Sen. Barack Obama on Poverty and Katrina

In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Sen. Barack Obama (D-IL) discusses poverty in black America. An overwhelming number of those left helpless in New Orleans after the storm were African American, putting the issue of race and poverty center stage.

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ED GORDON, host:

From NPR News, this is NEWS & NOTES. I'm Ed Gordon.

As many as 30,000 people will convene in Washington, DC, this week for the Congressional Black Caucus' annual legislative conference. The four-day conference looks at a range of public policy issues relevant to African Americans, but the focus of the gathering has shifted this year to reflect the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina and the poverty that has left so many so vulnerable. Joining us to talk about the caucus, Katrina and America's class and race crisis is Illinois Senator Barack Obama.

Senator, thanks for joining us. Good to talk to you again.

Senator BARACK OBAMA (Democrat, Illinois): Great to talk to you, Ed. Hope you're doing well.

GORDON: Good. Thanks. I know that you're giving one of the keynotes during the course of this. Talk to me about what you will talk about.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think my main focus, obviously, will be the aftermath of Katrina and to think carefully about who we are as a country. You know, we'd like to think of ourselves as a generous country, as a diverse country, as a country in which all children have opportunity. And I think, unfortunately, Katrina revealed that there's a gap between the ideal we have as a country and the reality that people are living every day in places like the Ninth Ward of New Orleans.

GORDON: The idea of accountability--so many people focusing on pre-Katrina accountability. I know one of the things that you want to make sure is that people are accountable post-Katrina.

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think that's exactly right. Look, we've got an immediate crisis of how do we deal with a million people who are displaced? How do we make sure that they're properly clothed, housed, their kids can go to school? But we also have a long-term issue, and that is the priorities that we've set through our government. We can't afford to cut taxes for the wealthiest 1 percent of Americans when at the same time we're looking to cut Medicaid, the most basic health-care program that we have for those who are poor and in need. We can't afford to fight a 200 or $300 billion war in Iraq when our infrastructure in this country is crumbling. And so--you know, somebody once said that a government is about making choices, and the choices that we've been making over the last four or five years have resulted in higher poverty rates, flat lines in terms of income, record numbers of people uninsured. That's not the kind of America I think that any of us want.

GORDON: Senator, I know that you have co-sponsored a bill that would create an overseer, if you will, for the distribution of monies during the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast region, and I would also ask whether or not and what can be done to make sure that there is black participation, not only in the reconstruction but the planning of all that?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think that's going to be absolutely crucial. You know, one of the things that I'm already concerned about is, you've got $100 million contracts going to Halliburton, large companies, major Republican National Committee donors, but at the same time, the president has suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, which requires you pay a prevailing wage, has suspended affirmative action requirements in terms of contracting and the process of making sure that everything goes to bid and is an open, transparent process. So we're going to have to do a lot of work on that front.

One of the things that we've already done here at the conference--yesterday there were a group of black ministers from all across the country, and spoke to them about the need to make sure that white churches who are taking in folks, providing shelter and support, oftentimes in areas where the Red Cross and FEMA are not yet operating--that they are properly reimbursed for the work that they're doing. We should be training the young men and women who have been displaced as a consequence of Katrina to provide basic services like environmental cleanup and construction work. And firms down in New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi have to be a part of this process. So this is something where I think the Congressional Black Caucus can play an important role, but it's also important that other organizations, like the National Black Mayors Association, Urban League, NAACP, all our organizations, have to be focused on how to make sure that out of this tragedy, the rebuilding process is one that leaves us stronger.

GORDON: How much, Senator, can we admit that all of us, quite frankly--the media, politicians, perhaps the whole country--did, in fact, not put a white light on poverty enough? It has been written that we have somehow uncovered poverty as if it were not here prior to Katrina. We did not do a good enough job of that, did we?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, you know, I have a saying that I use a lot, and that's that some may be to blame, but all of us are responsible. And it's absolutely critical that those of us who are not in the Bush administration not become complacent and somehow think that we've done our job. You know, all of us can do a better job. All of us can focus on the tragedy of urban schools that aren't teaching and dilapidated housing, lack of health care. This is something that has to be a 24/7 job and not just something that we engage in after the crisis.

GORDON: How do we stay focused on that? I know you and others, principally during the presidential race and certainly after John Edwards--has pushed the idea that there's clearly too much poverty in the richest nation in history. How do we stay focused on these goals and issues?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, one of the things I think that as a country we have a tendency to do is we go from spasm to prance. You know, we get real exercise for about two weeks and then...

GORDON: And that's it.

Sen. OBAMA: And then when things don't immediately change, we move on to the next thing. We tend to be an impatient people. And what I've learned is that when you have major issues that are centuries in the making--and certainly poverty and the intersection between poverty and racial discrimination has been in this country for a long, long time--what we have to do is to recognize that we're not going to reverse it overnight, but we can make steady progress. We could create a trend line so that the infant that's born today has different life chances than he might otherwise have, if we make good decisions. And we've got to see this as a 20-, 30-, 40-year project as opposed to simply something that lasts through the next election cycle.

GORDON: Don't we have to--isn't it imperative, particularly upon black America, to keep race in the fore in terms of a conversation this nation has to have? I've often said that during the Rodney King riots, we talked about it, then it went away. During the Simpson saga, we talked about it publicly, then it went away. Here's another opportunity. How can we make sure it doesn't go away this time?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I think that we have to understand how race operates in this culture today. You know, I think that the days of blatant racism are less frequent. Doesn't mean that they don't happen, but it means that most of the effects of race have to do with institutional and structural barriers to opportunity. And for us to be successful politically, we've got to recognize and identify the fact that discrimination still takes place and be insistent on removing those discriminatory barriers.

But we also have to understand that those structural and institutional barriers will exist even if there's not racism. When you've got a young man in the Ninth Ward who's got no skills, no education, you can put all the affirmative action programs you want in place; he's still not going to find a job. And so that then gives us an opportunity to have a conversation not only with black folks, but also with white folks and Latinos and others, who also may be experiencing some sort of institutional structural barriers towards opportunity. And ultimately, you know, in the United States, the conversation about race has to shift into a broader conversation about how do we make sure that every single person in this country is able to feed their family, have basic health care, get the kind of education that they need to succeed?

GORDON: Since Katrina, Senator, there's been conversation--some justified, some not--on black leadership's role in all of this, some suggesting that the black leadership has been, to some degree, asleep at the switch and too reactionary and not pro-action. What do you say to those critics?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, listen, I think that all of us have responsibilities and none of us, I think, have done as much as we potentially could have. I'll say that--I just arrived here in Washington, and my experience is that the Congressional Black Caucus, for example, talks about these issues a lot. The problem is, is that they're in the minority party and don't have the levers of power to force Tom DeLay to call legislation that is introduced. And so, you know, I would argue that, in fact, black leadership has been concerned about these issues. What we need, though, is a broader strategy to ensure that we can actually implement and effectuate the kind of agenda that we've been talking about, and that requires grassroots organizing. That requires people having faith and confidence that if they vote and if they present an agenda for change, that, in fact, it'll bring about change. That requires working in the streets as well as the halls of Congress, and that's something that we haven't done enough of.

GORDON: Before we let you go, I spoke with your colleague, Maxine Waters, congresswoman of California. I was at an event with her just last night, and she joked halfheartedly about re-upping her dues with her liberal card and the need to make sure that you stay loud. She thought the Democratic Party had become silent and opted to give up too much ground to the right. How much do you believe that the cry from Democrats has to get louder?

Sen. OBAMA: Well, I would say that if we speak the truth, then that has power. And it doesn't matter whether you whisper truth or you shout truth. People will hear you. I think that we have tried to avoid basic truths in the false belief that somehow it's going to allow us to gain a majority. And so in the last presidential election, the fact is, is that there wasn't conversations about poverty. There was conversations about the middle-class squeeze, but nobody talked about the people in the Ninth Ward or the South Side of Chicago or Compton or Harlem. And, you know, silence I've never found to be an effective tool to organize people and to inspire them. I think truth is what outs in the end. So we just need to keep on speaking truth to power.

GORDON: Indeed. Senator Barack Obama of Illinois, always good to talk to you. Thanks for coming on. Hopefully I'll see you this week.

Sen. OBAMA: Great to talk to you, Ed.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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