Sat, Sep 10, 2005 - Page 7 News List

US' black community galvanized into action

SHOCK TREATMENT The suffering of poor African-Americans in Hurricane Katrina has highlighted how racial inequality remains a major problem in the US


To African-Americans, Hurricane Katrina has become a generation-defining catastrophe -- a disaster with a predominantly black toll, tinged with racism. They've rallied to the cause with an unprecedented outpouring of activism and generosity.

Blacks who have been touched by the disaster are not only donating money but gathering supplies, taking in friends and relatives, even heading south to help shoulder the burden of their people.

"You'd have to go back to slavery, or the burning of black towns, to find a comparable event that has affected black people this way," said Darnell Hunt, a sociologist and head of the African-American studies department at UCLA.

If the rescue effort had not been so mishandled, and if those who suffered so needlessly had not been so black and so poor, perhaps Hurricane Katrina would have been just another destructive storm, alongside the likes of Charley and Andrew and Hugo. (There is no Keisha or Kwame.)

But Katrina's searing images -- linking nature's wrath and the nation's wrongs -- have fanned the smoldering resentments of the civil rights, Reaganomics and hip-hop eras all at once.

"Something about this is making people remember their own personal injustices," said author damali ayo, whose book How to Rent a Negro takes a satirical look at race relations.

"You don't look at Rodney King and say, `I remember when I got beat up.' But people remember being neglected, unimportant, overlooked, thought of as `less than.' That's a very common experience for black people," he said.

Some 71 percent of blacks say the disaster shows that racial inequality remains a major problem in the US, according to a survey by the Pew Research Center for the People & the Press, conducted on Sep. 6 and Sep. 7 among 1,000 Americans; 56 percent of whites feel this was not a particularly important lesson.

And while 66 percent of blacks think the government's response would have been faster if most of the victims had been white, 77 percent of whites disagreed.

On Thursday, first lady Laura Bush said it was "disgusting" that critics blamed her husband's policies for the racial disparities between hurricane survivors. In an interview with American Urban Radio Networks, she said the homes of the poor were more vulnerable to the storm and "that's what we want to address."

Many events have transfixed African-Americans: the killings of icons from Martin Luther King to Tupac Shakur, the crack cocaine epidemic, the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings. But Katrina is different.

"The face, the cover has been pulled off the invisible poor," said Reverend Ronald Braxton of Metropolitan African Methodist Episcopal Church in Washington, DC.

Braxton spoke as his congregation loaded a 15m tractor-trailer with antacid, diapers, food, water and other supplies destined for AME churches in Jackson, Mississippi and Baton Rouge, Louisiana.

Before Independence Air volunteered to fly the supplies to the hurricane zone, Braxton turned away volunteers willing to drive 22 hours to Baton Rouge. In addition, his church raised US$20,000 last Sunday alone to send to the national AME relief effort. Individuals have also stepped up. Kimberly Lowe of Philadelphia signed up on that city's Web site to host an evacuee in a spare bedroom.

"They just probably want to talk to regular folks and be in a real home," Lowe said. "There's nothing like being home."

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