No Way Out of N'awlins

Katrina should force the candidates to talk about race.

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A year after Hurricane Katrina devastated the Gulf Coast, the nation seemed mired in a state of willful forgetfulness. Promises for aid and recovery had been broken or forgotten. Elections seemed structured to undermine black political power. Black victims were demonized, and through it all, a deafening silence seemed to descend on issues related to New Orleans. A war dragged on, and other more manageable domestic political conflicts pushed Katrina out of the national political discourse.

Three years later, in the midst of the first presidential campaign since the Katrina disaster, the picture remains unchanged. Attempts to ignore the racial divide are both fruitless and inimical to black interests. Sen. Barack Obama's hard-fought and well-earned victories should not blind us to the fact that the electorate remains severely polarized along racial lines.

As the candidates make their final stump speeches before the crucial contests on Super Tuesday, there is no chance that they will discuss race in any meaningful way. But once the Democratic candidate emerges, there are some things he or she can do to signal a real commitment to healing the nation's racial inequities. And he or she should start in New Orleans.

The Democratic nominee should make the plight of blacks and the poor in New Orleans the symbolic launching pad for a progressive political campaign in the same way that Ronald Reagan made the racist legacy of Philadelphia, Miss. his symbolic launching pad in 1980. First, the nominee should head to New Orleans and pledge – in the name of social justice and civil rights – the restoration of rights and resources of the many black residents there who still find themselves displaced. The candidate should also pledge to fight for the material resources and political brokering necessary to ensure the Katrina evacuees the right to return. This would entail providing the resources, (particularly jobs and housing) services and political clout that would enable all citizens in the Katrina Diaspora who wanted to return to do so. To further expand her or his credibility, the Democratic candidate should rail against the tearing down of public housing complexes and the lack of services at the key public hospital there that serves the poor.

Should Sen. Obama become the Democratic nominee, such a bold stance would go a long way toward addressing the frustration many blacks – myself included – have felt over his refusal to openly and clearly discuss the country's deep and continuing racial divisions or the structural material inequalities that are the legacy of white supremacy.

A 2005 survey designed by me and my colleagues Melissa Harris-Lacewell and Cathy Cohen on the racial divisions laid bare by Hurricane Katrina, might be helpful in understanding some of the dynamics at play this political season. We asked whether race played any role in the government's response to the crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina. Eighty-four percent of blacks, as compared to only 20 percent of whites, thought that the government response would have been faster if the victims had been white. Similarly, while 90 percent of blacks in the survey saw an important racial lesson in the Katrina episode -- that racial inequality remained a major problem in the nation -- only 38 percent of white Americans agreed. Underlying these differing interpretations are long-standing, and fundamentally different evaluations of the state of race relations in the United States. Eighty percent of blacks believe that racial equality will not be achieved in their lifetime, or ever, while two-thirds of white Americans believe that African Americans have already achieved racial equality, or will soon. Given such stark differences, it is no wonder many blacks felt nervous in the past when Sen. Obama tried to discuss Katrina without referring to race, as he has did in New Hampshire last year. Last December, he was quoted in the New York Times as saying, "The incompetence [in New Orleans] was color-blind." An unsettling sentiment, indeed.

The problem is not just with Obama's campaign. Veteran black progressive activist Bill Fletcher has lamented on BlackCommenator.com that Edwards' campaign could have been much more successful and more progressive if it acknowledged racial disadvantage at the same time it made its populist appeal.

Some blacks, including progressive activists such as Danny Glover, supported Edwards. Still, Edwards never made a compelling case, particularly to blacks—the group that would be most likely to support his policy positions—on why they should get behind him. Without the racial component to his argument, he ended up sounding like just another milquetoast white liberal. While his heart may, or may not have been in the right place, his handlers were telling him the same thing all the professional Democratic consultants are telling their clients: Race is toxic as an issue; if you want to be a populist/progressive to win, you must deemphasize race and stick to "it's an all about class" line of argument. This is the same idiocy that has killed progressive unity around domestic political issues for almost a century and a half in this nation.

As long as this is the logic that governs "progressive" politics and the politics of the Democratic party, the residents of New Orleans may have to wait for another cataclysm before the politics of the organized begins to address their massive problems again.

Michael C. Dawson is the John D. MacArthur Professor of Political Science at the University of Chicago.