Black Leaders Focus on Katrina, Race and Poverty

Although a number of issues related to inequality will be discussed at this week's annual legislative conference of the Congressional Black Caucus Foundation, Hurricane Katrina (search) will top the agenda.

"We are moved by the grief and loss caused by Hurricane Katrina," said CBC chairman, Rep. Melvin L. Watt (search), D-N.C.

In opening remarks on Wednesday, Watt said the caucus wants to show solidarity with the victims "and show that we are working for them."

Scratching some business items from the original agenda, Watt and other members of the CBC set priorities of the 35th annual conference around storm relief and preparation, race and poverty issues. The Congressional Black Caucus is made up of the House and Senate's African-American members. The foundation is the fundraising arm of the caucus.

Watt said he believed race was a factor in the number of people displaced and the slow response to the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina, but that blacks were disproportionately hurt not because of their race but because they "didn't have the means to get away from this disaster."

Watt said he wanted to dispel the misconception that the CBC had linked the federal government's slow response to the race of the overwhelming number of people left helpless by the storm.

"They didn't have the cars, the gas, the locations where they could relocate to, the money to afford hotel rooms or to move away from that disaster. But that's true in every day life also. Poor people, disproportionately African-Americans, Hispanics, Asian-Americans … have little capacity to get away from bad things," he said.

President Bush (search) has similarly acknowledged that racial disparities set the stage for the problems left by Katrina, and White House spokeswoman Dana Perino said Wednesday afternoon that the Bush administration is committed to helping all people who were affected.

"Hurricane Katrina did not discriminate in its destructive path and the response did not discriminate either," Perino told "The federal government is committed to helping all victims of the hurricane, and the president is working with Congress to develop new initiatives that will help the Gulf Coast region get back on its feet and help those who are in the greatest need of assistance."

At the conference, Watt said that minorities who disproportionately face problems with health care, education and job opportunities are among the issues that the caucus was planning to address this week through forums, meetings and other events.

Rep. Sheila Jackson Lee (search), D-Texas, said opportunities are to be found in the "horrible, unspeakable tragedy" resulting from the hurricane, including more attention to the issue of poverty, voting reform and administrative policy.

For instance, she said, "We need to make sure that FEMA has the resources and the leadership" to respond correctly to future disasters.

Officials made a number of other storm-related announcements at the conference, which is being held at the Washington Convention Center. The foundation's spokeswoman, Patty Rice, estimated that 1,500-2,000 guests attended the conference on Wednesday, usually the lightest day on the schedule. She said the conference averages 20,000 visitors annually.

The Congressional Black Caucus Foundation has established a $1 million fundraising goal that will help in the hurricane relief effort. General Mills contributed a $100,000 to the drive.

The caucus also held a candlelight vigil on the Capitol's west lawn Wednesday night to honor storm survivors, and several other storm-related discussions were set into the schedule throughout the week.

Euclid Walker, a 33-year-old businessman from Chicago, said Katrina was on the tip of everyone's lips. With business interests of his own, he said he would like to see some more specific discussions about how the relief effort will enroll minority businesses. The Bush administration has suspended some minority business rules.

"There are all these constraints in place," Walker said.

Velma Charles-Shannon said she's been coming to the conference for the last 10 years. She works in the Agriculture Department's outreach office, managing a program that aims to make sure citizens have equal access to environmental programs offered by the USDA.

She said she expects to have a lot of work as a result of the hurricane — she works closely with the Environmental Protection Agency — and hopes to get a few tips on how to better handle the crisis from a discussion set for Friday.

"You listen, sometimes, you come away with a wider view of the world," Charles-Shannon said.