The president of the largest African-American Baptist organization called on church members to hold national leaders accountable for “preventable consequences” of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.

William J. Shaw, president of the National Baptist Convention, USA, Inc., released a statement on Wednesday criticizing “troubling and troublesome injustices that seem to be taken for granted by public officials at the highest levels of our national government.”

The NBCUSA, meeting this week in Atlanta, is the second major black Baptist group this week to charge the government with being unprepared to meet the needs of thousands of poor and black residents left stranded after a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.

In Miami on Wednesday, Democratic National Committee head Howard Dean told the 3.5-million-member National Baptist Convention of America that race played a factor in the death toll from Hurricane Katrina.

“As survivors are evacuated, order is restored, the water slowly begins to recede, and we sort through the rubble, we must also begin to come to terms with the ugly truth that skin color, age and economics played a deadly role in who survived and who did not,” Dean, the former governor of Vermont who ran for president in 2004, said.

In his statement on behalf of the Nashville-based, 7.5 million-member National Baptist Convention, USA, meanwhile, Shaw urged African-Americans to “hold national leaders accountable for the preventable consequences of the Hurricane Katrina disaster.”

Shaw, the pastor of White Rock Baptist Church in Philadelphia, said Katrina has exposed either that the nation is ill-prepared to deal with major catastrophes or that there “has been a lack of caring to adequately respond.”

Katrina also “has exposed the raw and ugly sore of racism that is still alive in this country,” Shaw said. He noted that both the government and media were late to call victims of the Hurricane “fellow Americans.” The federal government, he said, was “inexcusably late” in galvanizing resources to deal with the humanitarian crisis.

While black churches in most cases were the first to be called on in metropolitan areas as the first line of response to the needs of displaced persons, those efforts were largely ignored by the media, he said.

Shaw also alleged “an obvious and inexcusable disparity” in responding to needs, based on color. Hospital personnel and patients at Tulane University and guests at a major hotel were removed from the disaster area, while city residents were left behind.

The Defense Department, he said, “made a subtle, but clear appeal to its core race base” by attributing its delay in providing support to the element of “lawlessness,” by what he termed “a very small minority of the tens of thousands of poor and predominantly black victims who were unable to flee flooded New Orleans.”

Shaw said the disaster highlighted “the wide, deep, and unrighteous separating the ‘haves
and have nots’ in America,” which he said has grown worse in recent years.

“There exists a large unseen and uncared for part of the country’s population: the poor and people of color,” he said.

Congress, meanwhile, took a “business as usual” approach, at first voting only $10-15 billion for disaster relief while spending hundreds of billions of dollars in Iraq. The message “to the poor and victimized” in America, Shaw said, is that “you don’t really matter to us as much as the people of Iraq.”

Because of Iraq, Shaw said, the nation was not prepared to respond to the humanitarian crisis posed by Hurricane Katrina. “The overall federal military response to Katrina has plainly been
too little and too late,” he said.

“We hold national leaders accountable for the preventable consequences of the Hurricane Katrina disaster,” Shaw said. “The Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, the war in Iraq and Hurricane Katrina happened on this administration’s watch. Accountability for them all must be required.”

Stephen Thurston, president of the Dallas-based National Baptist Convention of America, said members of his denomination were also worried about a perceived lack of response and “insensitivity” toward those dislocated by the hurricane.

”We need people in office who have enough sensitivity to do what we think is right by people,” Thurston said,” according to the Miami Herald. “We want to believe we have a right to that which is given to other people in this country.”

First Lady Laura Bush, meanwhile, described as “disgusting” comments by Dean and rapper Kanye West blaming her husband for a disproportionate number of black hurricane victims. West said on a nationally broadcast telethon last Friday that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

“I think all those remarks are disgusting, to be perfectly frank, because of course President Bush cares about everyone in our country,” the first lady said Thursday in an interview with American Urban Radio Networks, according to the Associated Press.

“And I know that,” she added. “I mean, I’m the person who lives with him. I know what he’s like and I know what he thinks and I know how he cares about people.”

Bob Allen is managing editor of

Editor’s Note: This story updates and replaces Friday’s “Democratic Leader Says Race a Factor in Disaster.” The earlier story is still available in our “News & Society” archives.

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