People who feel a need to give a pass to George W. Bush on whether race played a factor in the federal response to Hurricane Katrina have made much of the fact that other sections of the Gulf Coast which were predominantly white were afflicted with the same lackadaisical response. Their line of defense is that even areas adjoining Orleans Parish in Louisiana were neglected, apparently proving that Bush’s administration is either incompetent at responding to threats that have been examined for years or willfully negligent, but not racist.
The problem with that defense is it assumes that Bush is better informed about the racial makeup of the poor in the South than he is about anything else. Throughout the 1980s, Ronald Reagan used the phrase “welfare queen” — sometimes in close conjunction with the word “Cadillac” — to paint a specific image of the types of people on public assistance. Never mind that most recipients of welfare were white, his supporters knew the type of people he was talking about.
The story of poverty in the South — when it’s been discussed at all in the past decades — has been portrayed as an African-American issue. George Bush is — to borrow Calvin Trillin’s assessment of Reagan — disengaged at best. Someone who expects him to know that the group “poor people in the South” wasn’t more or less congruent with the group “poor black people in the South” seem to me as if they themselves are suffering a serious disengagement.