Race, class and Katrina

Refugees flee to a country outside of their own and are afforded the kindness of strangers in a foreign land. African American leaders are making a point of emphasizing that those people left starving and dying of thirst in New Orleans for five days or more after the hurricane were and are not refugees. They are citizens of the USA! With thousands of people in desperate need, why is this an important point?

It’s simple. The Bush administration may be able to justify a delay in sending aid to a foreign land even though too much of a delay may not be acceptable in the international community or even here at home. But how does President Bush justify an unexplainable delay in sending aid to his own citizens in one of his own major cities? No one has satisfactorily answered that question.

The mayor of New Orleans argues that, when all is said and done, the question will be how many died as a result of the hurricane, and how many died as a result of the delay in rescue and relief efforts and outright neglect. He suggests that the death toll from the neglect and the aid delay may be well into the thousands. The mayor’s question is: why were citizens of these United States of America allowed to suffer for so long?

African Americans have been fighting for the full rights of citizenship since the time of slavery. To refer to African Americans as refugees is to casually use a term that does not sufficiently convey that full-fledged citizens were abandoned to rot in the heat without food, water or electricity, in a facility where thousands were left in the dark in conditions worse than those provided for animals. The people of the USA are hard-pressed to believe that our own citizens would be treated so, but they were.

Why the delay and neglect? In New Orleans, those who could afford to get out did. Those left behind were the poor, who are largely African American. Kanye West, the young preppy rapper and highly regarded music producer, blurted out on the NBC telethon that President Bush does not care about Black people. Is he right? Even though West is under harsh fire for making such remarks on national television, many appreciate his audacious courage and believe he is closer to being right than wrong.

The class-versus-race debate is interesting. African Americans are mainly of the working class, and many are of the poorer sections of the working class as a result of racist discrimination. These defining characteristics are a product of the infusion of race and racism into the class dynamics of our capitalist society. Slavery served as an adjunct socioeconomic system to developing capitalism during the early history of this country.

All African Americans are not poor, and all poor people are not African Americans. However, if our government has a policy of neglect towards poor people, it will have a direct impact on African Americans. And, if our government has a policy of neglect towards African Americans, it will have a direct impact on all of the poor, including on the whole of the working class who may not be aware of the fact that they, too, are poor.

Were the poor people of New Orleans neglected because they are African American? Indisputably, one could argue that the fact they are African American made the situation no more of a concern to the Bush administration.

The powers that be consistently want to do two things. They want to obscure the ingredient of race; therefore, we must raise the real significance and role of race as a factor in economic, social and political activity in this country. They also want to hide the very existence of poor whites; therefore, we must uncover their reality and bring them into the light. The actual dynamics of each can be important to mapping out the most fitting course ahead.

We should not let this story die. What is the federal government’s responsibility when there is a disaster of this magnitude? What could the federal government have done to avert such a disaster? To place responsibility for such a huge catastrophe at the local level is a diversion from a focus on how our federal tax dollars are spent versus how they should be spent.

Why were the people not rescued and provided with relief immediately? Why did the Red Cross delay going into New Orleans? What kinds of services are being provided to those who have been relocated and what is the plan to get them back home? Will the homes and land of the poor (just because they are poor does not mean they do not own homes and land) be confiscated (looted) by big developers?

What are the plans for the reconstruction of the areas affected in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama, and who’s going to get those contracts? What happened in Mississippi, which took a more direct hit from the hurricane, and other areas beyond New Orleans? What needs to be done to prevent such a travesty from happening again in that area and other coastal cities?

Hurricane Katrina has brought fundamental contradictions to the fore, and we should leave no stone unturned in exposing the real truth, no matter how ugly.





Dee Myles is a Chicago educator.