Black Leaderership's Role After Katrina In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, we take a closer look at the role black leadership played in highlighting the class crisis that left so many vulnerable. Ed Gordon talks with Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author, commentator, and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, and with Melissa Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture.
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Black Leaderership's Role After Katrina

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Black Leaderership's Role After Katrina

Black Leaderership's Role After Katrina

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ED GORDON, host:

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

In the weeks following the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, many African-American policy-makers continue to criticize the Bush administration for its slow response to the disaster. But the calamity in the Gulf region also focused attention on an issue that has long confounded black leaders as well as whites: poverty.

Could African-American leadership have done more to spotlight America's growing class crisis? And what can be done to keep the conversation alive in hopes of effecting meaningful change? Joining me now are Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author, commentator and president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago's Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture.

Guys, thanks for joining us. Greatly appreciate it. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, let me start with you. You have been fairly critical of black leadership, not just post-Katrina but pre-Katrina in terms of being perhaps not as proactive as you think they should be. Fair characterization?

Mr. EARL OFARI HUTCHINSON (President, Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable): Yes, it is, and I think certainly Katrina really underscored a real problem we've had in terms of black leadership. And when I say `black leadership,' I think we need to really define what we're talking about. I'm talking about specifically black elected officials, black Democrats, to be more specific, and also the mainstream civil rights organizations: the NAACP, Southern Christian Leadership Conference and, to an extent, the Urban League.

What we've seen, not only post-Katrina, during Katrina and pre-Katrina, really a neglect of the African-American poor in terms of proactive policy initiatives, an active lobbying voice for a comprehensive program to deal with black poverty. We certainly saw in New Orleans, and we can see that in just about any urban area in the country, a huge number of African-American poor. In New Orleans, one out of three African-Americans are in poverty in that city. So what we've had, basically, over the last few years is so much emphasis on affirmative action, business opportunities, professional opportunities, electing more black Democrats to office, but at the same time, this blind spot to the poor and the needs of the poor, in terms of real, comprehensive policy initiatives, hasn't been there. So it's really no surprise what we saw in New Orleans.

GORDON: Melissa Harris-Lacewell, many African-American leaders have been on this program since Katrina, when I raised that issue. A number of them have suggested while there could have been more to do, there's only so much black leadership can do, and they have tried to keep it on the front burner. How much do you buy that that is, in fact, the case?

Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture): Well, I mean, I think it is fair for us to hold our leaders accountable, and it's fair to hold them accountable on questions not only of race, but race at the intersection of other identities, including poverty, including gender, including sexual identity. But I think that we have to be careful when we're talking about questions of economic vulnerability to not assume that it is only the poorest African-Americans who are economically vulnerable. We also know, for example, that the black middle class is a much more tenuous and, again, I would say vulnerable middle class than their white counterparts.

So I think it is certainly true that traditional civil rights organizations, black elected officials, have been doing the work, you know, of attempting to address certain communities, but in doing that, I think there's been a kind of politics of respectability, where what we do is we focus on those black Americans who seem to be the good, achieving, meritorious, and we don't want to talk about communities where there is a high proportion of female head of households. We don't want to talk about communities that have the serious problems of interaction with the police force and with the criminal justice system.

GORDON: Earl, what of those who will say that in order to effect change for the least among us, you have to shore up those who can move policy and social thought, and in order to do that you have to spread the blanket a little further?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: The bottom line is, we have two black Americas. I think we have to be realistic. We have a black America of the achieving, the middle class and upwardly mobile upper class. And then on the other side, there's really that huge, huge blind spot and leadership vacuum for the other black America, namely the poorest of the poor. And we saw that disconnect in New Orleans, but we also see it in other areas, too, of the country. But especially, we see it in terms of public policy. If the agenda is not for the other black America but, essentially, the upwardly mobile, upwardly aspiring business and professional class in black America, then the two will never connect. It won't be an initiative that will take into consideration the needs of the poorest of the poor.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: I think we have to be careful when we're talking about these two black Americas to recognize that, in fact, poverty and middle-class status in black America are much closer than they are in white America, and that a lot of what we see going on here in terms of these two Americas is, in fact, more pronounced amongst whites, who are more likely to be not at all even related to, for example, people who are much poorer. African-Americans who are in the middle class are often only one generation, not even one generation, out of poverty. Their brothers or sisters or cousins are also people who are living in poverty.

So what I would suggest is that, in fact, we have to be careful when we're talking about how we're going to address racialized poverty in this country, because part of what's going on is not just a failure of the black leadership, but a failure of the way that American capitalism operates for all people who are on the bottom. And then, of course, the effect in black communities is so enormous because we're so much more vulnerable because of our position racially.

GORDON: Earl, go ahead. You wanted to pick up on that point.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Yeah. Yeah, I do. I think, really, the whole point is: What is the emphasis, what is the agenda, what are the initiatives consistently, over time, of the leadership, or at least those that purport to be the leadership, of all of black America? You've got to understand one thing: When the NAACP, the SCLC, the Urban League and the Congressional Black Caucus--when they speak, they speak as one voice. Presumably they're speaking for black America, across all the lines, across...

GORDON: Well, when you say they speak as one voice, Earl, you're saying that essentially they are the same voice?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Essentially they're posing themselves as the leadership of record for black America. Now if you've got two, three, four different variations of black America in terms of the economics, class divisions, political divisions and in terms of the emphasis of many people in black America, all those black Americas, if you have one leadership that purports to speak with one voice, but yet their agenda is really a very narrow agenda in terms of their policy initiatives that essentially reflect a middle-class point of view, the upwardly mobile point of view, the business and professional point of view, then, essentially, that blind spot is there. So it's not just being one or two paychecks away from poverty. What we're really talking about is a leadership that ignores, in terms of a comprehensive agenda, the poorest of the poor, no matter whether you're one, two or no paychecks away from poverty.

GORDON: But, Melissa, isn't that the American way as relates to politics, that politicians have never really spoken for the poor? And should we, in fact, beyond the moral side of it, expect that to work any differently for minorities?

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, again, I would point that I think that part of the problem here is, in fact, related to the American system of the way that we hold elections, the way that the people that elected officials--both black elected officials and white elected officials--are beholden to. I agree that, in fact, our agenda has been one that is very narrowly focused around a very small set of easily identified racial issues and has not broadly talked about the ways that race intersects with these other important identities. That said, my bet is that it will--that leadership is never going to come out of elected officials in a system who are fundamentally dealing with the issue of their constituents, and constituents in their mind are those most likely to turn out to the polls. And we know that those who are most likely to vote are those who have higher levels of income and education.

Now I'm not, in that, blaming those who don't turn out to vote. What I am saying is that the space for the kind of truly progressive leadership that's being called for here is probably not going to come out of these traditional organizations who have been hamstrung for 50 years, that we are going to need to be more creative in where we're looking for leadership.

GORDON: Earlier this week, we had Senator Barack Obama on, and here's a person who I know for certain, because I've been in places with him--who put and was trying to put poverty on the map before Katrina. Yet there is only so much black America can do to keep it in the fore, since we don't run the media, since we are not the prevailing party in the White House, in Congress, etc. So how much can black leadership really do to not keep noise there, but effect change?

Mr. HUTCHINSON: I think we have to look at black leadership, again, not just as a monolithic whole. I think there's a lot of room for creative voices, other voices, more progressive forces, and certainly others to emerge out of black communities, and not just nationally but also locally, too, that can actually push the envelope on some of these hot-button issues that, perhaps, the Congressional Black Caucus, the mainstream civil rights organizations, can't do for a variety of reasons. So what I'm suggesting is, it's a big tent in terms of leadership. It's a lot of room for new voices and new ideas, creative energies, that can actually deal with some of these pressing poverty issues.

One quick example. In New Orleans, there's a group called the Total Community Action. They came across my radar scope months ago, even before Katrina. They were dealing with poverty issues, and primarily a black organization.


Mr. HUTCHINSON: You don't hear about them nationally, but what I'm suggesting, Ed, is that I think that with the natural evolution and progression of leadership and these issues that keep coming to the fore, that aren't being addressed by the national leadership, you'll see more local organizations emerge that, in fact, could be very effective and creative voices for change.

GORDON: And we should note...

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Now I wouldn't even ...(unintelligible) that...

GORDON: ...and, Melissa, pick up on that point. But we should note, Earl, historically, that has really always been the case. The idea of real, effective change has worked better on a local level than on a national level.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Absolutely.


GORDON: Melissa, go ahead.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: And I was going to say, although I think--I agree that there is, in fact, a great need, I'm not certain that there is a lot of room. You know, we can go back to Sandy Lou Haymar's(ph) work in Mississippi, that it's always been the local communities that have been doing this work but that, in fact, although there was always great need, there was not always a lot of room, that the ways in which, at the national level, we really love sort of the charismatic speaker, often male, often a preacher, often someone with a very particular sort of way of being--in fact, we don't make a lot of room for local leaders, the women who all over this country are dealing with questions of an environmental justice in poor and African-American communities. And we have, in fact, not made room for that kind of leadership to have a bigger voice.

GORDON: All right, guys. Unfortunately, we're going to have to stop it there. Earl Ofari Hutchinson, president of the Los Angeles Urban Policy Roundtable, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago, I thank you both for joining us today.

Mr. HUTCHINSON: Thank you.

Prof. HARRIS-LACEWELL: Thank you.

GORDON: This is NPR News.

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