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President Returns to Louisiana As Questions of Race Remain

Some activists and commentators continu to question the potential role race has played in the aid effort.

The president and first lady toured a church and emergency operations center in Baton Rouge, and promised the United States would “do what it takes” to help victims of the devastating storm.

“If it’s not right, we’re going to fix it, and if it is right, we’re going to keep doing it. And this is just the beginning of a huge effort,” the president pledged after meeting relief officials in Baton Rouge. “This is one of the disasters that will test our soul, and test our spirits.”

But the president and other officials continued to face skepticism from those they have pledged to help.

“I’m not star-struck. I need answers,” Mildred Brown, who has been there since Tuesday with her husband, mother-in-law and cousin, told the AP. “I’m not interested in handshaking. I’m not interested in photo ops. This is going to take a lot of money.”

Local officials, too, have criticized the federal response. Aaron Broussard, president of Jefferson Parish, broke down on NBC’s “Meet the Press” when he talked about people who waited for help.

“They were told like me, every single day, the cavalry’s coming, on a federal level,” Broussard said. “I have just begun to hear the hoofs of the cavalry.”

New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who warned Monday that “it wouldn’t be unreasonable to have 10,000” dead from the flooding and devastation to his city, began to sound more upbeat about the state and federal response to the crisis.

“We’re making great progress now, the momentum has picked up. I’m starting to see some critical tasks being completed,” he told NBC.

“The 17th Street canal is about or was about 84 percent closed in yesterday afternoon. We have more troops arriving, so we’re starting to make the kind of progress that I kind of expected earlier.”

Although the federal and state response has ramped up in recent days, with aid streaming into the region and more and more evacuees being taken to Houston, Baton Rouge and other centers,

“Degenerates roamed the city, shooting at rescue workers, beating and robbing distraught residents and tourists, raping women and girls. The president of the richest, most powerful country in the history of the world didn’t seem to notice,” Bob Herbert wrote in Monday’s New York Times. “He would have noticed if the majority of these stricken folks had been white and prosperous. But they weren’t. Most were black and poor, and thus, to the George W. Bush administration, still invisible.”

Herbert’s column is the latest to tie the sluggish government response to fact that the overwhelming majority of those impacted by the storm were poor blacks.

“Are you telling me we can coordinate a relief effort on the other side of the world and we can’t do it here?” I. V. Hilliard, pastor of the New Light Christian Center Church in northern Houston, sermonized Sunday morning, according to the Associated Press. “I’m not saying they didn’t care. I’m saying they didn’t care enough!”

“I can’t help but think that race has something to do with it,” he added to a chorus of amens.

The Rev. Al Sharpton, after visiting the encampment of displaced Louisianans in the Houston Astrodome on Saturday, objected to the use of the word “refugees” for the people who fled the hurricane.

“These are not refugees,” he said. “They are citizens of Louisiana and Mississippi, tax-paying citizens. They are not refugees wandering somewhere looking for charity. They are victims of neglect and a situation they should have never been put in in the first place.”

Government officials have stressed their response has been limited more by the enormous scope of the disaster and the logistical challenges in New Orleans and elsewhere and not tied to any racial considerations.

“In America, we do not abandon our fellow citizens in their hour of need. And the federal government will do its part. Where our response is not working, we’ll make it right,” President Bush said Saturday. “We have a responsibility to our brothers and sisters all along the Gulf Coast, and we will not rest until we get this right and the job is done.”

But for some analysts, the racial aspect of the Katrina disaster could serve as an opening to a conversation about inequality in this country.

“I was asked, do you think the very fact that most of the misery was shared by poor black folks will make it easier for Americans to ignore, and I said no, I think just the opposite because this was going out to the whole world,” Chicago Tribune columnist Clarence Page said Friday. “This is indicative of our image of ourselves as Americans, our ability to help each other in times of need — that transcends the ideological arguments and also as I mentioned that notion that if we can’t take care of the least of these, how well can we take care of ourselves or our own families.

“Everything just broke down for the folks who needed help the most. And when government cannot provide for those who need help the most, it makes everybody else feel less secure.”