So worked up was I by the situation in New Orleans that I found myself up all night — I just couldn’t sleep. As such, I used the time to reflect on my views re the current situation. I wondered if my assessment of the situation and the current political storm brewing was accurate — I am after all in London and no longer living in the United States. Over here in Europe I detect a bit of gloating about the American response to the situation but overall people seem to be supportive and extremely sympathetic to the people affected.
So as I watched more CNN last night against my better judgment, I stood my ground as it relates to my assessment of how things played out in New Orleans. Especially as it relates to whether or not racism was a major factor in the delayed response. I still think not. In fact, I am more adamant that a more important factor here is class. This has been a growing problem for black America yet our so called leaders are still obsessed with race.
Oh don’t get me wrong, I am not saying that race and racism are not still a problem in America. Indeed they are. As such, what I am saying is that since the civil rights movement, the issues related to class have become a bigger problem for the black urban poor than racism. Former University of Chicago now Harvard Professor William Julius Wilson made that argument in his 1978 forward thinking book: The Declining Significance of Race: Blacks and Changing American Institutions. As I reflect of his then controversial argument, I think his theory is even more valid today. As he points out in his follow up book: The Truly Disadvantaged the Inner City, the Underclass and Public Policy:
the problems related to inner-city decay and the black people who live there, cannot be explained by racism along but instead to a complex web of factors involved in the urban economy, the most important of which is the changing class structure of ghetto neighborhoods. The movement of middle-class black professionals from the inner city, followed by the exodus of increasing numbers of working-class black, has left behind a concentration of the most disadvantaged segments of the black urban population. At the same time, urban minorities have been particularly vulnerable to broader changes in the economy that have produced extraordinary rates of joblessness, which in turn has exacerbated other social problems.
Since reading Professor Wilson’s books during my college years at the University of Michigan, I have become increasingly disillusioned with politicians like Reverend Jesse Jackson. Having met the Reverend at my inner city high school in Boston, I once worshipped him — but I have come to realize that his race rhetoric over the years has not always been helpful to the black community. We cannot discount race completely but we need to openly acknowledge that there are other social issues at play instead of crying racism all the time. If we continue to do so and not address these new economic challenges, then the black urban poor who are worse off than middle class black people who by the way benefit disproportionatley from affirmative action and other race based programs will never get the help and assistance they truly deserve.
I need to stop watching media coverage of the after effects of hurricane Katrina. The images are upsetting enough but when I hear the comments from race politicians and assorted celebrities that the response was slow because the people affected are poor and black, I want to shout and scream.
While I realize I don’t have all the facts, I think it is safe to say that the American government at all levels was taken by surprise and unprepared for the level of devastation. The Secretary of Homeland Defense said as much in a press conference today.
As such, you can make the argument that enough funds were not given to adequately sure up the levees before hand as those who would be affected (mostly poor and black) didn’t have the lobbying power to get this done — but once hurricane Katrina passed through, I just don’t think that race was the ultimate factor in deciding how fast or at what level to respond.
So playing up the racial angle is not helping the immediate cause and it is a divisive tactic. That is not what is needed at this point. The people in New Orleans and all the other affected areas need Americans to be united in its resolve. Race baiting is not going to help that cause.
I am not surprised by the level of anarchy that happened in the first days after Hurricane Katrina — and no this has nothing to do with the fact that the majority of the people displaced were poor working class black families. As illustrated in William Golding’s brilliant novel Lord of the Flies, when the trappings of a civilized society fall away, some people who have been good citizens all their lives with turn to anti-social behavior for survival — particularly if the cry for help goes unanswered.
So while I have no love in my heart for those who are shooting guns at rescue officials and looted electronics, jewelry, etc., I am extremely systematic to those who took from stores: water, food and other basic supplies. If you see people around you dying from dehydration and other maladies that you’ve never encountered in your life, you’d do all that you can to prevent to make sure that doesn’t happen to you and your kin — particularly if you’re not sure when help from the outside world will arrive.
As such, I think the media has done a great disservice by broadcasting and over hyping imagines that reinforce old stereotypes about African Americans. Yes I’m sure there were barbaric acts committed — but when the full story comes out, I’m sure we’ll get confirmation that this was only done by a small minority. More importantly, we’ll begin to acknowledge that the majority of people really tried to help and not hurt each other. Maybe then those who are trying to play up racial stereotypes and speak negatively about those affected will eat their words and acknowledge that most of the scavenging done by the good people of New Orleans was simply done in a fight for survival.
The unleashing by some of “the Beast,” the evil that lies within each of us, was partly done out of necessity. The good people of New Orleans as elsewhere in the world typically suppress any feelings to do harm, as they prefer law and order. This reaction is an acknowledgement that the instinct to gratify ones self by harming others and taking that which we have not rightfully earned, does not bode well for the survival of the community. This a core belief in how to effectively live in a modern civil society — not rampant anarchy.
My heart breaks for the people currently Mississippi, Alabama, Florida, Georgia and Louisiana who are affected by hurricane Katrina — especially those in New Orleans. Having vacationed there during the summer of 2004, I fell in love with the city. Thus it sadness me to no end to know that all those historic buildings and beautiful homes may be damaged beyond repair. It grieves me to think that all those fine restaurants and fabulous jazz/blues places are no more. More importantly, it upsets me to wake up to the reality that America, the only real superpower left in the world, is struggling to successfully deal with this natural disaster. Clearly the initial response was due to shock and lack of anticipation. But FIMA’s failure to move people and emergency supplies into the area to deal with the problem in a timely fashion is just gross mismanagement. Logistics and communications are critical to crisis management. Perhaps if more of the national reserve guardsmen and woman were at home instead of Iraq, things would have moved more quickly. Heck, maybe even the bureaucrats at the United Nation could have done a better job. After all, they have more experience dealing with natural disasters across the globe. Perhaps then, some of this heartache could have been averted.
Goodness! What is to become of the people who lived there? I’m sure many will never return. It will be a long time before New Orleans can really be considered the “The Big Easy” again. As such, I’m glad that many were able to get out alive and I feel deeply for those who are now dealing with conditions like those more common in third world countries. This sort of treatment or response never should have happened in America. Having said that, contrary to widespread opinion, I don’t think the delay in response is due to the fact that the people in New Orleans are black. No American wants to see other Americans suffer to such a scale. In addition, America has dealt with natural disasters before. Thus as stated above, what I think happened here is that FIMA and other local, state and federal officials never really expected things to get this bad – even though scientists and other academics had predicted it to be a possibly due to the fact that the city is built below sea level and the levees can not adequately deal with hurricanes graded at the highest levels.
So let us not politicize and divide. There will be time for critical analysis but that should be left until the people in the affected areas are taken care of. The government and citizens at all levels need to work together to deal with the problem. The fact of the matter is that New Orleans has a populations of about 450,000 and almost 70% are black. And having visited the city and explored the neighborhoods, I know that there is a thriving white as well as black middle class. Most of these people I am sure got out as they had the mean to do so. Specifically, they had cars or access to cash to pay for alternative transportation out of town. Also, beyond transportation they had money to spend on hotel rooms and other expenses you would expect to encounter with this sort of displacement. In addition, they were more likely to have insurance so could risk leaving their homes and worldy possesions behind safely knowing that if needed, they had the resources to rebuild.
Those that were left behind are the poor working class people of the city living I would bet paycheck to paycheck. Beyond the expense of leaving town, these people I’m sure had no insurance and so stayed back to protect their homes and contents. Thus, this is more a class issue than a race issue. The difference is response is a difference in the have and have nots. Maybe I’m wrong, but that’s what I’m thinking and feeling.
To do my part, I’ll probably give money to one of the Animal charities in the area (link via Shasta’s blog). Since people take first priority and will get most of the attention from the American Red Cross, Salvation Army and other charity organizations – in honor of Choo-Choo, I will do something for the animals. So many have already died or will be left behind. As such, if I can help just one animal make safe passage out of the city, I’ll feel better. Thus sort of disaster as well as the Tsunami that happened in Sout-East Asia earlier in the year is almost beyond comprehension.