From New Orleans residents, mostly poor and black, left on the interstate as Hurricane Katrina flooded the city to President George Bush’s insensitive comments when he visited almost a week later, University of Virginia history professor Julian Bond detailed examples of the government’s failures in responding to the disaster and the racial problems that remain in this country.
Bond, chairman of the NAACP and a lifelong advocate for civil rights and economic justice, was the first keynote speaker for the University of Virginia’s inaugural Symposium on Race and Society, “In Katrina’s Wake: Racial Implications of the New Orleans Disaster,” held Nov. 2 through 4 at the Darden School. Organized by the Office of Diversity and Equity, the symposium represents one step in the University’s efforts to promote diversity and excellence in academia, said William B. Harvey, vice president and chief officer for diversity and equity, in opening the conference. More than 200 participants from U.Va. and other universities are holding sessions on topics including education, government, politics, health and public policy.
From the outset, what happened before, during and after Hurricane Katrina, which claimed more than 1,800 lives, was about race, Bond said. New Orleans was 63 percent black, about half of whom were poor. Many, however, owned their own homes, passed down through generations, but not a car, leaving them with no way to get out of the city. Finally evacuated, now they have nothing to go back to. As a result, the black population in New Orleans is now estimated at about 45 percent.
Bond said the president and his staff had ample warning, and “their indifference could not have been born of ignorance.” Four years before the hurricane, the Federal Emergency Management Agency said a major hurricane hitting New Orleans was one of the three most likely potential disasters facing the nation. But as the National Weather Service upgraded the hurricane to the highest category, Bush continued his vacation in Texas and attended a birthday party for Sen. John McCain in Arizona. FEMA director Michael Brown dragged his feet in getting Homeland Security to provide assistance, but “the government official charged with disaster management … issued a press statement urging people to contribute to a list of 16 recommended private charities.”
Many people and organizations did respond and are still visiting, helping rebuild, but “voluntarism is no substitute for government,” Bond declared.
Under the current administration, the government’s role in protecting its people is being dismantled and is being shifted toward defending corporate interests, he said. He quoted Bush saying, “we have a duty to confront [New Orleans’] poverty with bold action. … We will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives,” but gave example after example of how “reality has not matched the rhetoric.” Although Congress passed aid bills totaling $110 billion, only $44 billion had been dispersed by the first anniversary. Small business loans, crucial for the African-American middle class, have been slow in coming. The New Orleans Housing Authority has decided to demolish half of the public housing units, and one recovery group suggested turning neighborhoods like the Ninth Ward into a park instead of rebuilding.
Bond spoke of the “white-washing” of New Orleans, characterized by the comment from Baton Rouge Republican Rep. Richard Baker, who said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it. But God did.”
God did not cause the social disaster that followed the hurricane, Bond asserted.
“How did we retreat from the War on Poverty and surrender to a war on the poor?” asked Bond. “How did we capitulate to an ideology that argues that poor people seek their condition and enjoy it, that they live in squalor by choice? … And most pernicious, that government’s efforts to assist the poor are less legitimate and less defensible than public assistance routinely given to corporations and the comfortable?”
He called on progressives “to use the lessons of Katrina to recapture the race issue from the political right, to return to a time when whites say, as President Johnson said in 1965, ‘their cause must be our cause, too. … It is all of us who must overcome the crippling legacy of bigotry and injustice.’”