Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina Plays the Race Card

The race card has come up again. Katrina has landed like a ton of bricks and heaped third-world type devastation upon New Orleans and Mississippi. The faces we are seeing on TV without water and food, without homes or clothes, seem to be mostly black, so now the race card has come out. “Why did it take so long for help to arrive?” everyone wants to know, and was this simply a coincidence that the people most affected were black and elderly and poor? A discussion of this is not a bad thing, of course. I believe any occasion is a good one in which to discuss race relations because we so want to put this behind us we can almost taste it. People are angry because things should have been different.

First, if a mandatory evacuation was in effect prior to the storm, why didn’t the state of Louisiana and Mississippi and the city of New Orleans provide the means with which to forcibly remove people who stayed in harm’s way? Why weren’t there busses supplied earlier on to help those who wanted to leave but simply couldn’t afford it? Why weren’t other places established to temporarily house those who had no place else to go before the storm?

Then, why did it take so long for the guard to get in there and prevent some of the violence? More disturbing than the scenes of the storm’s wreckage were the stories of the violence and the increase of lawlessness when civil society truly broke down. Why wasn’t the National Guard in sooner? The explanation was given that it was still dangerous and they didn’t want any guardsmen to end up as part of the problem, but it seemed like we didn’t see the guard in there for days after the event.
If it was safe enough for people to commit violence against each other, then why was it not safe enough for the guardsmen to come in and re-establish order?

It’s clear that many things did not go right. But was race really the issue? Many people compared this to 9/11 but that was a different sort of tragedy. The size of this storm and the physics of the levees breaking causing the kind of flooding and wreckage it did was many times greater in area alone than the wreckage of the fall of the Twin Towers. The storm was very large and while the Towers collapse was a very big logistics headache, it doesn’t even compare in the scope of what happened in the gulf. People underestimated Katrina when it was a Category 5 storm, and they underestimated her damage potential as well.

Here’s the thing with race: I don’t believe for a second that someone consciously said, “Well, it’s only New Orleans and Mississippi and there are just black people and poor there, so no rush getting in there to secure the area.” That is ludicrous. Still, the people affected were poor and black. Race was an issue in this case in the same way that race is most often an issue nowadays.

Race was responsible in the way that the emergency planning for this event did not adequately consider these people who did not have the means to leave New Orleans or the Mississippi coast. Mississippi and Louisiana rank in the top 10 states for poverty. There is a case that can be made that poverty and race are related. If the poor are the ones bearing the brunt of any storm damage and loss of life then clearly there is some sort of link between poverty/race and survival. The same way that a black male has a life expectancy of 69 years compared to 75 years for a white male in this country ( can be linked to things like access to better health care and better incomes, so too, being poor now provides a clear disadvantage when being considered in civil disaster plans.

The apparent lack of response after the hurricane was just that: an apparent lack of response. In dealing with so many agencies bureaucratic mix-ups are inevitable, though should not be tolerated. The logistics of this rescue effort in such a large area are paralyzing. I don’t believe people watching understand this, and I certainly do not believe you can believe this if you are sitting on top of a roof for days wondering where in the hell the government is.

I’m willing to give this administration and the state governors the benefit of the doubt in this regard. I guess I don’t want to believe that people would be this cynical. Clearly things could have been done better and clearly lots of people made lots of mistakes that cost lives. This should be investigated and other states should pay heed to these failings for possible problems in their own disaster planning.

But did someone willfully fail because of race? I don’t think so. Such a notion belittles the heroic efforts of all people black and white, rich and poor, struggling right now to save people they don’t even know. The humanity of this event has not been lost on anyone. Afghanistan and Sri Lanka – two of the poorest nations on the face of the earth – are offering money for the victims.
Fidel Castro has offered doctors. No one wants to see those people suffer. As time passes, I believe that there will be such a global outpouring of genuine, apolitical support not seen since after 9/11. Sometimes the worst of things can bring out the best of us too – the looting and violence notwithstanding.

I believe that the lack of preparation for what should have been done with the poorest and blackest and oldest of citizens in these states was the effect of an institutional racismand classism that plagues all of us. This lack of awareness of or thought about these people in all things: poverty, jobs, civil rights and now it seems in emergency preparedness – are all the effects of the insidious racism which we refuse to believe exists in this country.

This is twenty first century racism - the worst kind. This is the kind of racism that sits in the back of our minds and lets us pretend that in the event of a disaster each of us has an even chance of being saved. Katrina has shown us all that it doesn’t work this way. To paraphrase George Orwell, some of us are just more equal than others, it seems. This is the type of racism that is hard to nail down; for which it’s hard to hold someone accountable. We must force our eyes open to the marginalized and poor and black and elderly. They should never be made invisible - within the context of Hurricane Katrina or without. We owe it to the promise of what America is all about. We owe to ourselves since any one of us could be in that same situation. But mostly, we owe it to those who died at Katrina’s harsh lesson yielding hands.

M C Biegner


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