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The Winds of Shame: Katrina Two Years On

September 6, 2007

On 6 September 2005, Senator Barack Obama made a speech that seemed to me to capture exactly what Katrina’s winds forced us to confront. I printed these words out, tacked them to a bulletin board outside my office on the hope that they would shame myself and anyone who passed them every day into some kind of action.

And there they’ve hung for two years. What do they mean today? Did the storm mark a turning point, or was it just another opportunity to demonstrate our depravity? I honestly think it’s too soon to tell, though I do not want to excuse my personal and our collective shortcomings in addressing poverty. But I do think that this is the test of our society. Has anything really changed? Do we just wait complacently until the next big storm blows down the flimsy walls we use to hide our shameful failure to address poverty?

….Whoever was in charge of planning and preparing for the worst case scenario appeared to assume that every American has the capacity to load up their family in an SUV, fill it up with $100 worth of gasoline, stick some bottled water in the trunk, and use a credit card to check in to a hotel on safe ground. I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.

And so I hope that out of this crisis we all begin to reflect – Democrat and Republican – on not only our individual responsibilities to ourselves and our families, but to our mutual responsibilities to our fellow Americans. I hope we realize that the people of New Orleans weren’t just abandoned during the Hurricane. They were abandoned long ago – to murder and mayhem in their streets; to substandard schools; to dilapidated housing; to inadequate health care; to a pervasive sense of hopelessness.

That is the deeper shame of this past week – that it has taken a crisis like this one to awaken us to the great divide that continues to fester in our midst. That’s what all Americans are truly ashamed about, and the fact that we’re ashamed about it is a good sign. The fact that all of us – black, white, rich, poor, Republican, Democrat – don’t like to see such a reflection of this country we love, tells me that the American people have better instincts and a broader heart than our current politics would indicate.”
— Senator Barack Obama, September 6, 2005

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