Despite the frequent presidential site visits, high-profile photo ops, and resultant far-reaching proclamations, Hurricane Katrina has painfully shown the government, corporations, and the world that race is a controversial issue in America.
The unscripted and widely publicized remark made during a major NBC fundraiser by a hip-hop icon, Kanye West, that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" was a stinging but accurate indictment of the perception of race relations in this nation.
As President, George Bush has an obligation to "care about" all Americans. And I believe he probably does care. However, the terribly slow and inept government response to Katrina did little to assure the African- American community of this fact. The horrible images that flashed across our television screens in the days after Katrina's landfall provided more than enough fodder to reignite the race relations debate and clearly show where everyone stands.
Based on media coverage, it is understandable that the perceptions of the administration's delayed response fall along racial lines. According to a recent Pew Research Center survey, 66% of the African Americans polled felt that the government would have responded faster had most of the storm victims been white. By contrast, 77% of whites said the victims' race had no effect on the government's reaction.
Throughout the nation, African Americans from all socio-economic backgrounds were outraged at what was happening in New Orleans because, in many ways, New Orleans represents the spirit of black America. The city is more than 67% African American and is currently being led by its third African-American mayor. It's the birthplace of jazz and other cultural elements that represent the very fabric of African-American life.
As a tourist destination, hundreds of thousands of African Americans visit the city every year to attend conventions and events, such as the Essence Music Festival or Bayou Classic. This year alone, my firm spent more than 500 person hours in New Orleans, working on a number of cultural events. To see the city's impoverished residents suffering with no help in sight tore at the heart of anyone who had a connection with the Crescent City, and even of those who just shared the same skin color as most of Katrina's victims.
President Bush has laid out a rather bold and ambitious plan to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. The price tag will be staggering, but the effort will be a true opportunity for the administration and corporate America to step up and work to dispel the perceptions that "race and poverty divide America." As we all know in this business, for most clients, good PR (and government) is based on a good product (or policy).
We cannot and should not expect the government to carry the entire burden of rebuilding New Orleans and repairing the "racial divide." This is a weight that falls on all of our shoulders. Individuals, community groups, and churches from across the US have mobilized resources to help those who have been displaced by this tragedy. Corporations like Wal-Mart, The Home Depot, and NBC have already stepped in by immediately making unsolicited financial, product, and service commitments.
But it is going to take a lot more from all of us. We cannot wait on the sidelines and complain about what is not being done. We must become a nation of action and take the doing into our own hands.
Our firm has done a small part by adopting a family of 10 that was evacuated because of Katrina. The questions we must all ask are, "What am I doing?" and "Can I do more?" Today it's New Orleans, Gulfport, and Biloxi. Tomorrow it could be Chicago, LA, Atlanta, or whatever city you call home.
Katrina did expose more than most of us wanted to see about the poor and underprivileged in this country. We all have taken a stand. For this country to rebuild New Orleans and its self-esteem, we must learn to stand together.
- Lon Walls is president and CEO of Walls Communications.