"George Bush doesn't care about black people." - Kanye West
I think Kanye West is wrong.
George Bush ranks at 43 - and dropping fast - on my list of most-admired presidents and yes, it can be fairly argued that some of his policies have been detrimental to black interests. But the same is true of virtually every president and in any case, that's not what West said. Rather, in his appearance on a hurricane relief telethon three weeks back, the young rapper, apparently frustrated by the laggard pace with which help was being sent to New Orleans, essentially accused the president of being a bigot.
It was a dumb accusation. Inaccurate too, I think. Say what you will about him or them, Bush's closeness to Condoleezza Rice and Colin Powell suggests an ease around blacks - OK, conservative blacks - greater than virtually every president from his father on back. If he's a racist, he's not very good at it.
Still, West's outburst has proven one of the signature moments of the monthlong debate over why so many black people were left alone to fend against Hurricane Katrina. Not that the propensity for saying dumb things on the subject was limited to black rappers. Some white conservatives have said New Orleans blacks were left behind because of a "welfare state mentality." This supposed mentality, argued Rush Limbaugh on his radio program earlier this month, eroded their self-reliance, inducing them to wait for government help instead of saving themselves.
Which is a callous libel even by Limbaugh's standards. I've seen white folks pleading for help a hundred times in the wake of earthquakes, mudslides, fires, floods and storms. I have yet to see that need cited as evidence of their lack of moral fiber.
Take the rapper and the right-winger as proof: Americans will never pass up a chance to falsely conflate race and class.
So it bears repeating: Black people with means were able to escape New Orleans, just the same as their white counterparts. The people who were left behind were stranded not because they were black, but because they were poor.
You might call that a distinction without a difference given that the poor are disproportionately black. I call it the basis for a fundamental realignment of American politics if ever the poor of all races and tribes finally realize they have more in common than they do in contention.
Not to give short-shrift to the forces that have led black people to be overrepresented among the nation's have-nots. My only point is that at the end of the day, poor is poor, color notwithstanding. And the poor in this country are ignored because they are ignorable, forgotten because they are forgettable. Where is their advocate? Who raises their issues and concerns? Where is their voice?
Not since Lyndon Johnson 40 years ago has a U.S. president made alleviating poverty the centerpiece of his domestic agenda. Argue all you want about the effectiveness of his Great Society, give Johnson this much credit: He knew the poor were there. He saw them.
They have grown less visible since. Nowadays, people in Kanye West's field sell the lie that materialism is a virtue while those in Rush Limbaugh's field sell the lie that poverty is a vice. And many of us simply forget that poverty is there, that American children hunger and American women need and American men lack and American people die for want of basic necessities. Were some of us not more aghast than we should have been at Katrina's reminder that poverty endures? Was there not a let-them-eat-cake cluelessness in Barbara Bush's suggestion that the poor are better off, homes destroyed, sleeping in a sports arena?
Better question: How long before we stop asking questions that pain conscience? How long before we move on and pretend we didn't see what we did?
Forgive my cynicism, but I suspect it won't be long at all before the forgettable are forgotten again.
- Leonard Pitts Jr., winner of the 2004 Pulitzer Prize for commentary, is a columnist for the Miami Herald.