Race and Poverty After Hurricane Katrina Issues of poverty, class and race in America are now front-burner issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the world saw the plight of poor, mostly black storm victims all but abandoned in New Orleans. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) join Ed Gordon for a discussion.

Race and Poverty After Hurricane Katrina

Race and Poverty After Hurricane Katrina

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Issues of poverty, class and race in America are now front-burner issues in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, when the world saw the plight of poor, mostly black storm victims all but abandoned in New Orleans. Rep. Mel Watt (D-NC), chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, and Rep. Maxine Waters (D-CA) join Ed Gordon for a discussion.

ED GORDON, host:

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

Members of the Congressional Black Caucus are critical of the federal government's response to the disaster relief in the Gulf. They say it reflects the Bush administration's general callousness toward the poor. Last week, the CBC devoted much of its annual conference to disaster relief for the region and those displaced by Hurricane Katrina, many of whom live below the poverty line. Members also came up with an eight-point plan they say will address the overall issue of poverty in America.

Joining us now to talk about the plan is the chairman of the CBC, Congressman Mel Watt, of North Carolina. Also with us, Congresswoman Maxine Waters, of California. I thank you both for joining us.

Congressman Watt, let me start with you. Talk to me about the decision to put this plan out, why you decided to do so and what makes you believe that this will move from a good-intentioned plan to action?

Representative MEL WATT (Democrat, North Carolina): Well, this is really not inconsistent with what we've doing the entire year and, for that matter, for the entire history of the Congressional Black Caucus, working on the gap between the rich and the poor in this country and recognizing that the face of that gap is disproportionately African-American. So this is really just a continuation of our work on our agenda, and Katrina only just gave us a concrete, absolute, in-your-face example of how poverty plays itself out in our communities.

GORDON: Maxine Waters, the eight points of the plan, how do you move those to make sure that they are reflective of, not just the poor in that region, but, quite frankly, the poor across this country?

Representative MAXINE WATERS (Democrat, California): Well, as Mel Watt said, the Congressional Black Caucus agenda has included the whole discussion on disparities in addition to dealing with the immediate concerns of what took place in Louisiana, Alabama and Mississippi, making sure that we move people from the shelters, into transitional housing, into permanent housing. It's part of what we do on a regular basis, trying to develop low- and moderate-income housing, housing that New Orleans deserved before Katrina, and, certainly, housing that they deserve now.

So when you talk about health care and the health care needs of poor people, you're talking about not only what New Orleans needed before Katrina, but you're talking about health care that would help deal with preventable diseases. For example, when I was down there at the Louis Armstrong Airport, where we were taking people to shelters over to Alexandria, Louisiana, one of the things I heard over and over again is `I need insulin. I don't have my insulin. I have high blood pressure. I have diabetes.' The health care concerns became very evident when we dealt with just the emergency of this--of Katrina.

In addition to that, whether you're talking about housing or health care, you're talking about procurement opportunities and opening up the opportunities for minorities and women to be involved in the reconstruction. But that's an issue we have all the time. How do we create some fairness and justice in procurement opportunities? All of this development, all of this construction, that has to be done...


Rep. WATERS: ...and on and on and on, Ed.

GORDON: Mel Watt, do you believe now that Katrina has brought to light to a number of people who had no idea the kind of abject poverty that is in this country--Democrats, in general, but the CBC, specifically, will now have, if you will, a new arm of political muscle that you, quite frankly, didn't have heretofore because of just sheer voting numbers of Democrats on the Hill.

Rep. WATT: Well, I think it's one thing to talk about these things in theoretical terms and a number of us live with it much, much closer than other people live with it because we represent constituents every day who are the victims of poverty. But for people to have a--and everybody to have a concrete example of how poverty makes you make very bad decisions, even in the face of an oncoming disaster, is just a powerful thing. And, you know, this is the same kind of discussion we had had with President Bush in January when we presented our agenda to him and heard him visibly, audibly gasp and--when we described the disparities to him. But I think this hurricane kind of brought it home even to the president in a way that he really had--I mean, you just can't escape it.

GORDON: So in January, you believed at the time it fell on deaf ears?

Rep. WATT: No, I didn't think it fell on deaf ears. I thought he heard it and--but it's one thing to hear it in a theoretical way. It's quite another thing to see it in...


Rep. WATT: ...your face as dramatically as we saw it in the aftermath of Katrina.

GORDON: Maxine Waters, I was in Washington for part of the Congressional Black Caucus weekend, and you and I spent some time together. And one of the interesting things that I heard you say at an event is that you believe that the liberal side of the Democratic Party, if you'll allow for that, needed to be louder, that they had been mute for some time and now was--and should be used as a wake-up call to make sure that the agendas that they had worked so feverishly years before should be resurrected. Is that fair to say?

Rep. WATERS: Absolutely. I believe two things. Number one, that they have made--the right wingers, the talking heads at FOX and some of these other more conservative shows, have made `liberal' such a bad word that, not only have Democrats backed away from it, but absolute Democrats, liberals in the Black Caucus and liberals in the Democratic Party, have tried to fashion themselves more as centrists. Not criticize too much. Not ask for too much money. Not drive home the issues of need in this country enough.

And that's the same thing with African-Americans. We have been called, you know--we have been said to be playing the race card too much whenever we talk about disparities and what's going on with African-Americans. And I think this does give us an opportunity to step outside of that box that we have been organized into and step up to the plate and represent the people that elected us to come to Congress to represent them.

These right-wing Republicans are not going to get up off of this money easily. I didn't hear them talking about how you have to go back into the budget and cut the budget significantly in order to pay for 9/11. But that's what they're talking about now. They don't want to appropriate any new money. As a matter of fact, these Republicans have not even talked about the looming deficit that was created by George W. Bush. When Clinton was in, that's all they talked about. Clinton not only cleared up that deficit, but he left with a surplus. This president has been spending like a wild sailor, a drunken sailor, and now they all of a sudden want to get more conservative on the spending when we're talking about what we do to make those people whole and to rebuild New Orleans and do all of the stuff that we should have been doing.

So, yes, this is a wake-up call. This is an opportunity. I don't think that Bush really paid much attention to us when we were talking to him. I think that now, coming out with all of these appearances, trying to make up for the fact that they failed, not only New Orleans, but Alabama and Mississippi, in their response.

He threw us a little bone by saying that many of the problems of New Orleans were rooted in past racism. Well, not past, but present to--also. And so, I think we have to--people like me, not everybody, will step up to the plate and really reclaim our very liberal credentials.

GORDON: Congressman Watt, Senator Barack Obama said on this program last week, before his speech to the CBC weekend event, that we have to make sure that we address poverty and race and keep it in the fore for a national debate. Yet there are those critics who are saying that African-American politicians, frankly, are a little leery of using race as an issue, keeping it in the fore, for fear of political backlash. There had even been some criticism of certain CBC members who didn't want to tie race to what we saw in terms of Katrina. What do you say to that criticism?

Rep. WATT: Well, since I was one of the people--whom some people were critical of my response to it--is we can't walk away from the race--from the face of this poverty. But at the same time, you also have to articulate that the core problem here is poverty. If the same kind of warning, 24- or 48-hour warning, had been given in any place in America and the same kind of events had occurred, the people who would not have gotten out of the way of this storm or whatever disaster was coming would have been the poorest people in any community. And in some communities, that face would be African-American. In some places it would Hispanic, and in other places it would be Native American.

So the core of the problem is poverty. The face of the problem in one community might be African-American, another Hispanic, but it's always going to be minority and we can't step away from that fact. We've got to put that fact out there and our country really needs to deal with it. And the most dramatic context in which it needs to deal with it is the race context between African-Americans and whites in this country. Because the effects of past and present discrimination continue to have dramatic and adverse impacts on African-American people.

GORDON: Maxine Waters, with about a minute to go, that being said, it's hard, still, because of the disproportionate number of African-Americans, who are impoverished, to disassociate race from class and poverty in this country. Can we expect a real national discourse on race any time soon, in your opinion?

Rep. WATERS: The only way that we're going to get a discourse on race is that the people who are negatively affected by these policies and these attitudes in this country are engaged. Someone has to lead the bandwagon, and that's why it's important for African-Americans, Latinos and other minorities to stop being organized into silence and force this whole country to have a debate on race and to move very aggressively to correct some of the ills that certainly can be corrected.

GORDON: Yeah. All right, Congressman Mel Watt, of North Carolina, and Congresswoman Maxine Waters, of California, always good to have you on the program. Thanks for joining us today. Appreciate it.

Rep. WATT: Thank you.

Rep. WATERS: Thanks, Ed, for calling us.

GORDON: All right.

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