On the occasion of the Bush Library's opening, it's worth asking what the exhibit on Hurricane Katrina will look like. Civil rights activist James Perry, a New Orleans native, hopes Bush's failure won't be kept under wraps.
What do former President George Bush and Taylor Swift have in common?
Ok, I know this sounds like a bar joke complete with a not-suitable-for-work punchline, but I offer it as a real question. Stumped? Well, Bush and Swift share the distinction of being upstaged in front of the entire nation, by none other than Kanye West.
West upstaged Swift at an award show, arguing that Beyoncé Knowles was more deserving of an MTV Video Music Award than Swift. It was one of the more amusing pop culture moments of 2009.
President Bush’s experience with West, more than a mere pop culture meme, shocked America’s racial consciousness.
On September 2, 2005, a few days after Katrina caused New Orleans’ federal levees to fail, West, during a nationally-televised fundraiser for victims of the hurricane, strayed from the teleprompter and proclaimed, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” America was stunned.
Years later, Bush, in his memoir and in a televised confession to Matt Lauer of The Today Show, made clear that the “suggestion that I was racist because of the response to Katrina represented an all time low.” Being called a racist by Kanye West was the worst moment of the Bush presidency.
The ‘worst’ moment of his presidency
Now, I know what you are thinking. Mr. President, what about the terrorist strike on 9/11 or declaring victory in Iraq when the war was nowhere near over and continued well into the Obama presidency, or the Abu Ghraib scandal in which American military took pictures of naked, disgraced prisoners or maybe the economic crash of 2007 that caused largest ever worldwide financial crisis and obliterated the savings accounts of millions of Americans, or how about the actual government response to Katrina? But no…an allegation of racism by a South Side Chicago rapper?
Flash forward to 2013. This Thursday, George Bush’s presidential library opens. And all indicators suggest that the library’s version of Katrina will be distinctly different from Kanye West’s assessment. Images from the library show displays quoting Bush after Katrina in a take charge, can do moment, saying, “I want to know what went right and what went wrong.”
A corresponding image shows Bush embracing an African-American family and proudly evidences that 87,000 people were rescued and $120.7 billion in federal funds were allocated in response to the disaster.
We will not know the full Bush Library retelling of the Katrina story until the library opens on Thursday, but it makes sense that President Bush would reframe, if not rewrite, the Katrina disaster through an historical lens more friendly to his legacy and ego.
As Melissa Harris-Perry and I wrote in 2009, it was Bush’s failure around Katrina that gave media the backbone to question his performance, caused Republicans to lose the House of Representatives in the 2008 mid-term elections and made way for the American people to vote a Democrat into the White House.
At the time, for many black Americans, West simply affirmed their existing opinions: these circumstances would not have been allowed were New Orleans a majority white city.
White Americans, of course, saw things quite differently. Most simply assumed color blind ineptness by the government.
In 2005, University of Chicago Professor Michael Dawson, along with Cathy Cohen and Harris-Perry (then Harris-Lacewell) documented the Katrina racial opinion divide.
In the study, 84 percent of black respondents and 20 percent of white respondents thought the government response would have been faster if the victims of Hurricane Katrina had been white. And 90 percent of black respondents thought Katrina conveyed an important racial lesson, “that racial inequality remained a major problem in the nation.” Only 38 percent of white respondents agreed.
Interestingly enough though, regardless of race, people agreed that government had failed in most aspects of its response to the Katrina disaster.
My own conversations after confirmed as much.
New Orleans united in its disappointment
Regardless of color, people I talked to agreed Katrina relief was too little, too late.
People agreed there is no excuse for leaving our own stranded for weeks without potable water, food, electricity and working toilets.
People agreed there was no excuse for allowing many of New Orleans’ almost 2,000 dead residents to rot in the streets, flooded homes, gutters and even on the side of the interstate for as long as 30 days while waiting for emergency crews to arrive.
People agreed FEMA failed New Orleans, Louisiana, Mississippi and Tennessee.
People who have visited the un-rebuilt New Orleans Lower Ninth Ward agree that despite George Bush’s September 15, 2005 promise, New Orleans has not been rebuilt the same or better than it was.
And finally, people agree that despite his September 15, 2005 promise, President Bush did not meet his duty to “confront this poverty with bold action.”
Thursday, we will know whether President Bush has foolishly dared to rewrite the Katrina narrative. But if he did, I suspect it will do little. New Orleanians have the physical and mental scars, the memories of lost love ones, the flood damaged homes and vacant lots wiped clean by Katrina to prove our collective experience and stamp it in America’s history books. That experience creates a voice far too loud to be silenced. Even by a presidential librarian.
James Perry is a New Orleans-based civil rights advocate and political analyst, and husband to host Melissa Harris-Perry. Follow him on Twitter at @JamesHPerry.This column originally appeared in theGrio.