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Race, class and Hurricane Katrina

Brian Williams discusses Hurricane Katrina, race and class with Michael Eric Dyson.

Brian Williams discusses Hurricane Katrina, race and class with Michael Eric Dyson, an author, minister and humanities professor at the University of Pennsylvania.

Michael Eric Dyson: The people here were left behind long before the vicious winds and violent waters of Hurricane Katrina came along to wash them away.

Brian Williams: Two reasons among the many why people didn't leave: government checks and transportation. That affects black folks, white folks. That's a poor folk question.

Dyson: Sure. No doubt.

Williams: That's a class question.

Dyson: Absolutely.

Williams: What was your reaction when Barbara Bush said, "They're really better off"?

Dyson: Yeah. I'm a Christian minister, man, so I always try to give love as the first response. But I'll tell you — when Barbara Bush said that, it reinforced the reputation of the Bushes as clueless patricians, No. 1. No. 2, inadvertently, let's be honest, she was right at a certain level.

Here's how she was right: That many of the people who were washed away were washed into better climates, better circumstances than they had before. That's a tragedy. You mean living in the Superdome, or living in the Astrodome, or living in a displaced geography that you had nothing to do with, you didn't grow up in, is better than where you were? For many people, yes. So even though she was right, she was right for the wrong reasons.

Williams: Were they robbed of their dignity?

Dyson: I think that what it reminded us is that the dignity was lost. The gracefulness of their eloquent embodiment as members of a New Orleans society that has given us so much jazz. Gumbo, the way in which they walk, the beauty of the language. The lilt and cadence, their articulation. So when we lose New Orleans, we lose more than those poor black people. We lose ways of life. Perspectives, jazz, gumbo ya-ya. Institutions of improvisation. That's what's lost.

There is no question that the people who suffered there were failed by their government. I mean one woman hollered, "I am an American!"

This is America. A black woman draped in a flag. "I am an American!" And it reminded us that so many of these people are not part of "e pluribus unum" — out of many one.

Williams: It brought back a lot of emotions, but mostly those faces.

Dyson: 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. What those poor black people know when they go to church and bow down on their knees to pray to a God that they believe is there because if they don't believe, they'll do all heinous manners of acts. Create havoc in their lives and others.

So they must believe in God defensively to stop murder and suicide. To stop the hand that will slit their own throat. These people believe mightily in a God who delivers.

These poor black people believed that God will be able to settle the matter.