Friday, September 02, 2005

Them That's Got Shall Get; Them That's Not Shall Lose

Most of the time, poor people -- and especially poor, black people -- are invisible in this society. Madison Avenue and Wall Street don't cater to them; lobbyists and power lunchers in Washington, D.C. don't consider them part of their "base." Even when the have-nots in our society are visible, they are still invisible. Those of us who live well within what some call "normal" society can safely ignore the homeless people in bus terminals or train stations; or the women, almost always black, handing out paper towels in the bathrooms; or the men cooking up scrambled eggs at the local greasy spoon, walled off from patrons' sight; or wheeling the carts of sheets and towels and bathroom supplies down the hallways of hotels. They live on the fringes of society.

Except when natural disasters like a Category 4 hurricane rips giant holes in levees and water from a huge lake floods into a city built below sea level. Then, as David Gonzalez of the New York Times writes, the people who are marginalized most of the time suddenly take center stage.

The scenes of floating corpses, scavengers fighting for food and desperate throngs seeking any way out of New Orleans have been tragic enough. But for many African-American leaders, there is a growing outrage that many of those still stuck at the center of this tragedy were people who for generations had been pushed to the margins of society.

The victims, they note, were largely black and poor, those who toiled in the background of the tourist havens, living in tumbledown neighborhoods that were long known to be vulnerable to disaster if the levees failed. Without so much as a car or bus fare to escape ahead of time, they found themselves left behind by a failure to plan for their rescue should the dreaded day ever arrive.

The failure, of course, belongs to the local, state, and federal authorities charged with planning for just such dreadful events.

Is it just logistical problems that have kept the thousands of New Orleans residents trapped in that city for the past five days? Is it a coincidence that they are overwhelmingly black? Do Pres. Bush and his Republican administration simply not care about impoverished African-Americans because they vote Democratic or not at all? Or because Bush is totally lacking in feeling or compassion for the suffering they are going through right now because he has no capacity for taking in the concept of struggling to survive every day on subsistence wages (or no wages) and not having the means to own or lease a car, or even have a bank account?

Jesse Jackson has no doubt that race played a part in the failure of the responsible authorities to respond in anything like a reasonably swift amount of time:

"We have an amazing tolerance for black pain," Jackson told CNN on Friday. He questioned why the U.S. military couldn't house many of the homeless on unused military airbases, adding that more people will die from starvation and dehydration than from drowning.

And Elijah Cummings, a Democratic member of Congress from Maryland, said "I think that that's a pretty good probability," when asked whether he thought the government response would have been quicker if most of the victims were white.

To me, that's a no-brainer, but Condoleezza Rice does not think racism is a factor at all.

"That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help - I, I just don't believe it," she said. "...The African American community has obviously been very heavily affected. But people are doing what they can for Americans. Nobody wants to see any American suffer."

It's astonishing that an African-American who grew up in the Jim Crow South and lived through the civil rights movement would express such incredulity at the idea that many white Americans do form opinions about prioritizing who to help -- or at least who to help right away and who can wait a while -- based on color.

That said, Condi misses the point. It's not about Americans making a conscious decision about who to help and who not to help. It's about the societal infrastructure that creates this reality: that most of the residents of New Orleans who are so poor that they do not have cars or any other means to get out of the city on their own are black. So then you have a situation where the vast majority of hurricane victims left in the city are poor and black. And it takes five days to get the planes and the disaster mitigation people and the food and water and medical care into that city to save those people. It may not be a conscious decision, but it doesn't have to be. It's a way of thinking about an entire group of people. It's a deeply ingrained and fundamental inner response to the suffering and harm occurring to people who don't look like you and don't live the kind of lifestyle you do. If it were rich white families from the Garden District, or from one of the exclusive gated communities like Barkley Estates or Oakland Plantation who were trapped in New Orleans with no way to get out, being raped and beaten and murdered in sports stadiums, and with no food or water, would it take five days, or even three days, to get them out?

Come on. You know it wouldn't.

1 comment:

nope said...


I'm sorry for being intrusive in to your blog. But I am Melissa and I am a mother of two that is just trying to get out of an incredible financial debt. See my hubby is away in Iraq trying to protect this great country that we live in, and I am at home with our two kids telling bill collectors please be patiant. When my husband returns from war we will beable to catch up on our payments. We have already had are 2001 Ford repossessed from the bank, and are now down to a 83 buick that is rusted from front to back and the heater don't work, and tire tax is due in November.

I'm not asking for your pitty because we got our ownselfs into this mess but we would love you and thank you in our prayers if you would just keep this link on your blog for others to view.

God Bless You.

Melissa K. W.
To see my family view this page. My Family

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