Katrina: Race and class separate yet connected

Something good could come from Hurricane Katrina. For one thing, I found myself in agreement with Condoleezza Rice. She said the United States has made great strides in reducing the damage racism causes. That's true. Race was once an insurmountable obstacle for most black Americans and a heavy burden for anyone who wasn't white.

Now, for most affected people, it is an occasional hurdle and frequent annoyance, but nothing like it was a generation or two ago, though there is still work to be done. Maybe our eyes will focus on some of that work now. Rice, in a New York Times interview last week, said, "There are still places that race and poverty are a huge problem in the United States, and we've got to deal with that."

Rice was venturing away from foreign affairs to help the administration address charges that its response to Hurricane Katrina was slowed by a lack of concern for black people. That could be true, though not for the old reasons.

George Bush doesn't hate black people, but he may have the same trouble empathizing with poor black folks that I suspect most everyone else has to some degree. Poor people don't count as much as other people, and that didn't start with the hurricane.

On the Senate floor, Illinois Sen. Barack Obama said, "I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren't just abandoned during the hurricane. They were abandoned long ago — to murder and mayhem in the streets, to substandard schools, to dilapidated housing, to inadequate health care, to a pervasive sense of hopelessness."

Race and class are all inter-

twined and have been since colonial times. Class decided who lived in the most vulnerable areas of New Orleans, and who had transportation out of town. The black middle class of New Orleans got out along with the white middle class, but poor people, black and white, were left behind.

Class decided all that, but race has something to say about who is poor and who is not. Eight percent of white Americans are classified as poor, but more than 25 percent of black Americans are poor.

People say Bill Clinton, who was famous for feeling people's pain, would have acted more quickly. He might have, but it's anybody's guess. Feeling is not the same as acting, and Clinton, though he seemed to genuinely like black folks, always skirted difficult solutions to problems that involved race.

Leaving aside the competence of his appointees, Bush didn't mean any harm, but he couldn't really see the people who lived in the lowest parts of New Orleans. His mother, Barbara, visited the Astrodome in Houston, where so many of the evacuees were taken. She thought they were making out fine; in fact, she suggested they might be better off as displaced people than they had been in their former lives.

It was an insensitive thing to say, but there might be some benefit to getting out. For some of the families who were trapped in New Orleans, some kind of intervention is necessary to break the cycle of poverty, and this traumatic event was probably the only way it was going to happen.

New Orleans' government has been run by black politicians for decades. The folks who are invisible to George Bush apparently were invisible to them, too.

Take education, which is the surest way up when it works, but it often doesn't work for the poorest Americans in any city, including our own. Before the school year started, Louisiana declared two-thirds of New Orleans' public schools academic failures, and finances were so bad a private firm was brought in last June to get a handle on the mess.

Migration won't affect the adults so much, but it may mean children, free of areas of concentrated poverty, will have a better chance to move up a notch. Maybe, too, the rest of the country will come to see that problems swept under the rug will eventually trip you.

Jerry Large: 206-464-3346 or jlarge@seattletimes.com.