Race, Poverty and Katrina A live studio audience joins in a conversation with leading thinkers on the lessons Hurricane Katrina offers, about race and class in American society.
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Race, Poverty and Katrina

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Race, Poverty and Katrina

Race, Poverty and Katrina

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This is a special broadcast of TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Studio 4A in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Hurricane Katrina started as a search-and-rescue story, different only in scale to the ones we see every hurricane season. Victims stranded on rooftops or in boats, first responders working to get them to safety. Then came other images: the thousands in the misery of the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center, people still in the city who wouldn't or couldn't leave. By night we heard stories of looting and violence; by day we saw pictures of the poor and dispossessed waiting for food and water, waiting for medical attention, waiting for a ride out, and the story changed focus to the lack of preparation and to the sluggish response.

The aftermath of Katrina was a story that continued to unfold, changing almost daily for the last three weeks. One constant was the question of race and class. Black and white America drew very different conclusions from what they saw. Liberals and conservatives proposed very different solutions. All agree that this disaster has moved poverty and race back onto the national agenda.

In order to explore an aspect of American life that usually remains below the radar, we've gathered a panel of experts and an audience here in NPR Studio 4A. Katrina, race and class--we want to hear from you as well, of course. What did you see? What did we learn? How did your perceptions change as the story developed? Our number here in Washington is (800) 989-8255. That's (800) 989-TALK. The e-mail address is totn@npr.org.

Before we go to the larger panel, I want to turn first to NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

And, Juan, welcome back to TALK OF THE NATION.

JUAN WILLIAMS reporting:

Good to be with you, Neal.

CONAN: One of the things we learned is that there is an enormous disparity between blacks and whites and what they think they saw.

WILLIAMS: Well, without a doubt, the polls indicate that if you ask white Americans if race had anything to do with the ineptitude in terms of the federal response, black Americans will say overwhelming 70 percent yes, it had something to do, white Americans will say in even larger numbers, about 80 percent, no, it had nothing to do with the actions of the federal government. So what you get there is a strong disjuncture, if you will, in the way that people saw the events.

Now, of course, the president, as we heard in the intro to this show, has said that race had nothing to do with it and come back and said, as you will hear, I think, from people on this panel, there's no evidence that the government acted in a racist manner. And yet you see people who just, I think, burdened by the history of America in terms of history of blacks being given poor treatment, being marginalized in the society, say this is something that evokes, resonates with them in terms of lack of equality and lack of equal opportunity in the society.

CONAN: The president did say that race had a lot to do with the poverty that we saw in those pictures. What do we know about poverty rates in New Orleans--that's where we're talking about--and how does that compare to the surrounding regions, in Louisiana and Mississippi, Alabama?

WILLIAMS: Neal, let's start by looking at US poverty. Last year, US poverty was about 12.7 percent nationwide. That's for everybody. It was the fourth year of an increase in terms of the poverty rates, and when I'm talking about poverty, just so the listeners have a good grip of it, that means a family of four living on about $19,000. Then you have to look in terms of that US population, break it down in terms of the poverty numbers, and you'll see that for white Americans it was about a 10 percent poverty rate, but for black Americans, 24 percent. And then if you go into the Louisiana area, you'll see they have a 16 percent poverty rate. And let's just go right into New Orleans just to speed things up, and you'll understand there's about an 11 percent white poverty rate in the city of New Orleans, but 35 percent poverty among African-Americans.

And I would just urge everyone to keep in mind that New Orleans itself is an economically troubled city, one with a declining population. It had about 600,000 people back in '85; now it's under half a million people, and when you think about it, you know, it's about 67 percent black, the whole city. Back in '85 it was about 50 percent black, so you can see the percentage of the black population is increasing, the poverty rate is increasing. The median black income in the city of New Orleans is about $21,000; median white income, $40,000. About 32 percent of the black population has less than a high school education, while almost 50 percent of the white population has a college education or more.

CONAN: And as you're painting that picture, I mean, we can see that there might be differences if you try to apply those same numbers to New York or Washington, DC, or Chicago or Cleveland or Detroit or Los Angeles, but pretty much the story would be similar.

WILLIAMS: Well, the story would be similar. I--one thing I didn't mention, Neal, was, of course, the South, and this was something you asked, I should have answered earlier, the South is the poorest region, has the most poverty in the country, and so if you look across the South--Alabama, Louisiana, Mississippi--those are some of the poorest states in the nation, and the African-American population there is larger--the South being home to most African-Americans nationwide--so what you see is in that region you get a tremendous, tremendous punch of poverty, and the disparity there is also very clear.

CONAN: Hmm. Whatever role race actually played in the response to Hurricane Katrina, it certainly, as we've heard, had a strong influence in how people view the disaster. To discuss this divide, joining us now is John McWhorter, a senior fellow at The Manhattan Institute. His upcoming book is called "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America."

Nice to have you back on TALK OF THE NATION.

Mr. JOHN McWHORTER (The Manhattan Institute): Thanks, Neal.

CONAN: He just arrived on a late flight to Washington. We appreciate his effort.

Mr. McWHORTER: Sure.

CONAN: And also with us is Tricia Rose, a professor of American studies at the University of California, Santa Cruz, who specializes in African-American history and urban cultures.

And it's very good of you to be with us today.

Professor TRICIA ROSE (University of California at Santa Cruz): My pleasure, Neal.

CONAN: John, let me start with you. What did you see in the aftermath of Katrina, amid all the allegations of racism?

Mr. McWHORTER: Well, I think that the idea that racism played any part is kind of recreational. I mean, with Hurricane Andrew in 1992, there was the exact same five-day delay, and most of the people in Homestead, Florida, were white. I think what we saw was the aftermath, in my view, of the fact that, indeed, there were way too many black people who were way too poor, but we didn't see what kind of black ghetto was common before the late 1960s. The black ghetto used to be a fragile but stable place where people who were living on the very bottom, living horrible lives, were an underbelly. And the kind of black ghetto that we now think of as normal is something that only started about 40 years ago, and as it happens, it was the result of well-intended but disastrous policies aimed at inner cities.

And so when I see Katrina, what I see is the result of the lost chapter of black history, which was when welfare was legislated into a safe--from a safety net into a program that basically paid people to not have jobs and to have children open endedly. That was a new kind of welfare. That created a new kind of poor black America, and it was something that was foisted upon poor black America when it needed help the most. So the way I see it is that Katrina revealed poor black America rubbing its eyes nine years after welfare reform in '96, which was a wonderful thing but, of course, has only had so much effect after such a short time.

CONAN: Tricia, let's bring you into the conversation. I suspect you may have seen things differently?

Prof. ROSE: Yes, certainly. Welfare has absolutely nothing to do with either Katrina or the legacy of poverty that we're seeing revealed by Katrina. There are literally dozens of policies in the federal government and at local levels over the past 80 or 90 years that have sustained and created massive economic disadvantage among African-Americans. Going all the way back to the Social Security Act, the GI Bill, housing discrimination for decades has created an uneven access with African-Americans on the deep, short end of that stick. The evolution of those policies, the intergenerational repercussions of those policies is what we're beginning to see.

Urban renewal is what took place in the 1960s and '70s which gutted access to affordable housing and other resources in the cities. Now it seems to me that if we're really going to understand race, it isn't about whether or not President Bush was thinking in a racist way, but about the policies that he supports that disable changing a history of disadvantage into an even, equal playing field. Now if we're interested in an equal, even playing field, we have to acknowledge disadvantage.

CONAN: We're going to be taking questions today, of course, from callers, from e-mailers--the numbers is (800) 989-8255, the e-mail address is totn@npr.org--but also from our studio audience here in 4A, and let's begin here.

Ms. KATHLEEN REED (Audience Member): Hi there. My name is Kathleen Reed and I'm an anthropologist, and what I have to say is that you have to go back to the history. I'm glad we have a historian here. The history has always been that even with those programs, it was designed to keep and allow, I should say, black and white people to still maintain separate lives, even though they were in America. And so the difference between whites and blacks domestically, maintaining their separate lives, that's what has been allowed to happen, regardless of any of the programs, etc.

But now we're in a post-11 global economy, and the issue that I think is most important is that with terrorism, with the world of color around the world rising and the natural tragedies like Katrina and Rita, etc., it means that there's a lot of people that can be left. In other words, we have Vietnamese that were left. We had Honduran ...(unintelligible) Honduran communities down there that was left. We have whites that believe that they're looking up and that they're gonna be taken care of by white privilege, that at the end of the day, those credit cards are maxed out now, and they're left.

So I think we have a conversation in this country that we're gonna have to have about being American and citizens, not refugees, but citizens, that we just haven't had, and I'm real glad to see that some white folks in this country are letting black folks stay in their houses so maybe they can get to know who we are, as just citizens as opposed to dealing with the black-white issue. I think we have to move this conversation along past just black and white into us and what we're gonna do as citizens. Thank you.

CONAN: Let's get a response from our panelists. John McWhorter?

Mr. McWHORTER: I think that all those things make perfect sense. I think that certainly we have to see each other as citizens, and certainly there are more people who are poor than African-Americans, but on the other hand, I'm not sure that the conversation that we're having about race and poverty after Katrina is really necessarily so new. It seems to me that we might neglect history in thinking that what's going on now is so novel compared to what kind of conversation we would be having under the same conditions in, say, 1965. For example, once Katrina hit, immediately the media were full of examinations of what the implications of this would be for the race issue. Now that's today. That would not have been the case in 1955. It wouldn't have been the case, even as much in 1975. History happens. It's easier to believe that change doesn't happen than that it happens slowly, and I think that we're at an intermediate point in that. So I'm not sure that we are as benighted as the speaker implies, but I understand what she means.

CONAN: I'm gonna give--I can give you a few seconds now, or I can ask you for a fuller comment after we return from the break.

Prof. ROSE: After the break.

CONAN: After the break. I'm amazed you made that choice.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: We're going to take a short break now. When we come back, we'll continue our conversation on race and class and America post-Katrina. In a moment, journalist David Shipler and public policy Professor Douglas Besharov will also join us, and we want to hear from you: (800) 989-8255, (800) 989-TALK. Our e-mail address is totn@npr.org. How can the country build on what we saw during Katrina?

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION, and this is NPR News.

(Soundbite of music)

CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in NPR's Studio 4A in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: Today we're holding a special discussion about the issues of race and class brought up by Hurricane Katrina and what the nation can do to address them. We've been talking with John McWhorter, author of "Losing the Race" and "Authentically Black," and American studies Professor Tricia Rose; also with NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams.

And, Tricia, you had the floor when we left.

Prof. ROSE: Yeah. I just wanted to point out that I think it's very important that we don't imagine that getting past black and white is somehow a goal in and of itself. I mean, I think what we really want to do is transform the context for race so that black and white doesn't mean what it currently economically and otherwise winds up meaning. But I think the multiracial emphasis is important, so let's add some more numbers in poverty, which I think will show how much, unfortunately, we had sustained the notion of white privilege economically in this nation across various kinds of races. So blacks, 24 percent poverty vs. white 8 percent poverty, according to the Children's Defense Fund; Native Americans, 24 percent poverty, Hispanics, 22 percent poverty. So we're looking at across a multi-non-white environment a level of poverty that is three times whites'.

We cannot explain this by looking only at George Bush or Katrina. We have to talk systemically and honestly so that we can really genuinely come together and create a really equal set of opportunities. If we don't take history seriously and the economically repercussions of that in our current policies, we're not going to solve this problem. We're going to continue to have crises on top of already existing crises, which is what Katrina revealed.

CONAN: Juan Williams, let me bring you back into the conversation. If this is a--if this is not, as John McWhorter said, dramatically different conversation than we might have had in the 1950s, why do we keep having it?

WILLIAMS: Well, I think there's the history of race and the whole notion of how America comes to terms with race, which is to my mind sort of the defining aspect of American history. We continue to have that struggle. In fact, though, I think as I'm listening to this very interesting conversation, one thing that you have to pick up on is that there has been a tremendous growth in terms of the black middle class in this country. One of the quick and easy and dirty assumptions is you see those black faces and say, `Oh, well, black people were stuck and black people are poor in New Orleans.' Of course, there's an overwhelming black middle class in New Orleans that got out and managed to do just well, including the Mayor Ray Nagin, who's literally living now--moved his family to Dallas so his kid can go to public school there. What we do have...

CONAN: And nor were all of those people in the Superdome and--or in the Superdome and the Convention Center, nor were all of them poor.

WILLIAMS: Of course not. And I might say, that if the TV cameras hadn't been located conveniently in the city of New Orleans but in rural areas of Mississippi and Alabama, you would have seen lots of white faces and poor white people. So I think that there's a little bit of media distortion as part of the picture, and what I wanted to suggest as an add-on to what you've heard from Tricia and John is the notion of increasing income inequality in America. There's an increasing class divide in this society. That's one of the tremendous changes that we've seen going on. It's been chronicled by The New York Times and others recently, indicating now that about--I think it's over 50 percent of income in this country is going into the pockets of the top 20 percent, and it's even more of a distorted picture if you take other statistical analyses. But the point is that there's a class divide as much as the racial divide, it's just that in terms of TV pictures, things that are easily and quickly apprehended by the American public, the face of poverty is black.

CONAN: Let's get a caller on the line, and we'll go to Samantha. Samantha's calling from Akron, Ohio.

SAMANTHA (Caller): Hi, Neal. How are you today?

CONAN: I'm very well, thank you.

SAMANTHA: I would just--my comment is that I think the country saw African-Americans just exposed, kind of a nakedness based on the economic policies that have been set in the last eight to 10 years, and I think that some of the policies, if you even connect it to education, that we have in the educational setting today, because I am an educator, I think those policies are also gonna have--that are set today are gonna have a huge impact on the economic--just the economic issues for black Americans, because what we don't pay for now, what we don't put the money out for now, we're gonna have to pay somehow in the future, and I think a lot of times that's just passed over and we end up with these--you have to have these big, catastrophic events to see how the policies have impacted on those who are less fortunate.

CONAN: And, John McWhorter, I think one of the things she's talking about is this is how these situations persist.

Mr. McWHORTER: What I don't completely understand is what is it that created the kind of conditions that you mentioned, the caller, over the past eight or 10 years that would have had worse effect than a time when all but a sliver of black people either had to mop a floor or burp white peoples' babies and people were being hung from trees every year? What was worse...

Prof. ROSE: Oh, I can answer that.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...over the past eight, 10 years?

Prof. ROSE: I can help you with that. Well, first of all, in the...


Prof. ROSE: ...period that you describe, you're talking about integration--you're talking about pre-integration, a segregated society, you had black educational institutions staffed by predominantly black teachers who were invested in those communities because they had no choice...

Mr. McWHORTER: But what about economic policies?

Prof. ROSE: ...in dominant society. Well, economic policies were equally detrimental, but education and other social service networks that black Americans were able to garner because of segregation, ironically, maintained a circumstance that was actually enabling. What you have in false integration, which is what we have for most of the minority poor, is the technical language of integration, which bears no resemblance in the educational system and any other number of the other places, so you see an evacuation of resources, race-neutral language in the context of a racially discriminatory context, and that's what I think we're facing. And if we're not gonna, again, be honest about that, we can't get to where I think we all want to go, which is where race will not matter in these circumstances.

Mr. McWHORTER: Tricia, you mean that middle-class black people have left the communities and the poor didn't have resources?

Prof. ROSE: No, what I'm saying is that the equal opportunities that all middle-class people should have placed a greater burden in a racist environment on black middle-class people to solve what should have been a national problem solved by all Americans, so that rather than imagining that the middle-class African-American should somehow take care of, quote, "their people," we should be saying these are all our people and we should all be disgraced and embarrassed by this level of poverty cross race, but especially the fact that 35, 40 years after civil rights and all the things we claim we've taken care of, what we see is a legacy of racial discriminatory forms of poverty that should not exist. And if--again, if we're not gonna face it, we're not gonna solve it.

Mr. McWHORTER: Sometimes I worry, although everything that you're saying makes perfect sense to me, that there's a danger in hoping for a kind of Utopia when people need help now. I understand the kind of society that you're referring to, but I'm not sure if I can remember or remember reading about any time in America or human history where things worked in that way, which is the way they should work. But my interest is in helping people who need help make the best of themselves in an imperfect America, and maybe we can see if we can create those ideal conditions of the perfectly level playing field and the cross-national compassion, but I'm not sure those things are gonna happen soon enough to help people who now need a more constructive and perhaps mundane kind of assistance.

Prof. ROSE: Oh, I'm all for constructive assistance, but it has to be led by a vision of acknowledgement, so that we have to think very carefully about what we imagine is to be race-neutral policies that have racially accumulatory effects. I'm all for getting help to people now. So, for example, rebuilding New Orleans should be built by New Orleans residents, by the poorest members, cross race, not just blacks, and that they should be given first priority. Any other effort to allow, for example, large corporations to come in and profit rather than building an infrastructure of jobs for those people would be exactly the kind of seemingly neutral activity that would have incredibly negative effects. That would be a way of creating help now. Really shrinking public schools in these big cities, creating real resources--I mean, you know, when we look at the educational inequities in these systems, it's unbelievable. If we really want to create both short-term gain and long-term stability and long-term possibility, we do need to rethink this. I do think help now is important.

CONAN: And, John, I'm gonna give you a few seconds to respond to that, but we want to bring in some other guests.

Mr. McWHORTER: Real, real quick. I agree with everything you just said about how New Orleans should be built, but I think we might also consider that after that happens, the playing field still isn't gonna be level. There's gonna be societal...

Prof. ROSE: It won't be.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...racism, there's gonna be white supremacy and all those terms that we tend to use. We have to work with what we've got.

Prof. ROSE: And we have to work to change it.

CONAN: Let's bring David Shipler into the conversation now. He's a Pulitzer--oh, by the way, Samantha, thank you so much for the call. I forgot about you there.

SAMANTHA: Thank you.

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: All right. Bye-bye.

Prof. ROSE: Poor Samantha.

CONAN: Let's bring David Shipler into the conversation now. He's a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and the author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America."

And thanks very much for joining us today in the studio.

Mr. DAVID SHIPLER (Journalist): Good to be with you.

CONAN: Is--are we right to frame this in terms of poverty and race, or should it be poverty and class?

Mr. SHIPLER: It's a very good question, and I've been listening with great interest to this discussion, because I think that there's no question, and you heard the statistics, that minorities are disproportionately hurt by poverty, and that the perceptions of what happened in the failed rescue effort were seen through a racial lens. I think there's a reason for that, many reasons, but one reason overwhelmingly--I also did a book a few years ago on race called "A Country of Strangers," and when I traveled the country talking to blacks and whites, it struck me that most whites were ahistorical and most blacks I talked to were weighed down by history. That is, most whites saw the present as pretty much of a clean slate, and the past not having a tremendous impact on what happened now. Most blacks I interviewed saw the past as resonating into the present, so when a kid, for example, in a school hallway hears another kid call him a racial epithet, he hears not just that other white kid saying that, he hears the teachers, he hears the principal, he hears this epithet coming down through generations and generations. So the perception that this was all about race, I think, may not be accurate, but we should listen to it anyway as a key into the way people see where they are in American society, how marginalized they have been throughout history. So it's a very important perceptual difference. We have to pay attention to it.

CONAN: Douglas Besharov, let me bring you in as well.

Douglas Besharov is professor of public policy at the University of Maryland, a scholar in social welfare studies at the American Enterprise Institute.

And are people--one people hearing race history and another not and--or just a different history?

Professor DOUGLAS BESHAROV (University of Maryland): Oh, I think this is a story about race, but I don't think it's the story about race that we've been talking about, because as Juan said, there is a large African-American middle class. Incomes for the vast majority of African-Americans have increased over the last 40 years. This is a story about race and place. New Orleans, last time I was there, had T-shirts that said, `Third World and proud of it.' The numbers that Juan gave describe a city that had high levels of concentrated black poverty, and we see those kinds of neighborhoods all over the country. New Orleans just had more of them. That's a different kind of poverty than the one we're talking about, and I think I'm more on John's side on this one. That is to say, these neighborhoods that grew and festered from the '50s on created their own dynamic, and that's a different kind of problem that is race, but that's a different kind of problem than the 400-year history of race in this country. Both have to be addressed, but what I'm worried about is that we will use this discussion to provide ideas or suggestions that are not relevant to place as opposed to overall racial issues. And let me give you once example. Why would people stay in those neighborhoods if there are jobs someplace else?

And one reason is they're tied to social welfare benefits. You've waited four or eight years to get public housing, you aren't leaving to go to Houston where there are jobs if you're not going to get housing benefits. One of the things that we're seeing in front of us right now is we're breaking the yoke of place and poverty and social benefits. These folks--200 in Montgomery Country, a thousand in New York City or whatever--they're going there and they're being freed from the local welfare agencies. Now I don't know what will happen. I hope it will be that for the families--I don't want to say lucky enough. That's the wrong way to think about this awful tragedy. But there is something to be said about being freed from place.

Thirty years ago, we called it residential segregation, and we were all against it. And I think what we saw here was a form of segregation caused by social programs, caused by inertia and caused by a desire to live with folks of your own kind that, in the end, for the people in New Orleans at least, was not good economic or social sense.

CONAN: We're talking about race, class, Katrina and poverty with David Shipler, Douglas Besharov, Tricia Rose and John McWhorter. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And let's get another comment from a participant here in the studio. Go ahead, please.

KATHLEEN (Audience Member): Hi. My name's Kathleen, and I'm from Athens, Ohio, and I'm really nervous. I call in a lot, but it's really different being here. I was just in New Orleans in April and with my youngest daughter, and she was considering attending Loyola. I was shocked--I hadn't been n New Orleans in 25 years. I was shocked at how the disparity, the gap was much wider than it had been 25 years before that. I like to interview people, David, so I began to ask a lot of the service workers who were working at Tulane and Loyola what they were making, if they had health care. Then when I was riding the trolleys, I talked to a lot of the older women. Many of them were maids working in the--What's the district there?

Unidentified Panelist: Garden District.

KATHLEEN: The Garden District. And I think--I live in Appalachia. I was at the police brutality marches in Cincinnati. I was in the inner city in Columbus and Cincinnati prior to the elections. When you're talking to people and you find out what they're making an hour, that they don't have health care, the same situation as in Appalachia, so, I mean, it's a systemic issue that's not being dealt with, and I ask our Congress, you know, if President Bush wants to do some bold action, raise the minimum wage. Provide health care. How do you expect people to pull themselves up by their bootstraps if they're making 5.25 an hour? It's impossible.

CONAN: David Shipler, I think that was to you.

Mr. SHIPLER: Yes. You're right. I agree. There are--well, you know, we talked about welfare, but the fact is when people get off welfare and get jobs, they're very low-wage jobs for the most part and often without any prospect of promotion, and their living standards don't change. Their lives become a lot more complicated, because they need to deal with child care and all the transportation issues of getting to work and so forth. And many of these people are white, by the way. I think it's very important that we not lose sight of that fact, because in my cynical way, I think that the power structure in this country might respond better if they saw the poor as white as well as black, and not only as black or Latino and so forth or Indian, Native American.

I think that if you--I spent a lot of time in New Hampshire, for example, in small towns, talking about spending a great deal of time year after year with poor working families there who were barely making it, barely putting it together, not receiving much in the way of government benefits at all, and yet deeply in poverty. The struggles that these families have are enormous. So we have to get a--understand that this is a national problem. New Orleans has its special characteristics, which were brought out in this catastrophe.

But this is a problem, not just the minimum wage, but, for example, a federal law that would facilitate union organizing would be a big help. Right now, employers can get away with harassing, intimidating, even firing workers who try to organize with minimal penalties, and we have union membership in this country that's lower than any time since the Depression. It's about 12 1/2 percent overall now; 36 percent of government workers are in unions. But in the private sector, only 7.9 percent of workers are members of labor unions. That means we almost don't have unions in the United States in the private sector.

CONAN: We're going to have to take a short break, and when we come back, we're going to be involving all of our panelists in discussions about some of the things that David Shipler was just talking about. Where do we go from here? How do we--as the president said in his speech from New Orleans a week ago, how do we address these concerns?

I'm Neal Conan. If you'd like to join the conversation, it's (800) 989-8255 or e-mail us, totn@npr.org.

This is TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.


CONAN: This is TALK OF THE NATION. I'm Neal Conan in Washington.

(Soundbite of applause)

CONAN: We're broadcasting today from NPR's Studio 4A, a live studio audience, as you heard, and a panel of writers and thinkers to discuss the effect of Hurricane Katrina on America's view of itself as a country of equality and economic mobility and what we need to do to improve.

Though it's not the only story we're covering today. Here are headlines from some of the other news. Highways leading inland from the Texas Gulf Coast are gridlocked as residents flee Hurricane Rita. The storm has now been downgraded to Category 4 hurricane with winds as high as 150 miles an hour. It's expected to hit land early Saturday somewhere between Houston and the Texas-Louisiana border. And the Federal Emergency Management Agency has hundreds of federal officials already on the ground in Texas, ready with truckloads of water, food, ice and medical supplies. You can hear details on those stories and, of course, much more later today on "All Things Considered" from NPR News.

Tomorrow, Ira Flatow will be here to continue our coverage and preparations for Hurricane Rita and to look into the science of this storm season.

But now let's get back to our guests and to our audience in Studio 4A. On the panel, Douglas Besharov of the American Enterprise Institute; David Shipler, author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America"; American studies Professor Tricia Rose; and John McWhorter, author of the forthcoming book "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." And, of course, NPR's own senior correspondent Juan Williams is also with us. If you'd like to join the conversation, it's (800) 989-8255. Or you can send us an e-mail, totn@npr.org.

And let's pick up where David Shipler left off before the break. Well, actually, let me move it just a little bit. Do we have to agree--and let me put this to you, Douglas Besharov--on the why of poverty before we decide how best to address it?

Prof. BESHAROV: Well, sure, and let's not use the word `poverty.' Let's call it poverties, because there are different forms of poverty with different causes, and you don't want to treat a cold with an antibiotic, and you don't want to treat poverty that's structural and based on 400 years of racism and discrimination one way the same way as you might want to deal with poverty that's caused by structural problems in the economy.

So you do have to have your eye on what the cause of that particular poverty is, and that's why I really want to emphasize that for New Orleans, we are really looking at something where the poverty was--besides everything else we've talked about--tied to place, and that's an important aspect of poverty that's not been addressed in this country, not successfully at least, in everything from rotten inner-city schools to lack of jobs opportunity, to be tied to neighborhoods where there are not good peer and reference groups to give support to young people, and this is what Tricia was talking about. When this was cohesive community, free to have the best within it...

Prof. ROSE: Well, not for free, exactly.

Prof. BESHAROV: Oh, no, I'm sorry. Excuse me. Of course, you're right.

Prof. ROSE: Yeah, you might want to select a different word.

Prof. BESHAROV: Of course, you're right. And so before I lose the mike here...

CONAN: We've all been having trouble with submerged metaphors this past three weeks, so...

Prof. BESHAROV: Yeah. So before I lose m--I just want to say part of this is now, the word `freedom' comes up, not forcing people to move, but giving people the freedom to leave bad neighborhoods, whether it's with vouchers or the ability to move social welfare benefits out of bad neighborhoods without jobs to neighborhoods with jobs, and you know, in New Orleans, there weren't jobs. We could talk about raising the minimum wage. There weren't jobs. So that wouldn't have made a difference. That's why your question is combine the cause with the remedy.

WILLIAMS: Neal, let me just...

Prof. ROSE: The...

WILLIAMS: ...interject here that...

CONAN: And then to you, Tricia.

WILLIAMS: ...what you have--I think you're hearing from Doug Besharov, though, is sort of the cutting edge of social prescription for dealing with what we saw in terms of poverty, or poverties, as Doug said, in New Orleans as it's being thought through by the Bush administration. I think Doug can tell you more about this, but the whole notion of eradicating poverty in its place and giving people the opportunity to move out--we've seen this in previous generations in terms of people encouraging the poor to move out of the inner city to the suburbs, where you have better schools, where you have more job opportunities, better transportation networks.

What you're hearing from the Bush administration is an emphasis, for example, on use of vouchers. There's almost a voucher experiment going on now nationally; as you see the New Orleans students move out and say, `OK, we'll give you a voucher to pick your school,' he's talking about tax credits, about doing away with Davis-Bacon so that you have workers coming in not...

CONAN: They've done away with Davis-Bacon.

WILLIAMS: ...right, so you don't have prevailing wage laws. Tax breaks, as I mentioned before, tax credits for work. Also talking about--if you're looking at public housing in New Orleans, not putting it back in place, but, again, dispersing it. So that's really the cutting edge of what this conservative administration has in mind as its prescription for the cure.

CONAN: Tricia.

Unidentified Panelist: But, you know...

Prof. ROSE: You know, it seems to me, we have to deal with the fact that the sense of place is important, but we have to look at patterns. We have this think called the, quote, "inner city" with this wide and large population of very poor blacks for two key reasons. One, the ending of segregation allowed a more diffuse distribution of middle-class blacks and white racism, which is that whites have flown from neighborhoods where blacks are, even when you control for class. So that when you have similar class circumstances, you have whites being enabled by federal policies for homeownership and loans, which have--there's a long history of evidence about it being discriminatorily provided, across Republican or Democratic presidents, in which whites were enabled--basically encouraged and enabled to flee.

CONAN: But...

Prof. ROSE: Cities that then become fully black and then become areas that are no longer economically viable because of other kinds of forces.

CONAN: Yeah.

Prof. ROSE: Yeah.

CONAN: John McWhorter.

Mr. McWHORTER: There's something that I worry about, and it's this American apartheid, Douglas Massey sociological orthodoxy, that whenever you get a whole group of poor black Americans together, then all heck must break loose. I think that that analysis is based on correlation and not cause. White flight doesn't mean that people start eating each other alive. There were more factors in modern black history than this, such as a new benevolent governmental policy that very deliberately and explicitly taught poor black Americans not to work. And this is not something I'm making up. This is written in history. It's very much there. And that made a major difference. We'd have to ask why that wouldn't make a major difference in poor black communities.

Prof. ROSE: Most of the poor are working poor, John. I mean, I understand that there might be a tiny, tiny subculture of people with some sort of distorted perception. Most of the poor work two and three jobs and cannot maintain a reasonable standard of living to raise their families. This is not about people unwilling to work, standing around, waiting for handouts.

Mr. McWHORTER: That's not the...

Prof. ROSE: It's a disgraceful misrepresentation of people...

Mr. McWHORTER: No, no, no, no, no.

Prof. ROSE: ...who are under enormous pressure. We have awful wealth...

Mr. McWHORTER: This is...

Prof. ROSE: ...inequality in this nation and income inequality that's unacceptable.

Mr. McWHORTER: This is not the underclass...

Prof. ROSE: It was not the beginning of the 1960s.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...that William Julius Wilson...

Prof. ROSE: That's not when this started.

Mr. McWHORTER: ...teaches us about.

CONAN: Tricia...

Prof. ROSE: William Julius Wilson retracted much of that, John.

CONAN: Excuse me. Tricia, you have...

Prof. ROSE: Let's talk about his current scholarship...

CONAN: Excuse me.

Mr. McWHORTER: Not only...

Prof. ROSE: ...about when the work disappeared.

CONAN: Excuse me. Tricia, you have to give him a chance to respond.

Mr. McWHORTER: It's generally accepted by many sociologists and political scientists who are very interested in making change that over the past three decades in poor black communities, there has arisen something, which you might call or might not call an underclass, were not working is endemic not because of their--it being their fault, but because of various conditions, but we're not talking about only the working poor, which is a serious problem. It used to be that poor black communities were composed mostly of working poor people. You couldn't not work without basically leaving your children to starve. A new problem began starting after about 1970, and I think that's just something that we don't want to repeat.

CONAN: Let's get another question from the audience here in Studio 4A.

COLETTE(ph) (Audience Member): Thank you. My name is Colette. I'm from Slidell, Louisiana, and I want to thank you all for having this panel discussion. I find it almost amusing that we're all being so diplomatic about a topic that is very raw in the South. I'll speak for the South here. I wanted to comment about the response time in Slidell, Louisiana, which is just north of the lake from New Orleans. The National Guard was in there within one day, not five days, which was a difference between New Orleans now. I actually agree with some of the comments that are being made here. I'll just make that point. But they were all over my block, my neighborhood, which Slidell has an increased white population than New Orleans.

And there was a question about why stay, that I find it amazing. I've been in the DC area, and I've been helping people find housing, and that question comes up: Why stay in New Orleans? Why go back? And the truth to the matter is if you were ripped from your home, wherever that home would be, whether it was Chicago in a snowstorm or a lake doing something crazy or earthquakes that no one seems to be talking about, you would want to go to your home. Now I'm not saying you won't make a choice to leave after that, but you would want to return to your home, and that's the problem that a lot of people are facing.

But the other thing that I think you Yankees--and I'll say it again, you Yankees--don't understand is that there was a wonderful culture in New Orleans that people really, truly spent lots of money to come and experience, and I just want to say that on behalf of all of the people from Louisiana, from New Orleans, there's nothing like New Orleans and, of course, you want to get back to that, and I think that that plays into what was said earlier about the history weighing the people down. It is a history and it is a culture, and while it weighs people down in one aspect, it also keeps them together in another. A lot of people are very safe today because they have huge family networks down in the Deep South, and I think that that's not being accounted for. But I do have a question.

CONAN: Oh, good.

COLETTE: My question is what is it that these distinguished panelists--what would you suggest to the president or the other policy-makers with regard to rebuilding New Orleans and empowering those very people who were displaced to rejoin that rebuilding process? What is a suggestion? What is something positive that black and white people can do, but black people who were displaced can be empowered to participate in?

CONAN: Why don't we take that first to Douglas Besharov?

Prof. BESHAROV: Well, we have a little bit of experience here, and it's not a happy one, in South Central LA, where there was an attempt to guarantee, as Tricia wanted, all the jobs be to the residents of South Central after the riots and the fires, and I bite my tongue as I say this. There were not the building skills to do the work. And we can say that we want to train people on the job and I wish that would happen and I hope some of that happens, but there probably aren't enough people in New Orleans with the skills.

We all are using these numbers here. Something like 65 percent of the poor families in New Orleans were headed by a single mother, and whatever wonderful skills those women have, it'll be a long time before they become bricklayers and so forth. I'm all for it if they are. I'll go home--I don't want my wife saying, `I want to be a bricklayer' and so forth. There aren't skills there, and that's the connection I think between New Orleans and the long history of racial discrimination and lack of opportunity. There's no particular reason why African-Americans should lack those skills, except for the history involved. Right? Four hundred years ago, they built America.


Prof. BESHAROV: But that's not today, and the danger will be wishful thinking about what can and can't happen in New Orleans.

CONAN: And I'm just going to cut you off a little bit, because I want to make sure everybody has a chance to respond to this question. You're listening to a conversation about race and class post-Katrina, and it's coming to you on TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

And now let's go to another Yankee...

(Soundbite of laughter)

CONAN: ...David Shipler.

Mr. SHIPLER: Well, Doug made some good points. I would actually like to answer your question in a very indirect way, in a broader way, going back to something Neal raised, which is can you solve poverty without first defining it or asking why, why causes it? I think one of the problems in this country is that the left and the right both talk in slogans about whose fault poverty is. The left sees all societal failures as the responsible factor. The right tends to see personal failures. My own experience in spending a lot of time with poor families was that it's a bit of both; that is, there are interactions among the failures of society, the failures of public education, of private enterprise, the market. It's a great system, but it leaves people behind, very often; government services and so forth. And there are failures of individual choice and decision-making, people dropping out of school and so forth.

So whatever we do, we have to do a lot of--we have to connect the dots. We've heard a lot about that in terms of fighting terrorism. We have to connect the dots among the various problems and understand that the problems of poverty reinforce one another.

CONAN: OK. Let's go to John McWhorter.

Mr. McWHORTER: The only thing that I would add to that is that this is a wonderful opportunity for people in New Orleans, who have not had good lives and, black or not, to start small businesses. The slate, in a very brutal way, has been wiped clean, and it would be really good if this unusual opportunity could be used for people who weren't doing well before to open their own businesses and start making money and perhaps teaching their children how to do the same thing. And I'm really hoping that the municipal administration of New Orleans--not just Bush, but it's the city--can help that to happen without larger interests swooping in and making it impossible.

CONAN: Let's go to Tricia Rose.

Prof. ROSE: I think we have to situate this economic circumstance in New Orleans in a larger, global economic context in which resources for the poor, in terms of economic resources, are not only being undermined, but as David pointed out, that unions are not being enabled to create the kinds of infrastructures to help.

I would also want to comment on Doug's point that, yes, people don't have the skills for a variety of reasons. Many poor people don't. But that doesn't mean that a large percentage can't be made apprentices. In other words, we shouldn't say a hundred percent of the workers should be an unskilled work force to rebuild the terribly well-constructed New Orleans, but if we commit--this is not an obstacle, but an opportunity--commit to real apprenticeship, then we train long-term workers and we employ and put them in cross-racial contact with other workers, there's only to gain, but I don't think we should see that as a way to say, `Well, we don't have an obligation,' but as a way to say, `How can we do it then, given the circumstance?'

CONAN: And, Juan Williams, let me bring you in on this, and not only that question, but I wanted to add an additional factor for you, degree of difficulty, if you will. Political will--there's a war in Iraq. There's going to be a huge cost to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast. Let's not forget Mississippi and Alabama and other parts of Louisiana. And this issue that we're talking about in terms of poverty, this is a national issue. It's not just there.

WILLIAMS: Right. It's a national issue. But I must say, Neal, if you were to make a judgment on the basis of polls taken just this week, what you'd see is that the American people say overwhelmingly that their priority is rebuilding New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region, taking care of the victims, not the war in Iraq. They want, in fact, the funds to be shifted from overseas, from that theater, to what's taking place in New Orleans. And similarly, if you ask the American people, you know, in the Congress, for example, `Should there be tax cuts undone to pay for it?' they'll say yes. Now that's not what's going on in the Congress, but you'll see already a delay in terms of eliminating things like the estate tax and the like.

But if you're asking the American people, the political will exists. The question is how it will be interpreted and whether or not that will will last. Some see it as sort of ephemeral, that it will go away shortly. I know among the politicians on Capitol Hill, there's a fear of deficit spending piling up, especially among the Republicans, as they approach the 2006 midterm elections.

CONAN: And let us hope that new images that may arrive over the next few days as Hurricane Rita makes its way ashore do not add to this conversation in any way.

Prof. ROSE: Thank you.

CONAN: But I wanted to thank everybody for coming here to Studio 4A today. I'm sorry, we couldn't get to your questions or callers as well waiting, and we appreciate you coming in and joining the conversation. And I'd also like to thank our guests. Douglas Besharov, professor of public policy at the University of Maryland and a scholar in social welfare studies at the American Enterprise Institute, thanks very much for coming. Tricia Rose, professor of American studies at UC Santa Cruz, thank you for being here. David Shipler, a Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and author of "The Working Poor: Invisible in America," thanks for joining us today. John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, whose upcoming book is called "Winning the Race: Beyond the Crisis in Black America." And NPR senior correspondent Juan Williams. All of them here with us in Studio 4A.

I'm Neal Conan. You're listening to TALK OF THE NATION from NPR News.

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