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Race a lingering issue one year after Katrina

Race was a big issue in the aftermath of Katrina. When I asked the president about it three months later, there was still great sensitivity about the issue. NBC's Brian Williams reports.

In tonight’s broadcast, we have relived that first week of Katrina. We have seen the pictures all over again, and we've reminded ourselves what stood out when we first saw it, because it stood out again tonight: the faces. Black faces, mostly. Race was a big issue in the aftermath of Katrina. When I asked the president about it three months later, there was still great sensitivity about the issue.

Brian Williams: "After the tragedy, I heard someone ask rhetorically, 'What if this had been Nantucket, Mass., or Inner Harbor, Baltimore?' Are you convinced the response would have been the same? Was there any social or class or race aspect to the response?"

President Bush: "Somebody I heard — you know, a couple of people said — you know, said, 'Bush didn't respond because of race, because he's a racist' or alleged that. That is absolutely wrong, and I reject that. Frankly, that's the kind of thing that — you can call me anything you want — but don't call me a racist."

The faces on the television screen screamed about poverty, they screamed about black poverty and they screamed about the negligence of a government that refused to see them.

Professor Michael Eric Dyson has written a book on Katrina and race. Dyson thinks we should keep looking at these pictures because of how they make us feel. He also believes that since Katrina, this country has squandered a huge opportunity to talk about race.

"Well, it was an enormous opportunity. We missed the opportunity," Dyson says. "The president missed it. The government down there in Louisiana missed it. And the American people, most especially, missed this opportunity to say, 'Hey, what are we doing?' The people in New Orleans were left behind long before the vicious winds and violent waters of Hurricane Katrina came along to wash them away. There is no question that the people who suffered there were failed by their government. This is not the Third World. We're not in some outpost of some nation whose name we can hardly conjure. This is America. Five days you left these people to suffer and die."

Many Americans do not realize that, among African Americans in New Orleans, there is a widely held belief that the levees were intentionally blown — dynamited — flooding the poorer, mostly black neighborhoods in an attempt to spare other areas of the city.

During the flood of 1927, the levees were blown intentionally, flooding poor mostly white areas, but there is no evidence that happened this time.

I asked Professor Dyson how the media should deal with that circumstance.

"First of all, we do have historical precedent, so it's not like they're crazy," he says. "The point of a conspiracy theory among the poor to say those levees were blown up is to say black life doesn't count as much as white life. That's what they're getting at. Because what they're saying is that they — they bombed those levees and dynamited them to allow water to pour into a black community while the white ones were protected. The point, the moral, the end of that story is to say black life doesn't count as much as white life."

While it will take years to begin to heal the damage and distrust that came out of Katrina — Dyson, who teaches African-American studies to students in the Ivy League — says the determination in the faces of those he calls "the oppressed" is a familiar reaction.  

Brian Williams: And the faces of the adults who said, just in their faces: You can try to take away my dignity. But you know what? Dignity is up to me. It's the last thing up to me. And you can't steal that from me.      

"Well, the reality is that all poor black people have had in history is the right to tell the truth about their lives and to bear witness to the spirit that sustains them in the face of incredible odds," Dyson says. "They were the true champions and heroes. With their anger and their disbelief and the power of their words. Those are the people we should learn from."