New Orleans: Largely Absent from Political Talk

The confluence of anniversaries and events seems beyond earthly explanations, doesn't it? Sen. Barack Obama speaks of his monumental first on the same day that, 45 years ago, Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said the words, "I have a dream." And a day later comes the anniversary of Katrina, the deadliest natural disaster in U.S. history, a day given new profundity because another storm now threatens New Orleans.

Steven Gray of Time Magazine ties together most of these pieces in a personal essay with a political edge. He is a native of New Orleans, seeing the presidential campaign and the storm anniversary through the eyes of his mother and family members who are now preparing for whatever Gustav brings. He begs the question of Obama: Where does New Orleans fit into the plan?

Gray wonders if the city's AWOL recovery, an issue that was been little more than a one-liner whip cracked at Republicans during the Democratic convention, is too old-school for a party and a candidate bent on changing the definition of liberal.

Gray writes: "Yet in recent months Barack Obama has been publicly silent about one of the gravest tragedies in American history. Perhaps that silence can be attributed to concern about being associated with a catastrophe that was cast in racially polarizing terms. But his silence is a missed opportunity."

Journalists, in their "speak truth to power" role, need to be asking this question -- and other questions -- about the fate of the dispossessed in and beyond the hometown I share with Gray. We can do with less parroting and analyzing of the speeches and more questions about what Obama and Sen. John McCain intend to do about untouchable issues like racial inequality and poverty, issues now forever associated with Katrina.

All this talk about the American Dream -- and surely more will follow -- is couched safely in the living rooms of middle class America and their bootstrap stories of hard work and home ownership. That is a fine narrative for the candidates to write, and journalists should report what they're saying. But while we're dissecting everything from wardrobe to bowling scores in this campaign, please take a minute and ask a question on behalf of Steven Gray's mom:

What about New Orleans?

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    Keith Woods

    Keith Woods is NPR’s vice president for newsroom training and diversity.


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