From the Publisher
Labor Day 2005—As I sit here on a lake in Wisconsin watching people water ski and generally enjoy the day off of work, I can’t help but feel guilty. Here we are a bunch of middle-class white people spending the weekend at somebody’s second home on the water while a million people have been left homeless by Hurricane Katrina. We shout in delight as we dive into the water headfirst. We take leisurely rides in somebody’s boat and sip beers while watching the sun go down. The water turns to a glimmering wonder, alight with dreams and possibilities. I know that middle-class liberal guilt is a well-worn stereotype but this is different. This is something more. This isn’t your run-of-the-mill guilt. This beautiful Northwoods moment is taking place while thousands are people are living in agony on the Gulf Coast. The water to them is a dark, murky demon, filled with death and pestilence. It rises and washes away their entire lives. Homes. Friends. Futures. Families. All gone.
Seeing the images of the aftermath of Katrina, it is hard to escape the issues of race and economic inequality in this country. Race is the topic that this country likes to believe has been settled. Economic inequality, the growing gap between the rich and poor, is an issue we do not even acknowledge the existence of. Didn’t we solve all of these problems when we made the Great Society? Haven’t we leveled the playing field? There are no economic classes in this country. We all have the same chances as the next person…don’t we?
Katrina ripped the roof off of all these illusions.
Katrina was really three disasters in rapid succession: the storm, the failure of the levees, and the abject failure of the government’s response. The storm we could not prevent. The failure of the levees could have been prevented if we had taken the right measures in the past. The government’s failed response was the only disaster that could have been prevented in the here and now. It was created in real time by inept and indifferent leadership.
Where was the plan to deal with such a catastrophe? Weren’t we supposedly more prepared to deal with such a thing since we created the Department of Homeland Security? Here’s a more frightening scenario: what if this was the plan? What if this was the “small government” response to a big catastrophe?
The reasons for the government’s ineptitude will all soon be flushed out by congressional investigations, but what about the indifference? How do your let down your citizens so badly when they need you the most? How do you tell people the shelter they gather in has no food, water, or medical staff? How do you leave people to suffer at the hands of killers and rapists? The administration’s actions in the aftermath of Katrina showed an utter lack of concern for the fate of many storm victims. It was easy for them not to be concerned when most of the victims were poor and black.
While African Americans do not account for the majority of the poor in this country, they do make up a disproportionate number of Americans living in poverty. On August 31, while thousands of poor, mostly black citizens were being abandoned by their government, new figures were released showing that more Americans were living in poverty than in 2004. The poverty rate in this country has risen every year the Bush administration has been in office. The study showed that the South is the nation’s poorest region and that most of the poor in the South are black. The poor in New Orleans were abandoned much like the way the poor nationwide have been abandoned. Government reforms of welfare and Medicaid programs have cut holes in the social safety net. The poor live on the brink and if the waters rise and the levees break, they are left to fend for themselves.
What happened in New Orleans was a microcosm of what has been happing to the poor for years. They were warehoused, not provided for, and when the shooting started the government bailed, leaving them to protect themselves. As soon as the situation deteriorated the police left. The National Guard never came. One-third of the Louisiana National Guard was currently in Iraq, guarding that nation. As soon as the situation deteriorated we found excuses in stereotypes. People breaking into stores because they had no food or water were looters, mere criminals. People were being killed and raped not because their government had abandoned them but because …well you know. That’s how they are.
We all heard the stories of people looting liquor and televisions in addition to basic necessities. Why were those stories so emphasized? Did we need to be reminded of the stereotypes? Do some people find comfort in them? “Oh those people are dying, but they’re just drunken TV-stealing Negroes.” While there is no doubt there were opportunists that took advantage of this horrible situation, you have to ask yourself what measures you would take to provide for yourself and family if your government abandoned you in utter chaos. Furthermore, who the hell cares what happens to some consumer electronics when thousands of people are lying dead in the streets? If there was a report of a man killing another man over a television set, we would first assume they were black and then find it insane. Is it not just as insane to shoot a looter over a television set? Does the inventory of the local Wal-Mart have more value to us than a human life?
Copyright 2005, Geary Yonker
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