Some in the black community are beginning to question what happened to the black leadership during the Hurricane Katrina disaster, especially in the city of New Orleans.
While a few black leaders, including the Rev. Jesse Jackson, the Rev. Al Sharpton and the Congressional Black Caucus, have singled out the president for blame, others say Mayor C. Ray Nagin, who is black, is responsible for the dismal response to the flooding that stranded thousands in the city’s poorest sections.
“Mayor Nagin has blamed everyone else except himself,” said the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, founder and president of the Brotherhood Organization of a New Destiny.
“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,” he said.
As news and images of the dead, stranded, sick and hungry waiting days for help inundated Americans over the last two weeks, public officials at every level have sought to deflect blame. Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Michael D. Brown and Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff have pointed their fingers at the first responders in New Orleans and Louisiana, while the mayor and the governor have sought to tag the Bush administration with botching the emergency response.
The New Orleans mayor has criticized the president for the slow response and the resulting loss of life, but recent reports show he failed to follow through on his own city’s emergency-response plan, which acknowledged that thousands of the city’s poorest residents would have no way to evacuate the city.
He took a second hit when an Associated Press photo showed 2,000 school buses under water and parked in a lot, unused in the evacuation. Reports say those buses could have ferried thousands of residents to safety outside New Orleans had they been deployed.
Black political analyst Earl Ofari Hutchinson, author of “The Disappearance of Black Leadership,” said the problem lies with the current focus of black leadership, in both the elected and activist crowd, away from the poor and toward the new majority of middle-class black Americans.
“In the past two decades, there has been a middle-class-focused leadership,” Mr. Hutchinson said. “It is one thing to talk about affirmative action and moving people into top management positions in corporate America, but that does not do anything for the black poor.”
Julian Bond, chairman of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People, said there is plenty of blame for all governments — local, state and federal.
“Something like this has been predicted for years and years, and it seems none of [the government officials] did anything about it to stop it, not simply for people who had nothing before the storm and now have less than nothing, but for everyone there,” Mr. Bond said.
But taking a cue from prominent black leaders, Rep. Charles B. Rangel, New York Democrat, put the blame on Mr. Bush and his record as commander in chief. “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.”
“Now, as bedlam reigns in New Orleans, 35 percent of Louisiana’s and 37 percent of Mississippi’s National Guard troops are in Iraq. The hurricane is clear evidence of how the war directly affects the domestic security of our country,” he said.
Mr. Peterson, however, chastised those who would lay all the blame at the feet of Mr. Bush.
“If black folks want to blame someone for this tragedy, they only need to look in the mirror. Hopefully, this will help black people realize the folly of depending on the government or leaders and serve as a notice to avert future tragedies in other cities,” he said.