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Theresa Martinez keeps poking a stick at the big, lumbering realities of American life most of us would prefer to ignore: race and class.

Understanding how skin color and economic status affect everything from education to housing to hurricane rescue has consumed Martinez for decades, stretching back to her childhood in Albuquerque, N.M. She grew up poor, one of 12 children, the daughter of a single mother.

"All of that was reason enough to care about race relations and the sociology of gender and class," says Martinez, a professor of sociology at the University of Utah. "Race, as a system of disadvantage, is alive and well in this country and serious issues are still with us. But the rhetoric surrounding race and poverty is more and more that there just isn't a problem. Or that if a problem does exist, it's their problem."

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina raised the ugly truth of a racial divide, literally, in living color. For 24 hours a day on television, Americans couldn't escape the portrait of victims - overwhelmingly black and poor - suffering in New Orleans.

The city's population is more than two-thirds African-American and 27.4 percent of its residents lived below the poverty line in 2000. One of the most telling statistics from Katrina helps explain who escaped the misery early on and who did not: Thirty-five percent of black households in New Orleans did not have access to a car. By contrast, only 15 percent of whites couldn't just drive away.

What observers in the weeks after Katrina have done with those numbers remains a point of intrigue for Martinez and her students. A stream of conservative editorial opinion has focused on a culture of poverty in New Orleans that exists because people lack important values to lift them from generations of suffering.

Work harder, study harder, stop having so many children and your lives would improve, the argument goes. But it ignores the complex role external forces such as education, work, even transportation, play.

The theory was inherent in comments former U.S. Education Secretary William Bennett made last month on his nationally syndicated radio talk show. Said Bennett: "You could abort every black baby in this country, and your crime rate would go down." He quickly added that this would be "an impossible, ridiculous and morally reprehensible thing to do."

Under fire from all sides, Bennett remained defiant, calling his statement a "thought experiment about public policy."

Utah's own Paul Mero, president of the conservative Sutherland Institute, wrote a Sept. 11 op-ed piece for The Salt Lake Tribune in which he criticized Katrina victims for, among other deficits, "standing around waiting to be rescued, complaining about the lack of response from the federal government."

The piece resulted in dozens of scathing letters to the editor spanning several days.

Martinez sees these theories as simply a new dress draped on the same old model: Blame the victim.

"This argument says that middle class people have good values and assumes they make no mistakes in their lives, which is completely false. All people have issues and problems with values. One difference is poor people don't have the safety nets that people with money have. Their mistakes are less obvious."

And the existence of safety nets has at least something to do with government's role in our lives.

Martinez says her sociology undergraduates quickly recognized the finer points of the crippling disaster.

"They brought in all this commentary showing the deep divide that still exists about race in this country. I couldn't have asked for a better example of that than what happened during and after Hurricane Katrina."