Column: Dispatches from Black America
By Phill Wilson
Post-Katrina, everyone’s obsessed with whether George Bush cares about Black people. Kanye West thinks he doesn’t; Laura Bush insists he does. After all, the first lady said, “I live with him. I know what he believes.”
Maybe Laura is right. Maybe W loves him some Black folk. But who cares? It’s the wrong question.
The President is not our father. The role of the government is not to be our friend. It doesn’t matter if they care about us. What matters is their competence. Are they capable, for example, of mounting an immediate and effective response to a natural disaster that hits Black folk especially hard? In the case of Katrina, the answer is a resounding no.
Dying people were left stranded –- and worse. With guns blazing, the police in Gretna, Louisiana, actually forced hungry, thirsty, and desperate people back into the flooding city. Most of these people were Black.
So what matters is not whether W. loves us or hates us. What matters is that he didn’t deliver. As former President Clinton said in an ABC interview, “This is a matter of public policy, and whether it’s race-based or not, 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.”
But Hurricane Katrina is merely this administration’s most spectacular failure. Under George Bush’s watch, the number of poor people in this country has surged by 4.5 million. There are now 37 million Americans – 13 million of them children—who are living in poverty.
A lot of people said Bill Clinton liked Black folks, and maybe he did. But again, wrong question. Under the previous administration, poverty rates fell from 15.1% of the population at the start of Bill Clinton’s presidency to 11.3% at the end of it -– still way too many, but moving in the right direction.
The Bush administration has announced an estimated $500 billion in post-Katrina reconstruction plans. How does the President propose to pay for it? Canceling some of the tax cuts for the rich? Nope. Rethinking the $5 billion a month we’re spending in Iraq? Wrong again. Instead, he wants Congress to cut spending, which means further shredding the already threadbare safety net.
Bush has acknowledged the housing crisis the storm created. But one of his administration’s longstanding legislative priorities has been to scale back rental assistance to poor families nationwide. In keeping with that goal, Bush’s relief plan hasn’t even nodded in the direction of distributing rental aid.
Meanwhile, apartment vacancy rates in undamaged areas of New Orleans were at 20 to 40 percent before the storm even hit. Analysts say we could house as many as a third of those made homeless without constructing a single new unit, but to do so we’d have to make those landlords take Section 8 vouchers — and properly funded them.
The reconstruction plan also keeps continuity with the administration’s scorched earth attack on the healthcare safety net.
The budget currently before Congress would strip $10 billion from Medicaid over the next five years anyway. Medicaid is one of the few resources African Americans living with HIV have been able to turn to for treatment; weakening the system will make the already awesome racial differential in survival rates among people with AIDS grow even larger.
It was policies like these that totally ignored the needs of the poorest among us that exacerbated the devastation of Katrina. And that brings us to the other natural disaster that the Bush administration has willfully ignored.
The stats are now familiar to everyone accept the White House: There are more people living with HIV/AIDS today than ever before, and nearly half of them are Black. Black people represent over 50% of all new cases in the United States, over 56% of the new youth cases and 72% of new female cases.
What has Bush done about this carnage? He’s cut funding for federal HIV prevention programs, recommended changes to the Ryan White CARE Act—the primary federal funding vehicle for AIDS services—that would drastically restrict what services are available to the poor Black folks, and cut comprehensive sex education that has proven effective at slowing the epidemic, in favor of unproven abstinence-only curricula—which forbids any discussion of how to use a condom or avoid STDs.
We can spend all day speculating about whether or not these measures are being implemented out of some racist intent. That’d be a mistake. If you go to a car mechanic who disconnects your brakes and you are killed in an accident, you are no more dead if he did it because he didn’t “care” about you or if he was just plain incompetent.
Natural disaster or public health disaster, mechanic or president, we need someone who can deliver. Competence matters.
Phill Wilson is executive director of the Black AIDS Institute. His column appears monthly.