened the misery of African-Americans in New Orleans? In that city, as in many others, blacks as a group were more prey to harm of many sorts because of the historic legacy of slavery, segregation, and discrimination. But those who, like me, think race was a factor in other ways as well ought to be able to give some account of how racial bias made the catastrophe worse.
At the heart of the matter is the racial pattern of American constituency politics. I don't think Kanye West can support his view that George W. Bush just doesn't care about black people. But it's a demonstrable matter of fact that Bush doesn't care much about black votes. And that, in the end, may amount to the same thing.
Blacks as a group have voted Democratic since the 1930s. The GOP has not courted them in any real way since the 1960s, focusing instead on attracting white constituencies hostile to civil rights and African-Americans in general. Even many conservatives now accept blame for this ugly, recent history. In July, Ken Mehlman, the chairman of the Republican National Committee, apologized to the NAACP for those in his party he said had been "looking the other way or trying to benefit politically from racial polarization."
Yet the underlying racial dynamic of party politics hasn't changed at all under Mehlman's boss. Though he appointed the first and the second African-American secretaries of state, Bush seldom appears before black audiences. Beyond his interest in education, he has little to say about issues of social and urban policy. Bush has never articulated an approach, other than faith-based platitudes and tax cuts, to bettering the lives of African-Americans. And indeed, has not bettered them. The percentage of blacks living in poverty, which diminished from 33 percent to less than 23 percent during the Clinton years, has been rising again under Bush. In 2000, Bush got 8 percent of the black vote. In 2004, he got 11 percent. Because African-Americans constitute only 12 percent of the population, it's possible for Republicans to neglect them and still win elections. Indeed, as Mehlman indicated, neglecting them has often helped Republicans win.
Because they don't see blacks as a current or potential constituency, Bush and his fellow Republicans do not respond out of the instinct of self-interest when dealing with their concerns. Helping low-income blacks is a matter of charity to them, not necessity. The condescension in their attitude intensifies when it comes to New Orleans, which is 67 percent black and largely irrelevant to GOP political ambitions. Cities with large African-American population that happen to be in important swing states may command some of Karl Rove's respect as election time approaches. But Louisiana is small (9 electoral votes) and not much of a swinger these days. In 2004, Bush carried it by a 57-42 margin. If Bush and Rove didn't experience the spontaneous political reflex to help New Orleans, it may be because they don't think of New Orleans as a place that helps them.
Considered in this light, the actions and inactions now being picked apart are readily explicable. The president drastically reduced budget requests from the Army Corps of Engineers to strengthen the levees around New Orleans because there was no effective pressure on him to agree. When the levees broke on Tuesday, Aug. 30, no urge from the political gut overrode his natural instinct to spend another day vacationing at his ranch. When Bush finally got himself to the Gulf Coast three days later, he did his hugging in Biloxi, Miss., which is 71 percent white, with a mayor, governor, and two senators who are all Republicans. Bush's memorable comments were about rebuilding Sen. Trent Lott's porch and about how he used to enjoy getting hammered in New Orleans. Only when a firestorm of criticism and political damage broke out over the federal government's callousness did Bush open his eyes to black suffering.
Had the residents of New Orleans been white Republicans in a state that mattered politically, instead of poor blacks in city that didn't, Bush's response surely would have been different. Compare what happened when hurricanes Charley and Frances hit Florida in 2004. Though the damage from those storms was negligible in relation to Katrina's, the reaction from the White House was instinctive, rapid, and generous to the point of profligacy. Bush visited hurricane victims four times in six weeks and delivered relief checks personally. Michael Brown of FEMA, now widely regarded as an incompetent political hack, was so responsive that local officials praised the agency's performance.
The kind of constituency politics that results in a big life-preserver for whites in Florida and a tiny one for blacks in Louisiana may not be racist by design or intent. But the inevitable result is clear racial discrimination. It won't change when Republicans care more about blacks. It will change when they have more reason to care.