The Class & Race Divide
in New Orleans & in America

By Alan Shapiro

To the Teacher:

Race, class, and inequality have been a part of our country from its earliest days. These issues can be sensitive, difficult, even disturbing to examine with students. But to evade or ignore them is to evade or ignore the life, the literature, the science, the history of the United States. If there was ever a teachable moment for issues of race, class, and inequality, the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is surely one.

The first of the two readings here offers information and opinion on race and class in America; the second focuses on President Bush's response to what he calls "the legacy of inequality" and reactions to it. Discussion questions and questions for inquiry follow the readings.

Part 1: The Racial Divide
Part 2: The Class Divide
Part 3: The Opinion Divide
For Discussion




Reading 1:
Race and Class in America


President Bush spoke on September 15, 2005, about racial discrimination and poverty and the need to confront both with "bold action" in the hurricane-stricken Gulf region:

"As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action. So let us restore all that we have cherished from yesterday, and let us rise above the legacy of inequality."

What "all of us saw on television":

"The white people got out. Most of them, anyway. If television and newspaper images can be deemed a statistical sample, it was mostly black people who were left behind. Poor black people, growing more hungry, sick and frightened by the hour as faraway officials counseled patience and warned that rescues take time. What a shocked world saw exposed in New Orleans last week wasn't just a broken levee. It was a cleavage of race and class, at once familiar and startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted to matters of life and death. 'This is a pretty graphic illustration of who gets left behind in this societyóin a literal way,' said Christopher Jencks, a sociologist glued to the televised images from his office at Harvard. 'All the people who don't get out, or don't have the resources, or don't believe the warning are African-American.'" (Jason De Parle, "What Happens to a Race Deferred," New York Times, 9/4/05)

What many Americans like to believe even though they don't exactly believe it:

In America, race and class do not matter. The color of one's skin and the economic and social circumstances into which one is born do not matter. For everyone is equal. The civil rights movement of the 1960s ended racial discrimination. The same opportunities are available to a white child whose single parent works two minimum wage jobs and to a black child who lives in a ghetto as to the child of a corporate executive who lives in a gated community and goes to a private school. Anyone who works hard can make it in America. For those who don't, a safety net of social programs cushions poverty.

But there are Groucho Marx moments in American history ("Who do you believe: me or your own eyes?")ólike the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina on the Gulf Coast when our own eyes told us that race and class do matter. Otherwise, why were almost all the people in the Superdome black and poor and the rest white and poor? Otherwise, why were all the middle class and wealthy people driving away from New Orleans?

In his September 15 speech President Bush spoke about poverty, its "roots in a history of racial discrimination" and the need for Americans to rise above "the legacy of inequality." In doing so, he seems to have invited an examination of what the "cleavage of race and class" in New Orleans and in America means.

Part 1: The Racial Divide

  • New Orleans population in 2000: 468,453
  • Black population of New Orleans in 2000: 312,000 (approximately)
  • New Orleans population below the poverty line: 142,000 (approximately)
  • Black population of New Orleans below poverty line: 110,000 (approximately)

    óU.S. Census Bureau

A nonpartisan poll of the Pew Research Center during the week of September 5 found that two-thirds of African-Americans said the government's response to the hurricane would have been faster if most of the victims had been white; 77 percent of whites disagreed.

"Beyond the confines of its much beloved tourist districts, New Orleans was a far poorer, blacker and more dangerous city than most Americans imagined. According to figures posted on The Progress Report, the Lower Ninth Ward, where the flooding was worst, is more than 98 percent black, with average annual household income below $27,500, not even half the national average, with a quarter of those earning less than $10,000."
óEric Alterman, "Found in the Flood," The Nation, 9/26/05

One black commentator pointed out that some had seen what was happening long before the TV images made the invisible visible and shocked the nation and that "deep persistent poverty" was not just present "in this region."

"It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty. It happens about once every 30 or 40 years," wrote Cornel West, professor of African-American Studies at Princeton University.
"What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was the most naked manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the message for decades has been: 'You are on your own.'

"Well, they really were on their own for five days in that Superdome. It's not just Katrina, it's povertina. People were quick to call them refugees because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they never got high priority when the well-to-do got out. Poverty has increased for the last four or five years. A million more Americans became poor last year, even as the super-wealthy became much richer. Healthcare and education and the safety net being ripped away and that flawed structure was nowhere more evident than in a place such as New Orleans, 68 percent black."
óCornel West, Guardian Unlimited

But New Orleans is not the only city, nor the Gulf Coast the only region, where "povertina" and racial discrimination and segregation are visible. A sampling of the evidence:

"According to the United Nations Development Program, an African-American baby in Washington has less chance of surviving its first year than a baby born in the urban part of the state of Kerala in India.
óNicholas D. Kristof, "The Larger Shame," New York Times, 9/6/05

Nearly 1 million black children live in extreme poverty (Children's Defense Fund). This is the greatest number in nearly 25 years.
óPacific News Service, 9/2/05

Telephone callers using "black English" were offered fewer real-estate choices.
óUniversity of Pennsylvania study, 1999

Blacks who kill whites are much more likely to receive the death penalty than white killers or blacks who kill blacks.
óUniversity of Maryland study, 2003

A study of home loan applications from 1998 in New York City reveals that banks refused loan applications from blacks at almost twice the rate for whites even when they had the same income.
óStudy by the staff of US Senator Charles Schumer, Democrat of Brooklyn

In a landmark 1999 class-action settlement, the United States Department of Agriculture admitted decades of "indifference and blatant discrimination" against black farmers in the department's lending program. As of August 2004 the department had paid $814 million to 13,445 black farmers, but more than 80,000 others had been rejected, in good part because the department has resisted claims on technicalities. 'Lawyers say the Agriculture Department has fought the claims every inch of the wayóeven when farmers have ample documentation.'"
óNew York Times, 8/1/04

"School districts that many blacks and Hispanics attend spend $902 less per student on average than most white districts."
óNew York Times, 6/29/03, quoting a national study conducted 2002 by Education Trust, a group focused on closing the achievement gap

"Schools that were already deeply segregated twenty-five or thirty years ago are no less segregated now, while thousands of other schools around the country that had been integrated either voluntarily or by the force of law have since been rapidly resegregated.

"In Chicago, by the academic year 2002-2003, 87 percent of public-school enrollment was black or Hispanic; less than 10 percent of children in the schools were white. In Washington, D.C., 94 percent of children were black or Hispanic; less than 5 percent were white. In St. Louis, 82 percent of the student population were black or Hispanic; in Philadelphia and Cleveland, 79 percent; in Los Angeles, 84 percent, in Detroit, 96 percent; in Baltimore, 89 percent. In New York City, nearly three quarters of students were black or Hispanic.

"It is even more disheartening when schools like these are not in deeply segregated inner-city neighborhoods but in racially mixed areas where the integration of a public school would seem to be most natural, and where, indeed, it takes a conscious effort on the part of parents or school officials in these districts to avoid the integration option that is often right at their front door."
óJonathan Kozol, "Still Separate, Still Unequal," Harper's Magazine, 9/05

"Since the 1968 assassination of Martin Luther King Jr., the black middle class has increased significantly, yet the percentage of black children living in poverty has hovered between 30 and 40 percent.

"'Look at what we could achieve if we got to be average!' Franklin Raines, the CEO of Fannie Mae, told me. 'We don't need to take everybody from the ghetto and make them Harvard graduates. We just need to get folks to average, and we'd all look around and say, My God, what a fundamental change has happened in this country.'

"How big a change? He's done the math. 'If America had racial equality in education and jobs, African-Americans would have two million more high school degrees, two million more college degrees, nearly two million more professional and managerial jobs, and nearly $200 billion more in income. If America had racial equality in housing, three million more Americans would own their own home.'"
óHenry Louis Gates, Jr., "Getting to Average," New York Times, 9/26/04

Race in America means that discrimination, segregation and inequality based on skin color continue to exist.

Part 2: The Class Divide

People disagree about the meaning of "class" and its role in the United States. In everyday conversation, when we talk about working class, middle class, and upper class people, we are mainly describing their economic status.

Many Americans are proud of the idea that in the United States, people can change their class status through hard workórising, for instance, from working class to middle class or higher. But although there is greater "class mobility" in the United States than in many other countries, class is a powerful force here as well. Hurricane Katrina demonstrated that amply:The poor and working class people of New Orleans were hardest hit by the hurricane.

In their New York Times article entitled "Class in America: Shadowy Lines that Still Divide" (8/15/05), Janny Scott and David Leonhardt note that "One difficulty of talking about class is that the word means different things to different people. Class is rank, it is tribe, it is culture and taste. It is attitudes and assumptions, a source of identity, a system of exclusion. To some, it is just money. It is an accident of birth that can influence the outcome of a life. Some Americans barely notice it; others feel its weight in powerful ways. At its most basic, class is one way societies sort themselves out. Classes are groups of people of similar economic and social position, people who, for that reason, may share political attitudes, lifestyles, consumption patterns, cultural interests and opportunities to get ahead."

The following statistics and comments emphasize the economic and health aspects of classóincome, poverty, infant mortality, access to health care, life expectancy.

ï 35% of the blacks and 15% of the whites of New Orleans did not have cars.

ï "As Brian Wolshon, a consultant on the state's evacuation plan, told The New York Times, the city's evacuation plan paid little attention to its 'low-mobility population'--the old, the sick and the poor with no cars or other way to get out of town."
óEric Alterman, "Found in the Flood," The Nation, 9/26/05

ï A family of two parents and two children is considered poor by the government if it makes less than $19,157 a year or, for a family of three, $14,680. By such standards, the number of poor Americans now stands at 37 million in a nation of nearly 300 million. About half are African-American or Hispanic.

ï The Census Bureau defines poverty using a formula that includes income, the ages of family members and the ability to buy necessities. But prices differ from place to place, and people may be considered poor for part of the year but not the whole year.

ï More than half of people without health insurance in 2003-2004 are black or Hispanic. (Children's Defense Fund)

ï The poverty rate rose again last year, with 1.1 million more Americans living in poverty in 2004 than a year earlier. After declining sharply under Bill Clinton, the number of poor people has now risen 17 percent under Mr. Bush.

ï "If it's shameful that we have bloated corpses on New Orleans streets, it's even more disgraceful that the infant mortality rate in America's capital is twice as high as in China's capital. That's right: the number of babies who died before their first birthdays amounted to 11.5 per thousand live births in 2002 in Washington, compared with 4.6 in Beijing. Under Mr. Bush, the national infant mortality rate has risen for the first time since 1958. The US ranks 43rd in the world in infant mortality, according to the CIA's World Factbook.

"Nationally, 29 percent of children had no health insurance at some point in the last 12 months, and many get neither checkups nor vaccinations. On immunizations, the US ranks 84th for measles and 89th for polio. About 50 of the 77 babies who die each day, on average, will die needlessly, because of poverty. That's the larger hurricane of poverty that shames our land."
óNicholas D. Kristof, "The Larger Shame," New York Times, 9/6/05

ï "Consider this: in the United States, unlike any other advanced country, many people fail to receive basic health care because they can't afford it. Lack of health insurance kills many more Americans each year than Katrina and 9/11 combined. But the health care crisis hasn't had much effect on politics. And one reason is that it isn't yet a crisis among middle-class, white Americans (although it's getting there). Instead, the worst effects are falling on the poor and black, who have third-world levels of infant mortality and life expectancy."
óPaul Krugman, "Tragedy in Black and White," New York Times, 9/19/05

ï "Eight percent of American whites are poor compared with 22 percent Hispanics and nearly a quarter of all African-Americans" in a country that is 12 percent black." (Newsweek, 9/19/05) (But because 72 percent of the US population is white, there are more poor whites than poor blacks or Hispanics.)

ï "The primary economic problem is not unemployment but low wages for workers of all races. With unions weakened and a minimum-wage increase not on the GOP agenda, wages have not kept pace with the cost of living, except at the top. For the poor the idea of low-wage jobs covering the basic expenses of living has become a cruel joke." (Newsweek, 9/19/05)

ï "Until Katrina intervened, the top priority for the GOP when Congress reconvened was permanent repeal of the estate tax, which applies to far less than 1 percent of the taxpayers. Repeal would cost the government $24 billion a year. Meanwhile House GOP leaders are set to slash food stamps by billions in order to protect subsidies to wealthy farmers." (Newsweek, 9/19/05)

Class in America means tens of millions of poor people without healthcare and decent schooling and a much smaller number of wealthy people getting still wealthier because of tax cuts.

Part 3: The Opinion Divide

"While two-thirds of all Americans said Mr. Bush cares at least somewhat about the people left homeless by the hurricane, fewer than one-third of blacks agreed."
óCBS/New York Times Poll, 9/9-9/13

"'You go to any other meeting around the world and show me the kind of diversity that you see in America's cabinet, in America's Foreign Service, in America's business community, in America's journalistic community,' [Secretary of State] Condoleezza Rice said. When talking to foreigners about the hurricane victims, Ms. Rice said, she tells them: 'Yes, we have a problem when race and poverty come together. We really do. It's a vestige of our history. It's a vestige of the Old South in this case. But don't misread that there has been no progress on issues of race in America. I find it very strange to think that people would think that the president of the United States would sit deciding who ought to be helped on the basis of color, most especially this president. What evidence is there that this is the case? Why would he say such a thing?'"
óNew York Times, 9/13/05

"And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them."
óBarbara Bush, the president's mother, in a radio interview after touring the Houston Astrodome where Hurricane Katrina survivors were staying, 9/5/05

"One Bush supporter, the Rev. Eugene F. Rivers III, the president of the national Ten Point Leadership Foundation, a coalition that represents primarily black churches, said last week that something positive might come out of the crisis. 'This is a moral and intellectual opportunity for the Bush administration to clearly articulate a policy agenda for the black poor.'"
óNew York Times, 9/12/05

"The Big Easy had turned into the Big Hurt, and the colossal failure of George W. Bush to intervene powerfully and immediately to rescue tens of thousands of American citizens who were suffering horribly and dying in agony was there for all the world to see.

"Hospitals with deathly ill patients were left without power, with ventilators that didn't work, with floodwaters rising on the lower floors and with corpses rotting in the corridors and stairwells. People unable to breathe on their own, or with cancer or heart disease or kidney failure, slipped into comas and sank into their final sleep in front of helpless doctors and relatives. These were Americans in desperate trouble.

"The president didn't seem to notice.

"Death and the stink of decay were all over the city. Corpses were propped up in wheelchairs and on lawn furniture, or left to decompose on sunbaked sidewalks. Some floated by in water fouled by human feces. For days the president of the United States didn't seem to notice.

"He would have noticed if the majority of these stricken folks had been white and prosperous. But they weren't. Most were black and poor and thus, to the George W. Bush administration, still invisible. And when the president is so obviously clueless about matters so obviously important, it means the rest of us, like the people left stranded in New Orleans are in deep, deep trouble."
óBob Herbert, "A Failure of Leadership," New York Times, 9/5/05

"In an interview with House majority leader Tom DeLay, African-American MSNBC anchor Lester Holt asked, 'People are now beginning to voice what we've all been seeing with our own eyesóthe majority of people left in New Orleans are black, they are poor, they are the underbelly of society. When you look at this, what does this say about where we are as a country and where our government is in terms of how it views the people of this country?' Delay responded: 'We're doing a wonderful job, and we are an incredibly compassionate people.'"
óEric Alterman, "Found in the Flood," The Nation, 9/26/05

"The same day Katrina struck, something else happened that also tells much about the Bush Administration's callous disregard for the poor. The Census Bureau released a report that found the number of poor Americans has jumped even higher since Bush took office in 2000, with blacks at the bottom of the economic totem pole. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations. The Iraq War has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America's poverty crisis, which has slammed young blacks. Their unemployment rate is double and in some parts of the country triple that of white males.

"During Bush's years, state and federal cutbacks in job training and skills programs, the brutal competition for low- and semi-skilled service and retail jobs from immigrants, and the refusal of many employers to hire those with criminal records have further hammered black communities and added to the depression-level unemployment figures among young blacks."
óEarl Ofari Huchinson, "Looting the Black Poor," The Nation, 9/26/05

"You can't have an emergency plan that works if it only affects middle-class people up. It's like when they issued the evacuation order. That affects poor people differently. A lot of them in New Orleans didn't have cars. And if we really wanted to do it right, we would have had lots of buses lined up to take them out and also lots of empty vans to save the belongings of those with no home or flood insurance. This is a matter of public policy. If you give your tax cuts to the rich and hope everything works out all right, and poverty goes up and it disproportionately affects black and brown people, that's a consequence of the action made. We had a different policy."
Bill Clinton, ABC News program "This Week," 9/18/05

'"There is a deep history of injustice that has led to poverty and inequality, and it will not be overcome instantly. President Bush from Day 1 has been acting boldly to achieve real results for all Americans. Do we think in new and bold ways by focusing on innovative programs that work for all Americans, or do we embrace failed policies of the past which have resulted in too many being left behind."
óScott McClellan, White House spokesman, 9/18/05

"I'd like to believe that Katrina will change everythingóand that we'll all now realize how important it is to have a government committed to helping those in need, whatever the color of their skin. But I wouldn't bet on it."
óPaul Krugman, "Tragedy in Black and White," New York Times, 9/19/05

For discussion

1. What questions do students have? How might they be answered?

2. "What a shocked world saw exposed in New Orleans last week wasn't just a broken levee. It was a cleavage of race and class, at once familiar and startlingly new, laid bare in a setting where they suddenly amounted to matters of life and death," Jason De Parle wrote in his analysis of what Hurricane Katrina revealed. The three parts of this reading focus on that cleavage.

To ensure that students hear multiple points of view, divide them into small groups of four to seven for group go-arounds.
They are to address the following questions:

  • Does this reading demonstrate that there is a race divide and class divide in America? If yes, how? If no, why not?
  • Have students experienced these divides personally? If so, how?

The subjects of race and class can be sensitive for students, especially when they begin to discuss their own experiences. This sensitivity poses both a problem and an opportunity. Some students may be embarrassed, hurt, or angered by what they hear. And yet, such a conversation can also help students gain understanding that can't be gleaned from a textbook.

In instructing students about the go-arounds, emphasize that they should use active listening, show regard for others' feelings, try to see other students' points of view, and try to engage dialogue rather than debate. A discussion of any sensitive subject calls for a classroom environment in which there is respect for each individual and students feel safe in saying what they honestly think and feel.

In the go-around, each student in turn responds to the first question without being interrupted. This process continues until all students who wish to speak have had an opportunity to do so.

Still in their groups, students might then ask clarifying questions regarding anything said that they wish to hear more about. They might follow this with a general discussion. After about 15 minutes, have the groups repeat this process with the second question.

A general class discussion might follow on key issues and differences of opinion.

Reading 2:
The President's Plan to Confront Poverty and Racial Discrimination

"Americans of every race and religion were touched by this storm; yet some of the greatest hardship fell upon citizens already facing lives of struggleóthe elderly, the vulnerable, and the poor. And this poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity. As we clear away the debris of a hurricane, let us also clear away the legacy of inequality....As we rebuild homes and businesses, we will renew our promise as a land of equality and decency."
óPresident Bush, speaking on September 16 in a National Day of Prayer at the Washington National Cathedral

The day before the president made these remarks he had been in New Orleans, where, in addition to outlining his plan to rebuild the Gulf Coast, he spoke about the need to clear away the nation's "legacy of inequality" and to confront poverty and racial discrimination with "bold action."

Major elements in his plan include:

1. Creation of a "Gulf Opportunity Zone, encompassing the region of the disaster in Louisiana and Mississippi and Alabama. Within this zone, we should provide immediate incentives for job-creating investment, tax relief for small businesses, incentives to companies that create jobs, and loans and loan guarantees for small businesses, including minority-owned enterprises, to get them up and running again."

2. Calling upon Congress to pass an "Urban Homesteading Act." It would provide building sites on federal land free of charge through a lottery to low-income people The new owners would pledge to build on these lots with either a mortgage or help from an organization like Habitat for Humanity.

3. "Worker Recovery Accounts" of up to $5,000 that evacuees can use for job training and education.

The Bush plan also calls for immediate emergency help to evacuees to pay for food, clothing, and other necessities of daily life as well as removing debris and repairing and rebuilding everything from breached levees and broken pumps to highways, bridges and public buildings. On September 23, the government said it would give vouchers to evacuees to pay up to 100 percent of a rental anywhere in the country for as long as 18 months. (

Some Opinions about Bush's Plan:

"Many Republicans are increasingly edgy about the White House's push for a potentially open-ended recovery budget, worried that the presidentóin trying to regroup politicallyówas making expensive promises they would have to keep. 'We are not sure he knows what he is getting into,' said one senior House Republican official who requested anonymity because of the potential consequences of publicly criticizing the administration.

"The fears about the costs of the storm are building on widespread dissatisfaction among conservatives about spending in recent years by the Republican-controlled Congress....'Katrina breaks my heart,' said Representative Mike Pence, Republican of Indiana and chairman of a caucus of more than 100 House Republicans who advocate conservative spending policy. 'Congress must do everything the American people expect us to do to meet the needs of families and communities affected by Katrina. But we must not let Katrina break the bank for our children and grandchildren.'"
óNew York Times, 9/16/05

"Conspicuously missing from the post-Katrina spending debate is a question for some brave soul in Congress to ask, What is the appropriate and constitutional role here for the federal government? Before the New Deal taught us that the federal government is the solution to every malady, most congresses and presidents would have concluded that the federal government's role is minimal....We all want to see New Orleans rebuilt, but it does not follow that this requires more than $100 billion in federal aid. Chicago was burned to the ground in 1871; San Francisco was leveled by an earthquake in 1906; and in 1900 Galveston, Texas was razed by a hurricane even more ferocious that Katrina. In each instance, these proud cities were rebuilt rapidly--to even greater glory--with hardly any federal money."
óStephen Moore, "The GOP's New New Deal," Wall Street Journal, 9/19/05

After the hurricane, the president suspended the Davis-Bacon Act, "a law requiring employers to pay the local prevailing wage to construction workers on federally financed projects. The White House rationale for the decision...was not only to reduce the cost to taxpayers for the rebuilding of the Gulf Coast...but to open up the bidding to minority-owned businesses that have not historically contracted with the federal government.

"That explanation did not satisfy critics of Mr. Bush like the Rev. Jesse Jackson. 'It's a hurricane for the poor and a windfall for the rich,' Mr. Jackson said....Mr. Jackson likened the structure for assistance to the region, federal financial aid managed under local control in the states, to the post-Reconstruction era that allowed segregation to take hold in the South."
óNew York Times, 9/18/05

In the president's New Orleans speech "he spoke of 'deep, persistent poverty' as something the nation had seen on television rather than as a condition that many citizens had been living in for generations. He defined the problem as regional rather than national in scope, and offered only regional rather than national solutions."
óRichard Stevenson, "Amid the Ruins, a President Tries to Reconstruct His Image, Too," New York Times, 9/16/05

"We've all known that there are these big pockets of isolated deprivation and disadvantage in the country....The reality is, having everybody wake up to the problem is a good thing....I've always felt there's a lot more goodwill and a lot more possibility for statesmanship. This crisis I think is going to bring that out."
John Di Iulio, first director of the president's Office of Faith-Based and Community Initiatives, New York Times, 9/18/05

"It is not so important what we say, it is important what we do. Defining moments of history cannot be defined by rhetoric and words or anger, or soliciting people to respond in a tempestuous way. But real leadership is defined by what we do. The good Samaritan teaches us that it will cost money to help people, and sometimes we have to love them enough to pay the bill." This can no longer be a nation "that overlooks the poor and the suffering and continues past the ghetto on our way to the Mardi Gras."
óBishop T.D. Jakes, an African-American supporter of President Bush, at the National Cathedral, delivering a prayer service for the hurricane victims before the president's speech, 9/16/05

"I do think that African-Americans are waiting to see what this administration is going to do about the crisis. If the appropriate actions are taken in an expeditious, competent way, I think then our community will reevaluate our opinions about this administration."
óBishop Jakes in a telephone interview with the New York Times, 9/16/05

"All around the South, cities are booming, but New Orleans never did. All around the country, crime was dropping, but in New Orleans it was rising. ....Now the Bush administration is trying to change all that. That means trying to get around the corruption that made the city such a rotten place to do business. The White House is trying to do this by devising programs in which checks and benefits flow directly to recipients, not through local agencies. The Bush folks want to put temporary housing within a mile of the original neighborhoods so people can become self-sufficient as soon as possible.

"On Thursday, the president was honest about the cost of all this, but he only began to lay out a plan. The Bushies are still trying to figure out how to help people from broken families and those with mental disabilities. They're trying to figure out where to cut government to offset the costs....

"Like Franklin Roosevelt in the New Deal era, Bush doesn't have a complete vision of what he wants to achieve. But he does have an instinctive framework. His administration is going to fight a two-front war, against big government liberals and small government conservatives, but if he can devote himself to executing his policies, the Gulf Coast will be his TVA [Tennessee Valley Authority, an agency launched by President Franklin Roosevelt to counter Depression-era poverty], the program that serves as a model for what can be done nationwide."
óDavid Brooks, "A Bushian Laboratory," New York Times, 9/18/05

"In the areas that sustained only minor damage...there are at least 11,600 empty apartments and houses. If Jefferson Parish [28 miles south of New Orleans] is included, that number soars to 23,7000. With three people in each unit, that means homes could be found for 70,000 evacuees....It will take months (at least) before new homes are built, and many of the poorest residents won't be able to carry the mortgage, no matter how subsidized. Besides, it [Bush's proposed Urban Homesteading Act] barely touches the need. The Administration estimates that in New Orleans there is land for only 1,000 homesteaders."
óNaomi Klein, "Purging the Poor," The Nation, 10/10/05

"Katrina has posed a challenge to the White House and the country regarding the great divide, which is race and class in America. It's a challenge and an opportunity which can be won or lost, and ultimately it is the decision of the White House as to which way it goes....President Bush needs to ensure that we do not see racial divisions reproduced in the reconstruction effort as white millionaires get richer."
óRev. Eugene Rivers, a Democrat, an African-American and a supporter of President Bush

Classroom Activities


After students have read about the president's plan and reactions to it, ask them to write three questions. Questions should focus on problems of race and class; the future of the poor white and black evacuees; and policies that, as the president said, "will renew our promise of a land of equality and decency." Each question should, if answered well, lead to a better understanding of how poverty and discrimination might be reduced significantly.

Help students to understand differences among questionsóe.g., those that can be answered factually (where will the facts come from?), those that probe for deeper understanding of the situation on the Gulf Coast (what are the best sources for gaining this new understanding?), and those that call for expert opinion (what makes someone an expert?). Emphasize that students do not have to be able to answer their questions.


Divide students into groups of four to share their questions and to select for class consideration what they regard as the best one or two. As students report those questions, write them on the chalkboard without comment. Then subject each question to analysis for clarity and the type of answer it calls for. See "the doubting game" section of "Teaching Critical Thinking" on this website for details.

Which questions can students answer satisfactorily based on information and/or opinions from the readings? Which require further inquiry and continuing attention to events on the Gulf Coast?

Additional questions for inquiry

The president's Gulf Coast plan is an opportunity for student inquiry into how the U.S. government responds to a crisis. Individually or in small groups, students might research their own questions or those below. As government aid plans unfold and Congress debates them, students might make regular reports on new developments and consider the implications. Will the measures that are proposed or adopted in fact clear away of "the legacy of inequality," at least in the Gulf region?

Students might consider the following questions:

  • What evidence is there that the president's plan, whose cost estimates run to $200 billion, will make a significant difference in "confronting poverty and racial discrimination," on the Gulf Coast? Exactly how will it confront them?

  • What evidence, if any, is there that the president intends to attack poverty and segregation elsewhere in the country?

  • What firms get contracts for reconstruction work? On what basis? Competitive bidding? No bidding? Who monitors how this money is spent? Why is a monitoring process necessary? (Already there are charges of political favoritism, fraud, price-gouging, mismanagement, and unnecessary no-bid contracts. While defended as essential for quick response to hurricane damage, no-bid contracts, as in Iraq, are open to accusations of political cronyism. Investigations by the inspector general for the Department of Homeland Security and other federal agencies are underway. See the New York Times, 9/26/05)

  • How will Congress decide to finance any Gulf Coast plans? What are the arguments pro and con about such plans? The president has ruled out tax increases. He also opposes eliminating, or even suspending, tax cuts for the wealthy to pay for his Gulf Coast plan. The money therefore must come from cuts in current programs and/or borrowing from foreign investors. The biggest proposed cut would eliminate the Moon-Mars NASA program to save $44 billion; some other cuts would adversely affect low-income people. Borrowing money to support the Gulf Coast plan is controversial, since the U.S. already has an enormous deficit.

  • How much of the loans and loan guarantees will go to minority-owned businesses? Who oversees this process?

  • Will Congress approve the Urban Homesteading Act and fully fund programs for poor whites and blacks? If not, why not?

  • Housing for the hurricane evacuees is urgently needed. The federal Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) should have the expertise to meet this need, but seven of its top staff positions are vacant. What actions is HUD taking? What evidence is there that it is working effectively to provide housing? Will that housing leave poor people still concentrated together, as they were in New Orleans before Katrina? Keep in mind that there are nearly 500,000 evacuees, many of them poor.

  • What jobs will be available in New Orleans? What education and training will be available to low-income blacks and whites?

  • How many low-income blacks and whites will return to New Orleans? Since most of their dwellings are now uninhabitable, where will they live and what will they and their families live on while they are being educated and trained? What help will they receive to find places to live and to support themselves?

  • What efforts will the government make to ensure that the schools children go to do not once again concentrate and segregate poor whites and blacks?

  • The areas of New Orleans below sea level where most of the poor whites and blacks lived suffered the greatest flooding and destruction. Should these areas be reconstructed? At what cost? If the decision is not to reconstruct them, where do the people who lived there go? What help do they get?

For competing reactions to the Bush plans, see the conservative websites of the Heritage Foundation (, "How to Turn the President's Gulf Coast Pledge into Reality," and the American Enterprise Institute (

Also see the progressive websites of the Center for American Progress (, "Progressive Vision for the Reconstruction of the Gulf Coast") and the Children's Defense Fund ( for information about Katrina's effects on children and programs to meet their needs.

This essay was written for TeachableMoment.Org, a project of Morningside Center for Teaching Social Responsibility. We welcome your comments. Please email them to:

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