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The Public Ineffectual

For entertainment purposes only.

Thursday, September 22, 2005

Not Dead...In Toronto

Actually, I love it here. I have my own apartment with views of downtown and glimpses of Lake Ontario. I'm learning more and more every day about the crack economy of the city thanks to the sketchy area I live in. I'm coming back soon enough and I will try and update a bit more often.

I've got way too much to say right now and a lunch break to say it in so I'm going to file under "Later". I recently joined his mailing list of one John Legend and got a dispatch largely concerning Kanye West's outburst and the aftermath of Katrina.

Now, I'm currently working in publicity at a large media company so my first instinct was, "WHO is his publicist?" thinking that surely he could not have penned it himself. It is as soundly argued as it is long (which, on second thought, should have made me nix the publicist notion) and one of the most well-written, articulate and cogent pieces of ANYTHING I have read in a really, really long time. As it turns out, the guy used to be a business consultant with BCG after graduating with an ENGLISH DEGREE from UPenn (reportedly one of the still worthy-of-the-reputation Ivy League schools). Wow.

I've cut and paste the entire thing here:

Hey people. Greetings from Paris. The European tour has been incredible, sold out all over the continent and the UK, and we're having a great time. However, my mind has often been focused on the awful tragedy that has befallen New Orleans and the rest of the Gulf Coast area. I've truly been saddened by the images and stories that I've seen and heard on the news. Even in Europe, coverage of Katrina and its disastrous effects has dominated the newscasts.

In all my recent interviews, reporters have asked me what I think of the hurricane and our government's tragically flawed response. They've particularly asked me about the comments made by my friend and frequent collaborator, Kanye West, who said, among other things, that "George Bush doesn't care about Black people." His comments may have shocked a lot of people, but he also inspired many and gave voice to a lot of people's frustrations about the truly disturbing images of so many poor Black hurricane victims who were getting the worst of the disaster and George Bush's seeming indifference.

So what do I think about the situation? First of all, I'm truly sad to see such an important, unique city as New Orleans made uninhabitable. New Orleans is such an important city in American and Black music history. It is the birthplace of so much culture, and there's no other place like it in America. I've always loved visiting there and performing there, and I get such an empty feeling knowing that I won't be able to perform there again for a long while.

Secondly, it is truly heartbreaking to see the images of so many people taken out of their homes and made to live in sports arenas and convention centers with thousands of other evacuees. Many have been separated from everything they know and love: their families, their homes, all their earthly possessions. It's terrible. And for this to happen in a country as wealthy and prosperous as ours is shameful, leaving a number of very serious questions that must be asked and answered.

Regarding Kanye's comment, I'm proud of his courage to say what was on his mind. It heightened everyone's awareness of Bush's failings as a leader. And it may very well be true that Bush doesn't care much about the Black constituency. We can only speculate as to what's in his heart and mind regarding Black people, but there certainly is evidence that Bush governs like he cares only about the interests of the rich and powerful. His strategy has clearly been to keep his fervent base (the rich and the cultural conservatives) motivated. So he makes sure the tax cuts and corporate welfare keep coming. And he throws enough symbolic (rather than substantive) bones to the working and middle-class cultural conservatives to keep them motivated. And anyone that falls outside his fervent base, his administration disregards. That includes Black people because he figures that we won't vote for him anyway, so why waste energy and political capital on us? That doesn't mean he doesn't like Black people on a more personal level ("Hell, some of his best cabinet members are Black!"). He's just doing the math (well, his strategist Karl Rove probably is) and making sure he focuses on a winning strategy, which requires next to no Black votes to keep him in power. In addition, he turns a blind eye to the efforts of Republican foot soldiers to exploit racism and to suppress the votes of urban Blacks who tend to vote Democratic. So, the net result is that his administration governs with no regard for the concerns shared by most of the Black community.

But I think a more precise analysis is that Bush's policies are decidedly anti-poor and pro-rich. This is more of a class issue than a race issue. I think it's a mistake when people equate "Black" and "poor" as though they're interchangeable terms. Being poor and Black have been highly correlated in our nation's tumultuous history, but they are not the same thing. In New Orleans, the overwhelming majority of the poor are Black and the majority of the Black citizens are poor. But this nation is full of a wide range of Black experiences and the poor come from all colors of the rainbow (though Black & brown are clearly over-represented in that rainbow).

All that being said, I don't think that I agree that Bush's slow reaction to the disaster was because a disproportionate number of the un-evacuated victims of Katrina were Black. While there have been many instances of racism in the evacuation process in New Orleans and the surrounding areas and in the reporting about the aftermath, I don't think Bush's early inaction was based on his own racism. I think Bush was truly oblivious to the extent of the disaster and the despair that overwhelmed the city. From all of his statements and the reports of his behavior right after the hurricane hit, it is abundantly clear that the President was uninformed as to the suffering that was going on. He has insulated himself from the news (actually he's proudly announced that he doesn't read the news!) and anything that disturbs his bubble of ignorance, and it took several days before his staff and the overwhelmingly disturbing images on the news could penetrate his ignorant bliss. Not to mention the fact that his FEMA staff was headed by people that don't know much of anything about dealing with emergencies. He clearly de-prioritized emergency management as a federal responsibility and it came back to bite everyone in the ass with Katrina. However, simply saying that Bush was uninformed and unprepared rather than racially motivated in this case is not letting him off the hook. On the contrary, it is extremely dangerous and inexcusable for our President to be incompetent in these types of circumstances.

And, as usual, the people who are suffering the most as a result of the administration's negligence are the people with the least resources to fend for themselves: the poor and elderly of New Orleans and the surrounding region, many of whom are Black. To be clear, I'm not saying they're suffering solely because of their race. It's more exact to say that they're suffering because they're poor, and due in part to the nation's pervasive history of racism along with a number of other factors, many of the nation's urban poor are Black.

Not surprisingly, people around the world, including myself, are now admirably donating their time and money in a very encouraging display of generosity to help the impoverished Katrina victims. This generosity toward the needy gives me hope that Americans (along with our foreign donors) have the heart and the inclination to help those that are less fortunate.

But we have to also realize that a lot of these hurricane victims weren't made destitute by the hurricane and the flood. Many of them were already destitute! And they're not just in the Gulf region. They're in cities all across this country. That's an even bigger tragedy than Katrina, an ongoing tragedy of poverty that has grown every year for the last four years despite the national economy's continued growth.

The most important lesson from this disaster is not that Bush doesn't care about Black people. It's that poverty is a very real and growing problem in America despite the fact that you never saw it on TV until the last 2 weeks. This problem continues to fester while Bush's priorities are clearly elsewhere. And the American people haven't even asked our leaders to articulate any clear strategy to deal with poverty. It barely even came up in the last election; neither Democrats nor Republicans talked about it because we as an electorate (including me!) didn't require them to. George Bush and the rest of Washington have governed with little regard for poor people. All too often we rely on capitalism to solve everything while preaching personal responsibility to the poor (which is truly important) without also understanding that the cycle of poverty is exceptionally difficult to break (i.e., most of the people who become poor adults were born into poor families). It is particularly difficult when you factor in the abysmal quality of schools in poor areas and other issues such as class-ism and racism. It's time that Americans hold our leaders accountable for coming up with creative solutions to address the issue of poverty in America and around the world. I'll make it a personal goal to do all that I can in that regard.

Peace & Love,