Kanye West (right) speaks with Today host Matt Lauer.
It's unfortunate that when it comes to race, it's so difficult for us to focus squarely on the issues. When we talk about the war in Iraq and how President Bush handled that, the conversation will focus on his actions and whether he regrets those actions. But turning to the issue of Hurricane Katrina, the focus in the last week has tended to land squarely on how raising the issue of race made President Bush feel. As he told Today's Matt Lauer, he felt "it was a disgusting moment, pure and simple."
Bush wasn't responding to his government's slow response to the storm or even his own experience of witnessing the tragedies it wrought. Instead, the "disgusting moment" was the appearance of Kanye West, a rapper, on a telethon in which West, given an open microphone, went off script and declared, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Now, five years later, West has stepped back and expressed some regret for his comments. This morning on the Today Show, when Lauer interviewed West about Bush's comments, the host made it a point to focus attention on how West's words made President Bush feel. He even asked Kanye to look at the recording of President Bush's face without sound — "Just look at him," Lauer told West. "This is the most emotional he got during my entire three and a half hour interview with him.
This is not how any other issue in the Bush administration would be addressed. When it comes to the aftermath of Katrina, parsing out the consequences of Bush's actions and how race may have played into that seems to be less important than how discussing race effects President Bush's self esteem. I think that points to the biggest stumbling block we have in being able to work on race issues in this country: the way almost every debate becomes so hyper-personalized, and focuses on whether a particular criticism really means, "You're a bad person" when we should be focusing on issues that are bigger than ourselves and have nothing to do with what's inside our heart.
Like West, I feel some empathy for Bush. I think that Bush believes he's a good person who was trying to do the best for all people. But I still find it puzzling that he has an apparent lack of perspective about what his responsibilities were as president.
When I initially saw his comments, I thought he must be referring to some other Kanye West who's a head of state in some foreign country, because for him to have this strong a reaction and so much lingering anger toward a random pop star who had an emotional reaction to one of his decisions … I find that peculiar.
But Bush's comment seems to have been genuine, and it reflects the unique relationship we have with race in this country, where anytime the issue comes up, we relate to it in an extremely personal way instead of being able to stay grounded and focused on what the substantive issue is.