President Bush, Katrina and African Americans

Rapper and hip-hop producer Kanye West set off a political storm just days after Hurricane Katrina struck when he said on live television, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." Madeleine Brand reports on the reaction within the black community to the federal government's response to Hurricane Katrina victims — many of them black and poor — and examines what President Bush could say in his speech tonight to smooth relations with African Americans.

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ALEX CHADWICK, host:

I mentioned the new political polls earlier. One glaring finding: More than two-thirds of black Americans think race is an issue in the Katrina recovery catastrophe. More than two-thirds of whites don't. DAY TO DAY's Madeleine Brand examines attitudes within the black community toward Hurricane Katrina and toward the president's speech tonight.

MADELEINE BRAND reporting:

Rapper Kanye West got a lot of heat and a lot of support when he said two weeks ago...

Mr. KANYE WEST (Rapper): George Bush doesn't care about black people.

BRAND: That comment has refused to die. People are still talking about it, debating it, even rapping about it.

(Soundbite of song)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Everybody.

THE LEGENDARY K-O (Rap Group): (Rapping) Swam to the store trying to look for food. Corner store's kind of flooded, so I broke my way through.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) And I believe everybody.

THE LEGENDARY K-O: (Rapping) I got what I could, but before I got through, the news said police shot a black man trying to loot.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) When I believe. I got to leave.

THE LEGENDARY K-O: (Rapping) Don't like black people.

Unidentified Man: (Singing) I got to leave.

THE LEGENDARY K-O: (Rapping) George Bush don't like black people.

BRAND: That rap from a group called The Legendary K-O. It's a sentiment syndicated columnist Deroy Murdock finds appalling.

Mr. DEROY MURDOCK (Syndicated Columnist): I do not believe the president of the United States sat around and said, `Well, gee, there are black people suffering, so let's let them sit out there in the sunshine, starve, dehydrate and drop dead.'

BRAND: Murdock is a Bush supporter. He says Kanye West and some prominent black activists have been irresponsible in their remarks about the president and race.

Mr. MURDOCK: For example, Jesse Jackson walked through the Convention Center and said, `This place looks like the hull of a slave ship.' These kind of comments are just caustic and corrosive.

BRAND: And stir the racial pot, he says, and why polls show a majority of blacks believe race was a factor in the lax federal response. Most whites believe the opposite, that race was not a factor. Among black evacuees we spoke with in Baton Rouge, feelings were mixed. Here's Larry Gibson.

Mr. DARREN VAUGHN (Evacuee): I mean, when this happened, it just didn't happen to black people, it happened to whites, Puerto Ricans; everybody suffered this ordeal. And I think he's really trying to do the best he can.

BRAND: And so what should President Bush do and say in tonight's speech?

Mr. HENRY BANKS (Evacuee): `We're going to look out for you in the future even though we may have failed in the past.'

Ms. SERITA LaSALLE(ph) (Evacuee): `Keep your head up, be strong. We going to be all right.'

Mr. WAYNE ALLEN (Evacuee): `Between now and next week, the people of New Orleans will be able to go back to their homes.'

Mr. NATHAN TOUPES(ph) (Evacuee): There's nothing he can say. I don't have any respect for Bush, and so I don't really think there's nothing he can say to help himself out. He can just not come like always.

BRAND: That was Darren Vaughn, Henry Banks, Serita LaSalle, Wayne Allen and Nathan Toupes. Michael Fauntroy, a public policy professor at George Mason University, says the president has to counter this prevailing assumption among blacks.

Professor MICHAEL FAUNTROY (George Mason University): Who among us believes that the federal response would've been the same if we were talking about Austin, Texas; Phoenix, Arizona; Salt Lake City, Utah; San Diego, California; or any other major city around the country with a majority white population? The most visceral, easy-to-understand explanation is race.

BRAND: Fauntroy says the president must tell New Orleanians that they will all have a place in the new New Orleans, that it won't become a gentrified playground that excludes poor black people. Reverend Eugene Rivers of Boston says the rebuilding also has to include the people who need work.

Reverend EUGENE RIVERS (Boston, Massachusetts): Perhaps the only thing more pathetic and amoral than some of the responses to the tragedy would be the fact that a bunch of multimillionaire white guys were to make hundreds of millions of dollars off the backs of suffering black people in the Gulf Coast with these no-bid contracts that are being awarded as we speak. It's really a remarkable kind of disgrace.

BRAND: Rivers counts himself as a Bush supporter and a friend of the president's. He says the president needs to come up with a broader long-term vision for the region.

Rev. RIVERS: President Bush needs to develop a Marshall Plan for rebuilding democracy in the Gulf Coast. If we can rebuild democracy in Baghdad, right, with Halliburton and these other people, we need to rebuild democracy, economic democracy and civil society in the Gulf Coast down there with all those poor black people. Do for the Gulf Coast what you proposed doing for Iraq.

BRAND: Rivers says he has told President Bush's adviser, Karl Rove, these things. And he adds that Hurricane Katrina could end up being a good thing for the president if his administration does what he suggests, enacts a Marshall Plan.

Rev. RIVERS: If he refuses to do that, he risks sending the message to black America that we really live in a benign apartheid system. He will actually have left the country in a worse state of race relations than he found it. And that's a hell of a legacy.

BRAND: President Bush addresses the nation from New Orleans tonight. Madeleine Brand, NPR News, Los Angeles.

CHADWICK: And this program note. The speech comes at 9:00 Eastern time tonight. There will be live coverage and analysis of the speech later today on NPR News.

I'm Alex Chadwick. Stay with us on DAY TO DAY from NPR News.

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