Dr. Ronald Walters is the Distinguished Leadership Scholar, Director of the African American Leadership Institute and Professor of Government and Politics at the University of Maryland,College Park. His latest books are: White Nationalism, Black Interests (Wayne State University Press); and Freedom Is Not Enough (Rowman and Littlefield Press).
While most of America has been quite rightly focused on the failure of the Bush administration's Middle East policy—at a rate that 80 percent of Democrats feel it "was not worth fighting for" in a recent Washington Post-ABC poll—few have linked this debacle to the obvious failure of the federal government to address the Katrina crisis.
Although what happened in the New Orleans gulf was arguably the worst internal disaster in American history, there has been nothing like the urgent attention the administration gave to New York City after the attack on the World Trade Center on 9/11.
I have seen the Ninth Ward, marched across the Gretna Bridge, helped to bring the attention of the Justice Department to do justice in the New Orleans election, and sat as a member of a commission hearing testimony from those harmed and those helping the Katrina victims.
In my own experiences, and certainly in the views of those directly affected, one question hangs heavy over the history of this event: Where is my government? Perhaps the absence of a powerful government response was due to the cause being an alien force of nature and not aliens who meant us deliberate harm. Perhaps it was that the symbolism of the twin towers, New York City and the patriotism the attack inspired that gave it a higher profile than New Orleans. Perhaps when it was revealed that most of those killed, maimed and displaced in New Orleans were disproportionately black, plain old American racism is the reason for the lesser concern.
Perhaps it was all of the above, but what we know is that one year later, 100 million pounds of debris still lay on the ground in and around New Orleans, tens of thousands of people cannot return to their homes, the infrastructure of public utilities in the city of New Orleans has not been restored, contractors are bringing in immigrant workers who further displace New Orleans' poor, and the politics and bureaucratic inertia—complicated by the theft and broken promises of private financial agents—form impenetrable barriers that make it difficult for people to surmount to retrieve their lives.
In the midst of this lack of movement stand the administration’s promises, like the one the president made landing on an aircraft carrier, promising the American people that the mission was accomplished in the Middle East. Only this time, weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit, he landed in the city of New Orleans to say that his objective was to "move as quickly as possible," that he was committed to "bold action," that he would "do everything possible" to make people whole and that there would be "no America without the city of New Orleans." Well, the administration’s promises on Katrina were about like those in the aftermath of his aircraft carrier speech.
Because of the lack of aggressive action, those who were first damaged by the storm are now damaged by a government that did not take charge of the reconstruction process, creating a limbo that makes it impossible for many who want to return to consider doing so.
Americans are positioning themselves this fall to correct the failure in the Middle East by voting the rascals out—to such an extent that Joe Lieberman's loss in the recent Democratic primary election in Connecticut has become a bellwether of national Democratic politics. But there does not appear to be such a political response tied to the administration's mismanagement of the Katrina crisis—not while Vietnam-era Ready Reservists are being called up for service in Iraq rather than in New Orleans, not while the Army Corp of Engineers has yet to decide whether to build the levees past the hurricane level 3 status, not while the government has yet to bolster floor insurance failures, and not while people are still in danger of having their housing and maintenance funds being cut off by the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Given this, we might consider making government attention to the detritus of Katrina an equal project to pulling out of Iraq, since they are tied together in many ways.
This could take the form of pushing the issue of the right to return and rebuild in the American gulf onto the national agenda as a voting issue in the fall campaign.
Amid the anniversary recollections of the crash of this hurricane into the lives of so many people and the critiques of the reconstruction planning, there should be a demand for redress that extends to political action.
The first line of this politics was the re-election of Mayor Ray Nagin, who was thought to be unelectable because his utterances placed him on the side of those who wanted to rebuild a "chocolate city." And even though his commitment was tenuous at best, he was considered a better bet by many who stormed back to vote for him, rather than to trust Lieutenant Gov. Mitch Landrieu's ties to the white power structure.
Now, some of the money has begun to flow directly to citizens of Mississippi and to Louisiana homeowners through the Louisiana Recovery Authority. Nevertheless, the irony of receiving the sums, capped at $150,000, is that the viability of the homes in question depends upon other decisions to be made about the nature of the rebuilding process, not only by the LRA, but by the city's planning process.
The bureaucratic inertia of FEMA, combined with that of the city, has made a hollow shell of the right to return and rebuild now—rather than at some time, in the future, maybe.
Standing in the limbo of those rights is the dim shadow of developers who are waiting, willing and able to pounce on the land. They have been driving aspects of the planning process to slow down the execution of the right to return and rebuild by individuals.
The second line of action is that the right to return and rebuild in New Orleans should be seen as a national issue not only because it represents the wasted resources in Iraq, the flip side of that is that it also represents the disappeared subject of poverty, especially in the context of the expansion of poverty in the period from 2001 to 2004. Many believed that inasmuch as the people who were the most affected were poor, both black and white, that this issue would find a new hearing, in the backwater of the questionable performance of "welfare reform" to resolve that problem.
Poverty, however, never gained traction as an issue due to the sluggishness of the legislative response, and the preeminence of poverty rights over human rights in the legislation that was passed.
The result is that the new New Orleans may become largely a city of homeowners, but they will not be predominantly black because the investment that many blacks made historically, in the face of great odds, to accumulate capital and property has been washed away, and they are receiving little help in recouping it.
So, I would treat this as an issue of national politics, absolutely as much as the war in Iraq, so that it becomes a test of the seriousness of both the Democratic and Republican parties' appeal for the black vote and the votes of any of those whose lives were damaged by this event.
Politicians don't appear to take this kind of public policy seriously until the people get serious. Therefore, if it were clear that people would not vote for any politician who would not support an immediate and aggressive federal government campaign to address the monstrous crime of foot-dragging on Katrina, I'm sure they would get the message.
Without a politics of Katrina that is national in scope and as serious as the challenge before us, the right to return and rebuild will remain a meaningless slogan.