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Poll finds blacks, whites see hurricane relief effort differently

WASHINGTON—The plight of largely black New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is reopening the divide over how black and white Americans react to racially charged events.

Two-thirds of blacks nationwide say the federal government would have responded faster if most of the hurricane victims had been white. Three out of four whites say the federal reaction would have been the same.

"Blacks draw very different lessons from the tragedy," concluded Andy Kohut, director of the Pew Research Center, a nonpartisan Washington think tank that found the racial chasm in a new poll.

"Blacks make harsher judgments of the federal government's response to the crisis, perceive the plight of disaster victims in a different light and feel more emotionally connected to what's happened."

In New Orleans on Monday, President Bush insisted there was no bias in the government's response.

"The storm didn't discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort," he said in response to a reporter's question about the federal relief effort. "When those Coast Guard choppers, many of whom were first on the scene, were pulling people off roofs, they didn't check the color of a person's skin. They wanted to save lives."

Yet the fact remains that the storm's impact on a city that was two-thirds black and an admittedly slow response by the federal government have rubbed raw the divide, which is never far from the narrative of American life.

"It's something that is always under the surface and is brought out at different moments," Kohut said.

The Pew Research Center poll of 1,000 adults was conducted Sept. 6-7 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. A second poll of 1,523 adults was conducted Sept. 8-11 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.

The racially polarized response is reminiscent of how Americans reacted after former football player O.J. Simpson was accused of murdering his ex-wife and a man she was with in June 1994.

Seven out of 10 blacks believed that Simpson didn't kill the two. A similar proportion of whites believed that he probably did.

A predominantly black jury acquitted Simpson of criminal charges. A predominantly white jury later found him liable for damages in a civil trial.

"The hardest hit of the hurricane victims were black and poor," said Susanna Dilliplane, an analyst at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank focused on black issues.

"The horror and sorrow of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has awakened the nation to stark realities, revealing that the chasm between the poor and the wealthy, blacks and whites, yawns ever wider today," she wrote in an essay for the center.

Indeed, not only did blacks and whites react differently to the government response to the hurricane, but they also had largely different views about the broader lessons.

Seventy-one percent of blacks said the Katrina response reinforced the belief that racial inequality remains a major problem in the United States, the Pew survey found. Just 32 percent of whites thought so.

Blacks and whites gave identical poor ratings to the state and local government response. But blacks were much harsher than whites in their rating of the federal government response.

One factor that might have aggravated that reaction: Several comments from prominent Republicans appeared blunt or insensitive about the plight of the poor from New Orleans.

Former first lady Barbara Bush, the current president's mother, for example, suggested that those who lost their homes were better off because they got to sleep in a baseball stadium-turned shelter. "So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them," she said.

House Speaker Dennis Hastert, R-Ill., said it might not be worth it to rebuild parts of the city, given its vulnerability below sea level. "It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed," he said. After complaints about his insensitivity, Hastert took a much more empathetic tone in later comments.

Then Rep. Richard Baker, a Republican who represents Baton Rouge, was overheard expressing happiness that the hurricane had wiped out public housing.

"We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans," Baker said. "We couldn't do it, but God did."

Later, Baker issued a statement contending that his quotation was taken out of context and that he wants only to improve conditions of public housing in New Orleans.

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For more on the Pew Poll, go to http://www.people-press.org.

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(The Pew Research Center poll of 1,000 adults was conducted Sept. 6-7 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3.5 percentage points. A second poll of 1,523 adults was conducted Sept. 8-11 and had a margin of error of plus or minus 3 percentage points.)

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(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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