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What Homeland Security?


As economically wealthy and militarily strong as America is and as deeply rooted as its political institutions are, the nation ought to be able to focus on more than one problem at a time. And we all know that it can. Why then, did the federal government fail to respond, in a reasonable time and in an effective manner, to the near-death blow that Katrina dealt New Orleans and the other affected areas of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama? May I pose the rhetorical question: Would FEMA and the Bush administration's response have been the same had Katrina virtually destroyed Cape Cod, west Los Angeles or Santa Barbara, Calif., or any of the other upscale areas where the economically powerful live? We all, at least when we pause to really think about it, know the answer. And the answer speaks directly to why the government failed the people of New Orleans in particular and all of the people of the affected lower South more generally. New Orleans, like most large cities in America, is heavily populated with blacks and Latinos, many falling at or below the poverty line. And our most current data, published in the national media last week, reveal that the poverty rates in both the black and Latino communities continue to increase. Even though poverty has not been in the public's consciousness for the last three decades, the people living in it and locked into the confines of the inner city could become a worrisome problem for the stability and image of America. Unlike the days of state-imposed racial segregation, today's urban poor are not only segregated by race, but by class also. The media's coverage of those unable to evacuate New Orleans reveals this with striking clarity. These images seem to have awakened our dormant concerns about the depth and extent of poverty in America.

Some will dismiss the concern about contemporary poverty with one excuse or another. But I believe that the conscience of the great majority of Americans has been raised about so many of our fellow citizens living in such concentrated poverty, and in so many urban areas throughout this country. And many of us clearly observe, if New Orleans is instructive, the close symmetry between race and concentrated poverty. It is this mixture that explains why so many American citizens were unable to leave New Orleans, even after being told by local officials that they must do so. In any natural disaster, it is the ultimate duty of the federal government to help rescue and provide for its displaced citizens and to help them get on the road to recovery. It seems to me that this too should be a top priority of homeland security. Might race explain, in the case of New Orleans, why it was not? At least the broad American public is responding with an unprecedented expression of concern and support. The whole nation should be proud of this effort.

Dr. W. Avon Drake is an associate professor in the L. Douglas Wilder School of Government and Public Affairs at Virginia Commonwealth University. He teaches African- American Politics and Politics of the Civil Rights Movement, among other topics, and is co-author of "Affirmative Action and the Stalled Quest for Black Progress."

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