WASHINGTON – By plane, bus, car and on foot, tens of thousands of African-Americans from across the nation converged on the National Mall Saturday to celebrate themselves, commemorate the 10th anniversary of the Million Man March and denounce President Bush for policies that they say are racially insensitive.

The administration’s lackluster initial handling of Hurricane Katrina in predominately African-American New Orleans took center stage at the Millions More Movement. Speaker after speaker and participant after participant said the Katrina response exposed a serious racial divide that persists in America and showed that Bush has done little to address it.

“You can’t have a deadhead leader in the White House and have a meeting this large and it not be about him,” said Ronald Gay, 53, of East Wilson, N.C. “Look at Katrina. The federal government arrived late, they suspend work rules so they can pay poor people less, they award no-bid contracts. This guy is killing us.”

In a Sept. 15 speech on rebuilding New Orleans, Bush acknowledged that the hurricane revealed poverty that “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America.”

“We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action,” he said.

But most African-Americans doubt that he’s up to the task. Bush, unpopular among African-American voters before Katrina, has become even more disliked and distrusted. An NBC/Wall Street Journal poll last week found that only 2 percent of African-Americans approve of the job he’s doing, down from 14 percent in the same poll last month and 23 percent in a July survey.

The September poll revealed that most African-Americans believe race played a major factor in the federal government’s response to Katrina. Asked if the Bush administration would have responded more quickly to Katrina if the affected area were a more affluent white suburban community, 52 percent of African-Americans said they strongly agreed with the premise while 18 percent said they agreed somewhat.

“What it says is George W. Bush is beyond not popular in the African-American community,” said Jay Campbell, a senior analyst for Peter Hart Research, which conducts the polls with Public Opinion Strategy. “He is disliked. Strongly disliked.”

Bush and White House officials say they are frustrated over the perception that they’re unfriendly toward the African-American community. Claude Allen, Bush’s domestic policy adviser, said the president is responding to the needs of African-Americans in New Orleans and other Gulf Coast regions severely damaged by Katrina.

“Just the mere fact you have pictures of the president on TV embracing grieving mothers, embracing pastors of churches that have been destroyed,” Allen said. “That speaks about the personal character of our president, who is truly concerned about healing our nation.” Allen said there’s a sense of “heightened opportunity and awareness” within the White House when it comes to race issues post-Katrina.

Since the hurricane, Bush has met with Bruce Gordon, the new head of the NAACP. Bush had turned a cold shoulder to the civil rights organization, repeatedly declining invitations to attend the group’s annual convention because of what he believes were personal criticisms from its leadership.

Allen said Bush is working to ensure that more minority firms receive contracts in the Gulf Coast rebuilding efforts. Minority contractors in the region had complained about a decision by the Bush administration and Congress to waive competition rules for several large recovery contracts. Allen, who is African-American, stressed that minority companies will not receive preferential treatment or get contracts as part of a set-aside program that targets them.

Instead, Bush will stick to a belief that his polices will uplift the poor, minorities and the undereducated while benefiting the rest of the population. “I much prefer having the opportunity to eat from the whole pie, not simply a small piece of pie that separates me based upon my race,” Allen said.

But speakers and participants at Saturday’s rally disagreed. They said the president’s approach has done little to improve the lives of African-Americans struggling with low wages, high unemployment and crime.

The African-American unemployment rate last month was 9.4 percent, nearly double that of whites. African-American households had the lowest median income in 2004 among minorities at $30,134. One of every eight African-American males between 25 and 29 years old is behind bars on any given day, according to the Sentencing Project, a nonprofit group that seeks to reduce incarceration rates.

“This administration don’t care nothing about the plight of black folks at all,” said Robin McFirstley, 48, of Houston. “You’ve got to do for yourself. That’s the only way we’re going to make strides.”

The rally was organized by Nation of Islam leader Louis Farrakahn, who has speculated that a bomb may have destroyed New Orleans’ protective levees. Farrakhan has been called anti-Semitic, homophobic and anti-white by his critics, and he was taken to task for focusing strictly on African-American men in the 1995 march.

The rally on Saturday included women and families and speakers from the Black Men’s Exchange, which calls itself a group of men of “diverse sexual/intimate expression,” and major civil rights organizations.

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

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