Left Behind

September 22, 2005 at 12:00 AM EDT


CLARENCE PAGE: It saddens me to see and hear how persistently we Americans confuse the touchy issues of race and class. Listen, for example, to this line from the president’s speech in New Orleans about hurricane relief in the Gulf Coast. Listen to how he starts off talking about class and poverty, then ends up talking about race, as if the two were one and the same.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: As all of us saw on television, there’s also some deep, persistent poverty in this region, as well. That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.

CLARENCE PAGE: It is true that black poverty has a history in racial discrimination, but poverty is not a problem for blacks only. America has more white poor than black poor. We always have. But a greater percentage of blacks are poor, especially in cities like New Orleans, where America’s invisible poor took on a highly visible and distinctively black face during the Hurricane Katrina disaster compounding the perception that race and poverty were the same.

But beneath surface perceptions, Hurricane Katrina relief is an issue of class more than race. African Americans who had money and wheels got out of New Orleans, where the mayor is black, leaving poor blacks and others behind as quickly as their white neighbors did. Who gets left behind? That’s the question that defines poverty in an upwardly mobile society.

Americans are uncomfortable with talk about race and even less comfortable talking about class. Our utopian ideal is a class-free society, a house without glass ceilings, a place where all men and women are created equal and everyone can be all that they want to be.

In the real world, we feel self-conscious and defensive about how far we have fallen short of that ideal. A Pew Center poll found more Americans expressed feelings of depression after New Orleans than they felt after 9/11. Our greatest shock around 9/11 came on the first day. The horrors of Katrina seemed to get worse and worse without relief as the days dragged on and on.

In the durable spirit of the children, displaced by the big storm, learning to smile again, we see the greatest wealth comes not in the wallet, but in the spirit. Beneath the thin veneer of skin color, we Americans have a lot more in common than in separation. Racial progress means that today we are separated less by race or ethnicity than by income or opportunity.

We congratulate ourselves for our progress and downplay our differences until a crisis like Katrina boils them back into visibility, reminding us of how vulnerable we are, how closely we ride to the edge along with our sense of civility and community, only a paycheck away from poverty — the issue that we don’t like to deal with, yet won’t stop dealing with us.

I’m Clarence Page.