- The Washington Times - Friday, September 2, 2005

Black Democrats in Congress and civil rights leaders yesterday accused the Bush administration of incompetence and a lack of compassion for blacks in response to the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

“Many of these Americans who now are struggling to survive are Americans of color,” Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat, said. “Their cries for assistance confront America with a test of our moral compass as a nation.”

He quoted the admonition of Christ to feed the hungry and clothe the naked, and said: “To the president of the United States, I simply say that God cannot be pleased with our response.”

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the highest-ranking black member of the administration, rejected the suggestion of racism in the government’s response.

“That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help — I just don’t believe it,” she said. “Americans are generous to each other, and I think you’re seeing that people are opening their homes to people who are displaced and have had to be evacuated.”

Black leaders at a press conference in Washington criticized news coverage they said has depicted blacks in New Orleans as looters and refugees.

“We cannot allow ourselves to see only the black faces doing the looting and not see the homeowners, the families, the children who have lost everything,” said Dorothy I. Height, president emeritus of the National Council of Negro Women.

Mr. Cummings objected to the use of the term “refugees,” which news organizations have applied to both whites and blacks left homeless by the storm. Dictionaries typically define “refugee” as “one who flees for safety, especially to a foreign country.”

“I hate the term refugees,” he said. “Americans are dying, not refugees. Americans are dying and suffering without food, water and shelter.”

Rep. Melvin Watt, North Carolina Democrat and chairman of the Congressional Black Caucus, questioned the news coverage focus on looting.

“Whatever is being taken could not be used by anyone else anyway,” he said. “Whether they are looting or not, we should not be categorizing people as criminals for trying to survive and focusing on policing buildings that are not of any use to anyone.”

Mr. Watt said despite his dissatisfaction with the terminology, it doesn’t help to complain about it now, nor is it helpful to cry racism or to politicize the issue.

Several black members of Congress said the issue isn’t about race or a government conspiracy to not be prepared for one of the worst natural disasters in the nation’s history.

“We are not calling it racist; this is a class issue,” said Rep. Stephanie Tubbs Jones, Ohio Democrat.

She said the focus should be on poor people “who just happen to be black” and had no way to get out except by walking. One in three persons in New Orleans does not own a car, and 30 percent of the population live below the poverty line.

“The people who had money got out if they wanted to; these folks could not,” Mrs. Jones said.

Black officials said comments they see as insensitive also have hurt.

Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Babineaux Blanco, a Democrat, instructed the newly arriving National Guard to use “all necessary force” — a directive that caused concern among some black leaders. Rescue helicopters have been fired on, and snipers fired on rescuers trying to evacuate Charity Hospital in downtown New Orleans.

“At the end of the day, the folks who were not able to get out are frustrated that the state and city did not pay enough attention to them and that is compounded by the fact that they are now enacting martial law,” said C.J. Jordan, president of the National Black Republican Leadership Council.

Mr. Watt said: “Our emphasis has been using police power to control people and not using it to help people, and we are trying to deliver that message to the president.”

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