09/05/2005 12:04 pm ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Chasms of Difference

There are so many lessons to be learned from this terrible tragedy. I want to emphasize just one, but it's a big one. We have seen and heard much about the failure of FEMA and the failure of the federal government generally, and the connections of that failure to budget cuts and diversion of resources.
There is an even bigger failure -- not just the immediate evidence of the different treatment of rich and poor, and white and black -- but the fact that we continue to tolerate such chasms of difference in this rich country.

Every time we cut taxes for the rich yet again, every time we do nothing to raise wages and increase incomes for those at the other end, every time we sit by while another child grows up without a decent education and full opportunity, we widen the gap and entrench further the dual and divided society that the Kerner Commission talked about some 40 years ago after the civil unrest of that time.

Fingers can be pointed in many directions about all of this, but the biggest failure is one for which every one of us bears responsibility. The answers don't lie simply in a government that has failed to play its role, although part of our failure is surely in not insisting that our elected leaders be accountable to all of our people.

But we need to see now that the community responsibility which Americans fulfill so admirably when there is a disaster needs to be present day in and day out. We need to take responsibility for all of our children all of the time. Parents who lack basic necessities even as they work hard to earn enough to survive need support from the community to do their job. If we think a lesson here is only that the immediate response to Katrina involved fault lines of class and race, we are missing an even larger point. The fault lines of class and race were there all along, and are getting wider and deeper at this time.

People desperately need help right now, and Americans are responding with wonderful generosity. But we need to see what lies under the surface. We need to see the grim facts that will still be there when the massive task of restoring the lives of those who survived is completed. We need to be brutally honest with ourselves and say the problem is not just FEMA and the rest of government policy, as troubling as all of that is. The problem is much deeper and much more profound. It is in what we all think and do or don't do, every day.