Who Cares About Black People?

It's time for ordinary black Americans to step up to fix post-Katrina New Orleans.

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It's been two and a half years since Hurricane Katrina swept through New Orleans. And now, walking through the French Quarter or downtown, one sees absolutely no physical sign that the catastrophe ever happened. Walk through a neighborhood in the Lower Ninth Ward and the same is definitely not true.

Acknowledging the contrast, my mind was flooded with questions -- one right after another.

First and most daunting for me, was a question born out of the now infamous Kanye West declaration: "George Bush doesn't care about black people." My question now is; Does anyone care about black people, and more specifically, do we even care about ourselves? As I walked through the neighborhood the answer became obvious: NO.

I traveled to New Orleans with the non-profit organization, America Speaks, to participate in Tavis Smiley's recent Annual State of the Black Union/Day of Service workshop and symposium (SOBU). I'm told more than a thousand people attended the conference. And there was certainly no lack of esteemed panelists —including professors and authors Michael Eric Dyson and Cornel West, and a host of black elected officials.

Yes, Mr. Smiley had convened, in one room, a tremendous array of African-American intellect, political power and financial wherewithal. So it was amazing for me to look up at the stage and see all that success knowing that just blocks away the Lower Ninth Ward still existed in absolute, desperate disrepair; and that just a few miles away many of New Orleans' still-displaced residents are living in trailers filled with formaldehyde (a highly reactive hydrocarbon, reported to have caused nasal tumors in rats and is thought to be an agent involved in some asthma cases.)

I looked at the panelists and recalled that just the day before I had performed my day of service at the Lafayette Academy where some 700 children attend classes, but only 15 of them are reading at grade level.

With the juxtaposition of the well-heeled panelists and the Lower Ninth planted in my mind, I wondered if poor black people would ever experience even the slightest degree of equity in this society. My answer: Not if it depended on anyone other than themselves. And though that might seem like an impossibility given how far behind we are, it seems entirely possible to me.

There are just a few things we'll have to do as a community.

First, we'll need to "put aside childish things." For instance, we'll need to redirect our spending habits, so that in times of crisis we have emergency and investment funds to draw on. We should be embarrassed by the research that says cars and liquor are among African Americans' most frequently purchased items and that our teenagers spend six percent more per month than the average teenager in the United States.

Meanwhile, the number of black people purchasing books continues to decline.