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Last Updated: Tuesday, 13 September 2005, 13:59 GMT 14:59 UK
Viewpoint: Katrina widens divisions
By Jim Barnes
Chief political correspondent at the National Journal in Washington

People stranded in New Orleans
The hurricane exposed the ethnic divide in New Orleans
The Saturday after Katrina ravaged the US Gulf Coast, people outside a non-denominational African-American church on the outskirts of Washington were not thinking about who to blame for the humanitarian crisis.

People at the Soul Factory were busy unloading everything from cases of bottled water and packages of nappies to cans of vegetables - supplies being dropped for hurricane relief efforts.

"You're not going to find that [assigning blame] is us," said Lisa Guerton, a young African-American woman who worked at the church.

"I just think our focus is different - not to find the bad in the situation, but solutions to help."

That is not the view from Capitol Hill, where the Democratic leadership in Congress rebuked a Republican plan to investigate the derisory response to Katrina, especially in New Orleans.

It is as if the Democratic leaders are carrying a load of resentment over the way the White House cast the president as the saviour of the nation after 9/11 - and politicised the issue in the last two elections that saw Republicans gain seats in Congress and George W Bush re-elected to second term.

Uncomfortable questions

Meanwhile, the White House deflects all criticism, and any responsibility for the tragedy in New Orleans - as it did for intelligence failures on 9/11 and weapons of mass destruction in Iraq.

George W Bush and Michael Brown
George Bush's [l] approval ratings have dropped

Instead, Mr Bush's feckless minions blame the city's Democratic mayor Ray Nagin for the failure to evacuate his city and the collapse of order.

But that is not a gambit that is working for the president now. Mr Bush's job approval ratings are the lowest of his presidency.

Moreover, his personal standing, once a strength, has suffered tremendously.

His ability to respond to a crisis and his leadership qualities are in doubt as never before.

The inadequate rescue efforts that stranded thousands of African Americans in dire - sometimes deadly - situations for days have forced the nation to confront some extremely uncomfortable questions.

Ethnic differences

Did race play a role in the past of the government's response to the natural disaster? Or was this also a quiet disaster - a crisis magnified by years of government neglect to strengthen levees in New Orleans shielding people too poor to leave the city on their own?

There is little doubt that the racial divisions that exist in America have been exposed and probably widened by Katrina, at least in the short term.

Prior to the hurricane, blacks were more pessimistic than whites in their assessment of racial equality in America.

They were more likely to feel that they did not have as good a chance as whites to get a job that they were qualified for, or that their children would not get as good an education as white children in the same community.

After Katrina, public opinion polls show that about two-thirds of African Americans believe that the government's response would have been faster if most of those trapped in the flooded city of New Orleans had been white.

On the other hand, just as many whites believe that the response of the government would not have been any quicker if they had been the victims of the storm.

Leadership questioned

If there is anything positive that has come out of this tragedy, it is the outpouring of donations from people of every race to the survivors all along the Gulf Coast.
Advertisements for transportation and jobs at the Houston Astrodome
Offers of jobs and homes are being made to hurricane survivors

Americans have made record contributions to relief organisations like the Red Cross and mobilised charity drives in their own communities.

After the race riots of the 1960s, donors to predominantly white charities were not saying: 'My God, Detroit is burning down so let's send in food and clothing.'

The overwhelming sentiment at the time was more like: 'What's wrong with those people who are burning down their own city?'

Back at the Soul Factory, Marsha Sumner, a local radio host who had promoted the relief drive on her programme, watched the food drop-offs with obvious satisfaction.

She acknowledged that many of her African-American listeners probably view race as a factor in the government's sad performance.

"A majority of people would think it. The picture was painted - thousands of people sitting down there with no direction," she said.

But Ms Sumner found finger-pointing unhelpful. "It's time-out for that," she declared. "We can use that energy to help people: do something else with it."

Right now it is not at all clear that America's leaders - in either party - are up to Ms Sumner's charge.

The National Journal is a weekly magazine that examines politics and policy in the US.

The continuing effort to clean up New Orleans

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