What Katrina Taught Us About Race
LYNN NEARY, host:
This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington. Neal Conan is away.
A year ago, we all watched as the catastrophe that was Katrina unfolded on national media. Searing images showing that most of those left behind to cope with the disaster were poor and black forced the nation to confront an issue that has long haunted us: racism and the poverty that accompanies it. There seemed for a moment to be a collective will to face the issue and deal with it, but have we?
New Orleans a year after Katrina is a different city. Its population has dropped by half, and many of its black residents have not come back. According to a Louisiana Recovery Authority poll, a majority of white respondents said they did not want New Orleans to return to its pre-Katrina racial demographics. In contrast, a majority of black respondents said they want New Orleans to remain majority black.
Today, race and Katrina a year later. What are the lessons about race and poverty we've learned? Is the issue of race still in play, or has it disappeared from the national consciousness? Join the conversation. Our number here in Washington, 800-989-8255, that's 800-989-TALK. And you can send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Later this hour, we'll get a national perspective on the issue with NPR's Juan Williams and Michael Eric Dyson. But first, race relations in New Orleans a year after Katrina.
Joining us now is Jed Horne. He's the city editor of New Orleans Times-Picayune and author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. And he joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans.
So good to have you with us.
Mr. JED HORNE (City Editor, New Orleans Times-Picayune): Well, it's a pleasure to be here. Thanks.
NEARY: Tell us, Jed, just how different is the racial composition of New Orleans today?
Mr. HORNE: Well, as we learned in the election, New Orleans remains a happily majority black city. I believe the proportions, which were about two-thirds black to one-third white, have shifted slightly downward in terms of the black majority, but it remains firmly in place.
NEARY: And, of course, Mayor Nagin won re-election in that mayoral race. Well, let's talk a little bit about the role of race in that election since you brought it up first. How did race play a role there?
Mr. HORNE: Well, race was a very interesting and pivotal part of that election. Four years ago, when Mayor Nagin emerged from corporate world to run for office as kind of a conservative black candidate, he commanded enormous support from the white community. Some of that, indeed a lot of that, eroded this go-round. However, the most conservative parts of the white community remained in his pocket out of I think distaste as much as anything for the Landrieu family, which ran Mitch Landrieu the lieutenant governor for mayor. Mitch's father, Moon Landrieu, was the last white mayor of New Orleans.
Mitch, the election may have been his to lose, at one point it certainly looked that way. But in the fullness of time, what Mitch did was to sort of propose himself as a harmless, white version of Ray Nagin. And people figured, well, the Ray Nagin we have is the one we know, and we might as well stay with him. And the black support that Nagin needed was there for him.
NEARY: Race was such a glaring wound in New Orleans right after Katrina. What is the state of race relations now? What has happened since then?
Mr. HORNE: My view - and it's not everybody's view - is that on the ground at the grassroots level after this trauma, race relations within the communities have actually improved. I've spoken of this with people I've been working with on the ground in the Lower Ninth Ward, and they tend to agree with me, at least some of them. Maybe they're telling me what I want to hear.
But I think we have seen a sense of commonality, a sense of shared burden here, that has helped us get past some of the barriers that for so long, indeed far longer here than in other parts of the south, have kept us apart. At the national level, indeed at the political level, where much shouting and carrying on occurs, I think we're seeing still a lot of racial noise, some of it racist, bluntly, other aspects of it racialist, if there is a difference.
Certainly Mayor Nagin has not been above invoking race as - where he sees an opportunity. We're all familiar with the famous chocolate city speech and that sort of thing. I think at the end of the day that speech didn't hurt him nearly as much as people might have thought it would. I think it had a consolidating effect on his black support. And while it dismayed the sort of tourism industry, at the end of the day, I think Nagin was really saying that New Orleans was and will remain black and that that wasn't a bad thing. And I think many of us agree with him.
NEARY: But, you know, you also hear about white residents of New Orleans who say they hope that some of the blacks who left don't come back. That's a reality, isn't it?
Mr. HORNE: That is a reality. And there are those who say it, you know, with a glint in their eye and a clearly racist subtext to their remarks. There are others who are saying what the city cannot support, indeed could not support long prior to Katrina, is the level of impoverishment that we have tried to carry forward here as our burden. The fact is the corporate sector bailed out on New Orleans years ago, and that is the tragedy that has resulted in - that is the failure, the default, that had resulted in a hugely impoverished city. We have, you know, shockingly high rates of childhood poverty; I think it's 40 percent. Illiteracy - all the hallmarks of a city more people than it has the economy to carry. And if we could bring back New Orleans as a city with economic opportunity for all of its residents, I think we would have a better city.
And I'm quite tolerant of remarks to that effect. I've heard them Nagin. I've heard them from leader in the black community. And I've heard them from whites of various different strata.
NEARY: There a lot of different competing visions for the future of New Orleans. What do you think is likely to happen?
Mr. HORNE: Well, right now we sort of find ourselves on the bubble, and I think things could go either a couple of different ways. I think the great concern -the most realistic concern, because it is the most present risk, is that New Orleans, for lack of much guidance, we've kind of defaulted and deferred to the market, Ray Nagin's favorite governor around here, and simply haven't gotten much of a planning process together as yet. There is one now in the works belatedly, but in its absence people have been rebuilding their homes in areas of the city that may not come back.
And my great concern is that we wind up with clusters of recovery in a sea of shanties or abandoned buildings. And that's a very difficult - different land -difficult landscape for a city to sustain as regards infrastructure, water, sewerage, schools, police and all that stuff.
There's another scenario, troubling, but I think less likely to occur, which is that New Orleans comes back as kind of a museum to its former glory, a museum to its culture, a Disneyland in which the parts of the city, the old parts of the city that didn't flood - the French Quarter and uptown and what-not -remain as they are now, fully habitable and attractive to tourism and the middle class, white and black, but that the working poor, most of whom in this town are black, get forced out for lack of affordable housing as much as anything else.
We've had a huge, huge loss of housing stock available to the working poor, and as a consequence, prices - we're seeing the kind of inflation that might precede a sort of a boutique city, a Disneyland kind of situation. And that's a problem.
NEARY: Jed, let's see if we can get some calls in before you have to go. Lisa(ph) in Cleveland, Ohio. Go ahead.
LISA (Caller): Hi. I was just wondering if - how people can look past Ray Nagin's comments. I find them to be very racist in their nature, and it seems to be that those are perhaps fueling the fire of additional race relations there.
Mr. HORNE: I'm not sure they have all that much impact here. The people wring their hands over his remarks, but at the end of the day he's trying, I suppose, to galvanize, you know, his own bedrock black constituency, and there is a response there.
I think much of what he has said is foolish and tactless. The only part of it that I would consider really, you know, sort of racially shaped was some of that chocolate city stuff. The recent chatter about New York City and the 9/11 site being a hole in the ground was clumsy and stupid and unwelcome in a dialog nationally about how the nation can rally to New Orleans' support, but I didn't see that as a racist remark.
NEARY: All right. Thanks for your call, Lisa. And we're going to go to Tina(ph) and she's in Indianapolis. Hi, Tina.
TINA (Caller): Hello.
NEARY: Go ahead.
TINA: Hi. I find that, you know, the discussion about race and racism in New Orleans is very pertinent, because I still feel as if the areas of that town that were devastated and affected were not primarily poor working-class black folks, you would not have some of the problems that we're still hearing about. You know, 30 percent of some of these areas still don't have adequate power. A lot don't have adequate sewage. And what better way to keep people out of an area than to keep it uninhabitable?
Mr. HORNE: Well, first let me make a - let me correct you on one matter. There were vast areas of middle to upper middle class housing that were also flooded, and they had their share of rich folks, white and black, living in them. There was an enclave of black millionaires that flooded out of New Orleans' East, so it isn't true that all of the damage was inflicted on the poor. But in a city with a lot of poor people and where 80 percent of the housing was flooded, a lot of poor people lost their houses.
NEARY: All right. Thanks so much for your call, Tina. What about suspicion towards the government? I mean, right after Katrina there was a lot of suspicion among the blacks about the government's response to this storm. There has to be some of that still hanging over.
Mr. HORNE: It's valid, frankly. I mean, I - you know, I don't know if this is a constructive contribution to the dialogue about New Orleans but it's been made often enough and it's been made by me to I think be something that has a life of its own, and I'll repeat it now: I don't believe that if New Orleans had been the River Oak section of Houston and if it had been George Bush's mother up on one of those rooftops or if it had been Greenwich, Connecticut or Shaker Heights, Ohio that it would have taken the federal government a week to get here.
I think New Orleans is a strange and disturbing place to the sort of Republican country club consensus, and there was a kind of wait and see, there was an inhibition. The republicans in Congress called it a failure of initiative, which is as good a term for it as any. If you want to think of that as racist, be my guest. Something happened that caused the United States government to do far, far less than it could in responding to the worst engineering failure in this nation's history, and it happened to be a federal engineering failure; it happened to be the failure of a levee system in New Orleans owned, built and designed by the federal government.
NEARY: All right. Jed, thanks so much for being with us today.
Mr. HORNE: Thank you.
NEARY: Jed Horne is city editor of The New Orleans Times-Picayune and author of Breach of Faith: Hurricane Katrina and the Near Death of a Great American City. He joined us from member station WWNO in New Orleans, Louisiana. And we're going to continue our discussion about race in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina when we return from a short break.
You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.
In the weeks after Katrina hit land and the world watched as the poor and black of New Orleans were stranded in the flooded city, a new conventional wisdom began to form. Race and poverty, the pundits said, were no longer back-burner issues. Katrina had reopened an old wound, and a new national conversation about race relations seemed ready to begin.
But a year later that conversation seems to have died down to a murmur. And the questions that Katrina raised about the intersection of race and poverty no longer seem as pressing. What lessons, if any, did we learn about race and poverty in the aftermath of Katrina? You're invited to join the discussion. Give us a call at 800-989-TALK. Or send us an e-mail to email@example.com.
And to help answer those questions we are joined now by NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. He has a new book called Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It. And Juan is with me here in Studio 3A. Good to have you Juan.
JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:
Nice to be here.
NEARY: And joining us now also is Michael Eric Dyson. His latest book is Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. And he joins us from member station WWNO in New Orleans. Thanks for being with us.
Mr. MICHAEL ERIC DYSON (Author, Come Hell or High Water): Thanks for having me.
NEARY: You know, I'd like to start with both of you where we just left off in that conversation. And that is this issue of trust and perhaps lingering suspicions on the part of the black community first of all in New Orleans, but also nationally, as a result of watching what occurred in New Orleans and attitudes towards the government and feelings that the way the government handled the situation in New Orleans showed a kind of institutional racism that still exists. Juan, do you have any thoughts about that?
WILLIAMS: Well, clearly there was a very immediate, almost knee-jerk response I think coming from some in the black community. I remember the rapper Kanye West saying that George Bush doesn't care about poor black people, and this was the thought that you heard Jed Horne just, you know, express again - that if this had been some ritzy neighborhood, maybe people would have responded more clearly. That was the thought that went out. I think there was a degree of concern that so many poor black people were on television because the TV cameras were all located in New Orleans, so that's where the focus of the media attention was. And who was seen there in desperate conditions slogging through waters but poor black people?
Later it turned out that just wasn't true, that FEMA had failed not only poor black people, they had failed rich white people. They failed everybody. They proved to be inept, incompetent, to people in Mississippi as well as Louisiana.
NEARY: Michael Eric Dyson, what are your thoughts about this? Is there a lingering mistrust?
Mr. DYSON: Oh absolutely. I think there's a righteous skepticism about the affect of government and its intent for poor people. I think Juan is absolutely right that the storm was racially neutral in terms of its attack, but it was not racially neutral in terms of its consequence, and I think we have to draw distinction there that is both logical and ethical.
Furthermore, I think the lingering suspicion among African-American people is wholly justified. One need not buy into wholesale theories of conspiracy where the government blew up the levees or some other malicious force imposed its will through dynamite.
The intent of a conspiracy theory is to communicate a moral vision. That moral vision is black life just doesn't count as much as white life in this country. So I think that when Kanye West made the statement, what he was trying to suggest is that the government - he doesn't know George Bush individually. George Bush is the face of the government.
How is care measured in political terms? The distribution of critical resources to vulnerable community in a timely fashion. And in that sense, the folk who are black and white able to take care of themselves are going to do well after the storm. Even though it affected them in a viscous fashion, they were able to gird up their loins and gather their resources and move forward with the good will of their communities. African-American people, and other poor peoples, by the way, are much more vulnerable and therefore less likely to be able to recover in the aftermath. That's the racial difference that we have to account for.
NEARY: Would you say - what would you say we learned from - in the aftermath of Katrina about race, if anything? Did we learn anything?
Mr. DYSON: Well yeah, I think it's absolutely clear that we have refused to engage in an edifying conversation about the convergence of race and class. We got some language for race in this country. We have less language for class, less analytical acuity, less clarity, and less willingness to engage these issues either within these communities and between communities. And I think that it appeared early on that with the outpouring of charity that Americans were willing to gird up their loins and put their resources squarely behind African-American and other poor people.
What it turned out is that we got charity but no justice. Justice is about dealing with the structural realities that have to be contended with and why poor people had been left behind long before the vicious winds and violent waters of Katrina descended. And the vicious consequences of racial difference have to be acknowledged.
And finally, I think that when you look at the stuff that Jed was speaking about earlier: the terrible rates of concentrated poverty. That means you live in a terrible neighborhood that has a lot of other poor people. You have poor schools. You have a terrible infrastructure. You don't have great levels of incentive to push beyond the immediacy of the horror, and as a result of that prison becomes your destiny and a date with a prison cell is nearly guaranteed by poor schools. So when you look at that all together, we just don't have the will to confront that.
George Bush gave a great speech in the aftermath of Katrina. Had he matched it with public policy, we would have been further along one year later than we are now, and I'm afraid we just don't have the will to do so.
NEARY: What happened to that national will that seemed to be there, Juan, a year ago? I mean, if nothing else, there seemed at that moment - in this terrible moment of Katrina that people were saying, all right, we've been ignoring race now; we've been ignoring poverty. We're going to start talking about it again. We're going to start looking for solutions to this. And a year later that conversation doesn't seem to be going on really.
WILLIAMS: Lynn, I think you're right on target. You know, to my mind we had what Dr. King might have referred to as a moment of conscience because I think we were called upon, you know, ten years after the Clinton effort at welfare reform, welfare to work, all that. Here was an opportunity for us to say, well, really, what is the consequence of national policy with regard to poverty and how does it impact when you consider that so many of the poor disproportionately are people of color, in specific African-Americans? And instead what we did was we got locked into a polarizing racial conversation, with black people, as I said, having the kind of reaction that suggests of conspiracy theories, blow up levees and all the rest, and the Republican white man in the White House doesn't care about black people.
And then you saw a response from the right that said, oh look at all the looters. These people are looters and not worthy of our sympathy; and look at the allegations of rape and slaughter in terms of the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center. So much of that turned out to be fables. I mean absolute madness - not true, and that's what caught us in the mud and didn't allow that moment of conscience to truly flower.
I think back to, you know, Michael Harrington, who was writing about the other America early in the ‘60s and then leading the Johnson administration towards a Great Society program. I think we had that kind of moment there, but we got lost. And even to this day people want to make the case somehow that, you know, it's about race. But, you know, if you looked at what people have done in terms of the studies subsequently, Lynn, what they find is, you know, 28 percent or so of New Orleans is made up of white people, but 33 percent of the people who died in New Orleans during Katrina were white. So even larger than their proportion.
You think about the damage to property. You heard what Jed Horne said: There were areas in New Orleans' East - black millionaires wiped out. But whites were damaged as well. It's not just the Ninth Ward, but it's also St. Bernard Parish - overwhelmingly white. And yet the opportunity for the national conversation to come together in the way Jed Horne was talking about people on a local level saying hey, wait a minute, we've got a crisis here. We're all from New Orleans. We've got to build together. That conversation hasn't taken place on the national level because people I think have been trying to exploit it for political reasons or to make some larger point that's self-serving.
NEARY: Where should the conversation be now? What should we be talking about now, a year later?
WILLIAMS: Well, you know, again, it's such a rich moment - the Katrina story. Because what you saw there were real solutions to poverty. You look at it: deeply entrenched poverty in New Orleans. You know, a poverty rate overall of about 23 percent, but 35 percent in the black community. If you talk about black children in New Orleans, over 50 percent living in poverty - deeply entrenched poverty, generations of poverty.
What happened during Katrina? We saw church groups go in to try to help people. We saw extended families say, hey, you can come live with us for a while. We saw neighboring states say we will help you with the displaced population. We saw big business say there are jobs elsewhere in the country. We saw educational institutions say come here to continue our education.
If you talk about basic prescriptions for dealing with poverty, this doesn't only apply to Katrina, it could apply to the poor anywhere in America.
Remember, a quarter of African-Americans live in poverty, Lynn. You have a higher concentration in New Orleans - a 70 percent black city at the time. It was deeply entrenched, and yet no one was dealing with these issues of poverty. No one was saying you've got to graduate high school. No one was saying don't have babies when you're teenagers and not ready to be a parent. No one was talking about getting into the job market as opposed to thinking I can slide by with his hustle and that hustle.
That kind of conversation was not taking place in terms of really saying this is how we can end poverty in the United States in the 21st Century.
NEARY: Michael Eric Dyson, do you think that the discussions about race so far have been - the discussions that have taken place, and as we have been saying, perhaps they've tapered off now at this point - but were they too polarizing? I think, Juan, you seem to be indicating that you felt that maybe the discussion was polarizing. Do you think that they were polarizing?
Mr. DYSON: Well, unavoidably. But polarization is never a litmus test for the legitimacy of the argument. It was polarizing when Martin Luther King Jr. took arm and flight against he vicious forces of white supremacy. It was extremely polarizing to communities. But ultimately the moral suasion that Dr. King brought to bear was able to convince of America at a critical point in our trajectory of democracy that this was the right thing to do.
So polarization can never be the litmus test of whether it's authentic or legitimate or a good thing to pursue. However, I think that - I'm afraid that the haphazard formulations that Mr. Williams has put forth, in regard to what some of those solutions might be, may be part of the problem that perpetuates a legacy of such divisive thinking.
For instance, it's not either or. It's not either that people assert personal responsibility as the predicate for removing the barriers, the impediments and the obstacles that block them from the path to success. Nor is it about ignoring the fact that structural features - low wages, severely depressed economy, the service economy, which has been extraordinarily exacerbated by tremendous political tensions. All of that stuff together means that people don't have the opportunity to exercise responsibility. Let me give you an example: I'm here in New Orleans, where I've been since last Friday, arguing, speaking, and participating in events. And I've taken tours of the Lower Ninth Ward.
Home after home, I see young black people and working black people saying, look, we have trucks out here. We want to go out and remove cars. What happened is that the government had $100 million no-bid contracts to big corporations -be they Halliburton or Bechtel or Shaw or the like - they bid out the jobs, they prevent us on the local level from exercising our autonomy much less our responsibility.
So those who want to exercise personal responsibility are prevented by structural features like no-bid contracts that prevent them from maximizing their potential. So that, to me, is writ large against the canvas of our racial lesson here.
And that is to say that we will never be able to solve the problems of poverty unless we engage in less demonizing and stigmatizing of the poor and focusing on the structural features as well as the personal habits, dispositions and behaviors that may perpetuate self-destructive behavior.
Let me end by saying this. Mr. Williams spoke about Michael Harrington. Michael Harrington who was a Democratic socialist. Michael Harrington, whose famous book inspired the Johnson administration to indeed attack the poverty in this nation. There has been a shift, a very subtle but very powerful one, from a war on poverty to the war on the poor.
And the war on the poor that's being prosecuted I think is itself so deeply and fundamentally flawed that unless we renege upon our commitment to it, we will only perpetuate the devastation for the poor. Unless we're willing to say, hey, it's both/and, not either/or, we're not going to have a very enlightened conversation about this.
And white brothers and sisters who feel resentful here in New Orleans about Mr. Nagin's comments about chocolate city, that's understandable if they felt they were being precluded from participating. But what Ray Nagin was saying is that this city was 67.9 percent black before the storm. It looked awful chocolate to me.
And the reality is we have to talk about how we can resolve some of the tensions that Juan Williams is absolutely right. Long before this storm we didn't deal with the pathologies inherent in governments that ignored people, both black and white, and I think that's the fundamental issue we have to confront.
NEARY: All right. I just want to remind our listeners that you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
And if you'd like to join our discussion on Katrina and race, give us a call at 800-989-8255. That's 800-989-TALK.
And we are going to take a call now. We're going to Wally(ph) calling from Allentown, Pennsylvania. Wally, go ahead.
WALLY (Caller): Hi. Thanks for taking my call. I couldn't agree more with Mr. Williams and Mr. Dyson's comments. You know, I think the issue is far beyond race but it comes out in race. The issue is really poverty in that many people who live in poverty don't have an advocate.
And so a wealthy person, black or white, in New Orleans might have savings or resources or the ability to hire a lawyer or things like that to help them find solutions to their problems. With people in poverty, they either don't have the education background or the financial resources to even begin to find help or get help.
And beyond Katrina, even in the justice system, you know, if you're poor and you're wrong, you have little recourse. You know, justice is for people with resources.
And even in Allentown, where I live, there was a whole issue with predatory lending, and it was for poor Hispanics. And on its face it looks racist, but really it's just targeting people who don't have the resources to get a regular loan, and so they find themselves trapped in these situations.
And I think across the country it's poor people who either lack, you know, education or resources to even begin to address some of the injustices that they face every day.
NEARY: So, Juan, Wally was sort of reinforcing this idea that we've been discussing, which is that race and poverty are just inextricably linked it would seem. These two issues, you can't really discuss one without the other, and yet that we seem to have gotten away from even talking - we said we didn't get into the conversation...
WILLIAMS: Well, I think we get confused, Lynn. I mean it's just confusing. For example, when Michael Eric Dyson says that there are people with trucks who want to haul stuff out and, you know, they can't exercise personal - look, that has nothing to do with race. If you're white, you can't. That's the law as established by the government for all people.
So that's a - you know, all of the sudden, you make it into a racial issue. It's not a racial issue. It's a matter of government regulation and the government taking steps that some people may now disagree with or in hindsight say was absolutely wrongheaded. But it's not about race. I mean if you...
NEARY: What about what Wally said? He said something interesting, and I wanted you - which is - he said you can't have justice unless you have resources.
WILLIAMS: Well, absolutely. But that means that you've got to deal with poverty. You know, I think the big divide - you know, what DuBois famously said about the color line being the struggle of the 20th century. I think that the issue here in the 21st century is becoming very clear: It's the class line becoming more sharply demarcated in American society.
And people who are on the wrong side of that line, disproportionately people of color and young people in American society, are being left behind at such an alarming rate it's harder to get on that ladder of upper mobility and to then try to reverse that cycle, downward cycle.
But to come to this point, Lynn, it's not about race always. Because, for example, in the aftermath of Katrina, questions were asked by Pew about racial attitudes, and here's what they found.
Are the poor overly dependent on government? Two-thirds of black people said absolutely. Seventy percent of white people agreed. When the question was asked, do individuals have the power to succeed? Sixty-five percent of black people, yes. Seventy percent of white people, yes.
Are blacks moving ahead? And the ones who aren't moving ahead, are they creating their own problems? Fifty-six percent of black people said black people are moving ahead better than ever. When it came to are the black people who are not moving ahead creating their own problems? About 50 percent of blacks said yes, that they're not helping themselves, not taking the opportunity to be self responsible, self-reliant.
NEARY: NPR's Juan Williams and Michael Eric Dyson. We're going to take a short break. When we come back I'm going to give you an opportunity to respond to Juan Williams' comments.
We are talking about race and Katrina a year later. This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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NEARY: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Lynn Neary in Washington.
Tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION, Neal Conan will be here with the first of a two-part conversation with Jewish and Arab-Americans about the sometimes conflicting loyalties to national, religious and even family identity, plus an expanded edition of the Political Junkie. That's tomorrow on TALK OF THE NATION.
Today, race relations in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Our guests are Juan Williams, NPR senior correspondent and author of the book Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movement, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It. We're also joined by Michael Eric Dyson. His latest book is Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.
Give us a call at 800-989-TALK if you'd like to join the conversation. That's 800-989-8255. Or send us an e-mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Eric Michael Dyson - Michael Eric Dyson, before the break, Juan Williams was -you wanted to respond to...
Mr. DYSON: Yes. I think - first of all, in regard to the Pew poll. You know, we have to ask a lot of questions about polling, what size is the sample, how many people, was it representative, is it scientific and the not? And the self-reporting is one thing. People self-report and say, yeah, I voted for the Democratic guy and it comes out that the Republican guy wins. So self-reporting doesn't have to have scientific and one-to-one correlation to the actual empirically verifiable results. So we got to admit that.
Now, but beyond that, I think that the caller made an interesting point that Juan at least tipped his hat to but failed to wholly embrace. And that is the fact that, yeah, it doesn't always have to be about race but it's about race a lot of the times. And the fusion and merging of these two characteristics, race and class, is what makes things intriguing.
It's true that race is a central factor of many aspects of our lives, as well as class, but I think race makes class hurt more. Even in the concentrated poverty of New Orleans, white brothers and sisters who are living in poverty don't live in the same kind of concentrated poverty that African-American brothers and sisters live in.
Which means then that there are some effects that are exacerbatory(ph) that make it harsher for African-American people who live under the ostensibly same conditions that white brothers and sisters do.
And then finally I think the caller said this: that, look, if you're poor, you can't get the same kind of justice because you don't have the resources. The point I made about the trucks, true enough, Juan is absolutely right. There could be some white guys who, because of the restrictions, don't have trucks. But all the guys owning the corporations that do the get bids happen to be white. And when you talk about that, there is a high degree of correlation between the contracts being distributed by the government, the largesse economically that is accruing to those who have businesses which are owned.
And preexisting contracts are the basis for the distribution of the resource at first. That is to say if you already have a relationship with the government and you get the contract, you have a higher likelihood of being able in a crisis to respond. Those are overwhelmingly 99 percent white Americans. So I think it would be silly and insidious and just spiting our nose to cut off our face to suggest that race doesn't have a huge role in playing who gets the resources, how they get distributed, and finally, as the gentleman said who called, the advocates for the poor are barely as loud and abrasive as those who are willing to stigmatize them and those who defend the interests of the dominant society.
NEARY: All right. Let's take another call now from Darryl(ph). And he's calling from Georgia. Hi, Darryl.
DARRYL (Caller): Hey, how you doing?
NEARY: Good, go ahead.
DARRYL: Yeah. I would like to make a comment. I think that the only thing the Katrina storm did was televise the blatant discrimination and prejudice that everyone in America know exists. And I don't think it'll disappear in my lifetime or my children's lifetime. I think it's all Americana. And I'll take my response off the air. Thank you.
NEARY: It's all Americana?
WILLIAMS: Well, race is part of the American picture. I don't think there's any getting from it. And racism is, you know, as long as I've been alive, I think has been a daunting and sad feature of the American landscape, and it's not going away. My point is if we are truly looking for this moment, you know, Katrina even a year later to be instructive, to allow us to be productive in dealing with poverty issues, Lynn, then we have go to say where is the consensus for action?
How can we say to people across racial lines this is a shame when we in America look and see these people in desperate conditions not being helped by our government; that's wrong. How can we take action? And that's why I come back to the idea that if you look at the poll numbers, these polls done by Pew - Pew is a very legitimate, reputable organization - if you look at it, what you see is that black people - remember, 25 percent of black Americans live in poverty -when you ask black people basic questions about whether or not the poor are overly dependent, they're saying yes.
When you ask them basic questions about whether or not black people who are not moving ahead are creating their own problems, black people who live next door, whose, you know, family, friends, neighbors are sometimes poor black people are saying yes. I think that would give people a sense well, wait a second. We can get beyond the your-blame liberal guilt, all that. Let's get to the real heart of the matter. What are the steps, what are the prescriptions that we can take in order to alleviate poverty in America today, and that's the conversation I'd like to have rather than the finger pointing.
NEARY: Well both of you - the two of you seem to be representing two sides of -not two sides but two lines of thought that have crystallized in this debate. You, Juan, sort of talking about personal responsibility, the need for personal responsibility; and you, Michael Eric Dyson, talking about the fact that there's institutional racism, that this is part of our culture, it's part of -and that the government response we saw in New Orleans perhaps reflected that. Isn't that sort of the debate that was going on before Katrina...
WILLIAMS: It's the same old stuck-in-the-mud debate, and there's just no evidence, for example, that FEMA's response, the government's response, was racism so much as ineptitude.
NEARY: Mr. Dyson, is it the same old debate? Can you change the discussion now? Has Katrina changed the discussion or is there a way to change the discussion? Michael Eric Dyson, you there? I think we've lost Mr. Dyson, unless he may have had to go, and we didn't get a chance to say goodbye. Okay, we're seeing if he's still there.
Juan, the same old debate. You're saying that it - but this question of personal responsibility which you are articulating, that's something that people have been talking about for a number of years now as well.
WILLIAMS: Oh, it's in the tradition of black leadership in the country, but it hasn't been in this generation. Instead I think there's been this focus, this tremendous focus on victimization to my mind, and I think it's a real lost opportunity. Because what it does is it breaks down - you think of, Lynn, the glory of the civil rights movement as a movement that was trying to establish equality and justice for all. It was kind of move us beyond race. That's why you had people, you know, without regard to race or religion coming together to form what was the greatest social movement the country has every seen.
At the moment, instead we have people in our community who want to focus on victimization, who want to make it about race instead of saying wait a second, how is it that we as Americans can act on this problem? That's what I'm trying to say. Where is the consensus, and in fact...
Mr. DYSON: Can I...?
NEARY: Mr. Dyson?
Mr. DYSON: Yes, ma'am.
WILLIAMS: ...as the polls had indicated, the consensus exists, although some people don't want to mention it.
NEARY: Mr. Dyson is back, and I know you have to leave shortly to make a plane, so let me...
Mr. DYSON: No, no, I'm going to stay until the end of the show.
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DYSON: I didn't hear all of what Juan had to say, and I apologize for that, but I think I got the gist of it. You know, the reliance upon the language of victimization assumes that black people are not victims. So we stigmatize the notion of victimhood so that those who are actual victims - if you've been subjected to cancer and you say, well, we're against people who call themselves cancer survivors or cancer victims, well there's a deleterious pathogen in your body that is eating you away cell by cell. So those who have been literally victimized by the forces of oppression are now re-victimized because they're denied access to the very language that could express the horror of the tragedy of what has occurred to them.
But beyond that, Juan's own polls contradict the very notion of victimhood's wide and pervasive spread among African-American people. First of all, black people have always been bifocal. They look at the fact that we must be responsible for our lives and that the dependence upon government is something we should be discouraged from. Marcus Garvey was about that, Booker T. Washington was about that, Frederick Douglass was about that, Martin Luther King, Jr. was about that, and so every leader worth his or her salt - Ella Baker, Jo Ann Robinson, and the like - have discouraged us from being overly reliant upon the government, but they have not shirked from demanding that the government be responsible for what they are to be responsible for so that we are both victims, survivors and agents at the same time.
The same group of people who have been victimized by historical legacies of white supremacy, social injustice and economic inequality have to have a resonant language to articulate their blight and their predicament. But at the same time they have exercised extraordinary responsibility in arguing against the very premises that would deny them legitimacy as, you know, in American society.
And finally what's interesting to me - it is not that people are going around as African-American people are crying victimhood and we can't do anything. I've been down here on the ground in the Lower Nine, and people have been nearly heroic in insisting that despite the fact that their government will show up, A, they need for it to show up, B, what we don't talk about is that these African-American people by and large have demanded of themselves a level of accountability and responsibility that the government has not nearly begun to match.
If George Bush was as responsible as the average black person I have seen down here on the ground, this government would not be besieged by ineptitude, by extraordinary cronyism, by corrosive cynicism about the possibility of the government responding to the issues of African-American people.
And let me say this finally. When it comes to the notion of victimization, the truth is that African-American people have lived in a society where their legitimate rights and claims upon the state have rarely been acknowledged. So I think Juan would be naïve, and it would be naive for the rest of us as African-American people, to dismiss that.
Martin Luther King, Jr., whom he has quoted, said the night before he died all we say to you, America, is be true to what you said on paper. Let's close the difference between your preaching and your practice. Let's march those words from parchment to pavement, and that demands accountability and responsibility of the government.
The poor are always the easiest marks. African-American people are always the easiest marks for people to pour their venom upon. The real question is can the American government live up to its historic demand for responsibility and accountability so that as that woman said when she wrapped herself in the flag down in New Orleans...
WILLIAMS: Can we jump in here?
(Soundbite of laughter)
Mr. DYSON: ...I am an American citizen, and as an American citizen...
WILLIAMS: I'll tell you what, man. I'll jump in since no one's interrupting this rant. But let me just say this. If you're talking...
Mr. DYSON: I wasn't nasty to you, Juan.
WILLIAMS: ...responsibility here. What we're talking about is people saying wait a minute. You can wait for the end of racism for all time, it won't save you in this generation, it won't help your kids in terms of getting them an education. What we're talking about is 25 percent of black Americans living in poverty, to come back to the topic of this show, especially in the aftermath of Katrina in a city where we're seeing a 35 percent level of poverty among black people, disproportionate.
What you're talking about then is how can these people be helped? And one of the things that we have learned I think from Katrina is they have the power to help themselves, but when you understand...
NEARY: But with the help of government, would you say, Juan?
WILLIAMS: It would be wonderful if government would come in. But I'm saying you, Lynn, at this point the government hasn't done the job. And not only that, oftentimes you look at who's in charge of government in New Orleans - black people. Ray Nagin is there, right?
Mr. DYSON: But why do you let them off the hook, Juan? Why don't you hold them responsible? What don't you hold them accountable?
WILLIAMS: Hold on a second. The point is that...
NEARY: Juan, you're going to have to wrap this up because we're running out of time.
WILLIAMS: Okay, so the point, the larger point is here we have the opportunity to say to people here are steps you can take to help yourself and to get out of this poverty, 25 percent, and yet there are people who want to instead talk about oh that's blaming the victim. To the contrary, that's trying to help people and say to them here are steps you can take to put yourself in a better position.
Mr. DYSON: As long as there are structural barriers to prohibit people from engaging in self-help and responsibility, all that talk is mere theory. On the ground here it's about negotiating the possibility where poor black people can engage in full citizenship and be protected by the government that should be held accountable - black, white, and otherwise.
NEARY: All right, thanks to both of you for joining us today. Michael Eric Dyson, his latest book is Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. And joining me here in Studio 3A, Juan Williams, NPR senior correspondent. His new book is Enough: The Phony Leaders, Dead-End Movements, and Culture of Failure That Are Undermining Black America - and What We Can Do About It. And you are listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.
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