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Berkowitz: Team Bush's African American Conundrum

Team Bush's African American Conundrum

Will the Administration's shameful abandonment of New Orleans's African Americans torpedo its carefully calibrated campaign to woo black voters?
Bill Berkowitz

It took a rap star to dare speak truth to power. While the whole world was watching, shocked by the desperate plight of thousands of poor, and mostly black, folks stranded on rooftops across New Orleans and abandoned without food or water at the crumbling Superdome in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, recording artist Kanye West took an emotional swerve away from the script. On September 2, during NBC's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief," the first star-studded telethon to raise money for the victims of Hurricane Katrina, West plainly stated that "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
A few days later, Howard Dean, the Chairman of the Democratic National Committee, told members of the National Baptist Convention of America meeting in Miami that Americans "have to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a significant role in who survived and who did not."

In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Congressional Black Caucus expressed their anger about the administration's seeming disregard and insensitivity to the plight of African Americans.

New York City's Democratic Representative Charles B. Rangel took his criticism down another path, saying that, "The president's policies in Iraq contributed to the slow response of federal troops who should have been on alert even before the hurricane struck."

Uncommon for Team Bush, White House spinmeisters were slow to respond to charges that race was writ large over the administration's woefully inadequate response to the disaster. Eventually, they came back swinging: When asked about the comments of West and Dean during an interview with the American Urban Radio Network, an offended First Lady Laura Bush said, "I think all of those remarks were disgusting, to be perfectly frank. Of course President Bush cares about everyone in our country."

Last week, shaken by charges of racism, the Bush administration sought familiar ground; support from some of the conservative black preachers it has been carefully cultivating since it announced its faith-based initiative in January 2001. "Many of them have received millions of dollars for their churches -- a factor, Republicans say, in Mr. Bush's small increase in support among black voters, from 9 percent in 2000 to 11 percent in 2004," the New York Times reported.

Team Bush brought out Bishop T.D. Jakes, the conservative African-American television evangelist and the founder of a 30,000-member megachurch in southwest Dallas, for a side-by-side photo op with the president as they surveyed the damage in Baton Rouge. (Bishop Jakes is also slated to play a featured role at a national prayer service for victims of Hurricane Katrina at the Washington National Cathedral on Friday, September 16.)

The New York Times also pointed out that Bush met in the Roosevelt Room with a number of black religious and national charities leaders. According to the report, Bush made a point of sitting next to Bishop Roy L. H. Winbush, a black religious leader from Louisiana. Later in the week, Claude Allen, an African American who is the president's chief domestic policy advisor, and James Towey, the director of the White House Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, "held a conference call with black religious leaders to ask what needed to be done."

Finally, during a much-belated tour of several flooded-out New Orleans neighborhoods on Monday, September 12, President Bush was moved to respond to a reporter's question by saying that race played no role in his administration's response to the rescue effort. "The storm didn't discriminate and neither will the recovery effort,' Bush said. Bush added, "The rescue efforts were comprehensive. The recovery will be comprehensive.'

In its efforts to multi-racialize post-Katrina blame, the Rev. Sun Myung Moon-owned Washington Times ran a story headlined "Blacks fault lack of local leadership." Reporter Brian DeBose maintained that some black leaders were saying that New Orleans' Democratic black Mayor, C. Ray Nagin, had been "responsible for the dismal response to the flooding that stranded thousands in the city's poorest sections."

One of Team Bush's most reliable defenders, the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, the founder and president of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny (BOND), said that, "Mayor Nagin has blamed everyone else except himself."

The Rev. Peterson told the Washington Times that "The mayor failed in his duty to evacuate and protect the people of New Orleans. ... The truth is, black people died not because of President Bush or racism, they died because of their unhealthy dependence on the government and the incompetence of Mayor Ray Nagin and Governor Kathleen Blanco."

Rev. Peterson, a longtime critic of the civil rights leadership in general, has consistently made the Rev. Jesse Jackson his target of choice. Rev. Peterson is also the author of "SCAM: How the Black Leadership Exploits Black America," and has been a regular guest on the Fox News Channel and other cable news programs. BOND's Board of Advisors includes conservative economist Walter E. Williams, right wing radio talk show host Dennis Prager, and Sean Hannity, Fox's television personality.

Will the Bush Administration's shameful response cut into the GOP's efforts to court African American religious leaders and voters? Ken Mehlman, the Chairman of the Republican National Committee who has spearheaded six months of aggressive campaigning amongst black religious leaders, believes that no permanent damage has been done. The GOP will continue to "work with" African Americans, Mehlman said. "This disaster showed how important it is that we do these things."

Expect the administration to hold more photo-op meetings with conservative black religious leaders, and expect Team Bush to crank up its faith-based grants to African American-run faith-based organizations. Whether black voters are coming along for this ride remains to be seen.


For more please see the Bill Berkowitz archive.
Bill Berkowitz is a longtime observer of the conservative movement. His WorkingForChange column Conservative Watch documents the strategies, players, institutions, victories and defeats of the American Right.

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