Katrina: Another Example of America's Racial Divide

Hurricane Katrina has exposed the hidden issues of race and poverty in the United States. Commentator Patricia Elam says how you see the aftermath of Katrina depends in large part upon who you are.

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STEVE INSKEEP, host:

Commentator Patricia Elam says the way that you see the aftermath of Katrina depends in large part on who you are.

PATRICIA ELAM:

Once again, think O.J. and Rodney King. The polls show that black and white people have differing opinions. This time it's about how much race had to do with Katrina's inept handling. Sure, there were abandoned white people in parts of Louisiana and Mississippi, but watching New Orleans, I felt like I was rewatching that scene from "Hotel Rwanda" when the privileged whites were evacuated from the impending devastation awaiting the remaining black residents.

The United States has become, in essence, one of the Third World countries we criticize smugly for being unable to care for its own. During Katrina, reporters and commentators echoed the same empty phrase: I never expected to see anything like this in America. That's because we've gotten used to seeing streams of dazed and downtrodden people of color in the Sudan, India or even Iraq. That's because in America, these are the invisible people, mostly poor, mostly black, those who work for minimum wage, paycheck to paycheck or are jobless. Usually, we can build our houses far from these invisible people, but this time, most of us were unable to turn away from the images as they literally fought to stay above water. And although we heard otherwise, the majority of Katrina's victims displayed astonishing patience, tolerance and compassion. Did any of us judge them without having walked in their muddy shoes or slept hungry, thirsty and dirty alongside dead bodies and feces for days on end? Note to Barbara Bush: Things were not working well for the so-called underprivileged.

I was glad to hear our president touch on America's history of racial discrimination in his speech from Jackson Square. He also mentioned the desire for new minority-owned businesses in the reconstructed New Orleans. His words sounded good and they sounded inclusive. The question is: How will all this translate into reality? Will the new programs be funded by dipping into the resources of other government programs that help the poor? I only hope that New Orleans doesn't have to wait too long for its passionate soul to return, as the president put it. And I hope that there will be places and provisions for all in the new New Orleans, even for the people who are so used to being left behind.

INSKEEP: Those are the comments of Patricia Elam. She's author of the novel "Breathing Room," and a teacher in Washington, DC.

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