It was the spot heard 'round the world. Before we lost Yeezy to the orange excuse of a human being, it seemed the rapper who was always a little jumpy and a little hingeless might be using his fuck-it spirit to speak truth from a place of power, in the face of power. Kanye’s impromptu on that telethon was likely his most famous outburst alongside his service at the 2008 VMAs. It was Yeezy at his best: comically out of control at the expense of the Hollywood industry, while calling attention to severe racial disparity.
The tragedy of Katrina, from the storm itself to the sheer incompetence of our national emergency response body, has been well-documented. Even early on in the wake of the storm, television footage clearly demonstrated that those most acutely affected by the momentous storm were poor Black families in the historic, majority-Black city of New Orleans. Just five days after the storm first struck the Louisiana city, the racial injustice of Katrina and the national response would likely be clear to any Black viewer. Kanye decided to voice those concerns to the entirety of the nation.
According to the Huffington Post, Kanye had warned Mike Myers that he was going to ad-lib some of his lines on the show. He called attention to the unfair characterizations of Black victims of the storm and rambled through the feeling that FEMA and the vacationing president were slow to react to the disaster because the majority of victims were Black. In a storm that caused $125 billion in damages, killed 1800 people, and destroyed 800,000 homes, 68% of those affected were Black, a figure mirroring the demographics of the coastal city. The most disastrously affected area of the city was famously the Lower 9th Ward, an area of the city that was 90% Black. Black people were three times as likely to have their homes flooded than their counterparts in the city, which itself is the result of decades of discriminatory housing practices.
Like Kanye, some believe FEMA would have worked the kinks out of their response system faster had it been white Americans predominantly impacted by the storm; there’s likely truth to that notion. Research overviewing responses to the three big hurricanes of 2017 indicated that the response to Hurricane Harvey and Hurricane Irma included overwhelmingly larger allocations of FEMA resources. Comparatively, Hurricane Maria in Puerto Rico was a more severe storm that caused much more damage, yet the response to the storm was far more muted. Despite the greater allocation of resources for Hurricane Harvey, research indicates a pattern of racial discrimination in the FEMA aid distribution. According to a survey, Black and Hispanic residents were less likely to state they received necessary aide in comparison with their white counterparts. Of course, the nature of the leadership of the nation in 2004 is slightly (and I mean slightly) different from 2017; however, it would be on-brand for the federal government to have a lethargic response to the suffering of minorities. In the months following Katrina, 63% of the city’s wealthy St. Bernard Parish received trailers from FEMA, while only 13% of the Lower Ninth Ward received trailers, according to a report by Jonah Walters.
Years laters, racial divides still contour the legacy of Hurricane Katrina. Black people are far more aware of the racial injustice of the storm and the nation's response. Likewise, recovery from the storm has been divided among racial lines. According to The Nation, the child poverty rate in the city has doubled since the storm. While the median income of a white family has increased by 40 percent since 2000 in the city, the median income of a Black household is lower than it was in 2000. Katrina was the perfect storm; it was the one officials of the city had always feared would occur. It was also the one that most blatantly displayed the racism deeply ingrained into every single corner and edge of American society. It’s not just George Bush that doesn’t care about Black people; it’s the entire system.
We also know that Barbara Bush, George’s doting mother, did not care about the Black victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the weeks following the storm, some of the victims were housed in the Houston Astrodome to lessen the strain that caused the horrifying conditions at New Orleans' Superdome, where 15,000 people sought refuge. Barbara Bush and former president George HW Bush took time to visit Katrina's refugees living at the Astrodome. Later in the day, Babs hit the radio show circuit to say:
"Almost everyone I’ve talked to says, ‘We’re going to move to Houston.’ What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them."
Apparently Mrs. Bush Sr. was terrified that these poor, sooty Black people would dirty up her hospitable state, overwhelmed by what a sweet treat and the lux life on the floor of Houston’s Astrodome was in comparison to their sad little homes in old New Orleans.
So Barbara Bush isn't a fan of Black people, but outside of Katrina, what do we know about George Bush Jr. and his attitudes towards the melanin-blessed populations?
We already know he has an affinity for certain Black folk:
But a cursory overview of some of Bush's negropolitics give us a notion that Yeezy Yeezy always up to something was right on this one. While Bush has received the largest Black vote amongst GOP nominees in recent elections, his administration was marred, amongst other things, by his repeated refusal to meet with the NAACP in the early days of his presidency.
Additionally, President Bush utilized MLK Day to decry university affirmative action practices throughout the nation, while the Supreme Court was grappling with those issues in Grutter v. Bollinger and Gratz v. Bollinger. The Court would uphold the majority of higher education's affirmative action practices in those two cases.
According to (Columbia Law alumnus!) Attorney General Eric Holder, the Civil Rights Division of the Justice Department was poorly staffed until Obama’s arrival at the White House. Holder once told Ta-Nehisi Coates, "I mean, I had been there for 12 years as a line guy. I started out in ’76, so I served under Republicans and Democrats. And what the [George W.] Bush administration, what the Bush DOJ did, was unlike anything that had ever happened before in terms of politicized hiring...“ I remember going to tell all the folks at the Civil Rights Division, ‘The Civil Rights Division is open for business again.’"
George Bush's response to the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina was consistent with the patterns of his presidency. So Austin Powers bristles in his trousers as the rest of America watches a Hollywood icon veer out of the lane designated for him. Kanye delved off-script partly because he’s never met an impulse he didn’t like, but also because he was overwhelmed by the images of his people suffering, again. While he may never let his son do a telethon (sorry Saint/Psalm), Kanye directed the mainstream culture's attention to a sobering reality: Katrina was a Black American tragedy.