Racial Dynamic in Hurricane Disgrace Began Earlier Than Americans Are Acknowledging


WASHINGTON, D.C., September 3, 2005 — As a black American, I am fortunate to have a number of friends and colleagues who live in western Europe. Their perspectives help me to make sense of their countries, my country, and our world. So when a trusted international lawyer telephoned me from Zurich on Friday afternoon, outraged by the portrayal of black Americans as savages on her television screen, I was alarmed. It was unfortunate enough that Hurricane Katrina happened, but to lead viewers to miss the forest for the trees on AmericaÕs landscape was awful.

In my experience, many people outside the United States believe that there are no longer any significant economic and social disparities between black Americans and white Americans, mostly because they are unaware of racial statistics and consume narrow samples of black culture typified by “The Cosby Show,” Oprah Winfrey, professional sports, actors and musicians, and the current and previous Secretaries of State. The reality, of course, is that the black masses are faring so poorly compared to these successful cases — and to white people — that most black Americans are extremely dissatisfied with their collective status, and more educated blacks demonstrate the deepest pessimism, studies have shown.

No wonder the Katrina fallout has become a black thing.

“If these people hadn’t been poor and black, they wouldn’t have been left in New Orleans in the first place,” Rep. William Jefferson (’72L), a black Democrat who represents most of New Orleans in the House of Representatives, said Friday on the MSNBC cable network. “It’s an indictment of our whole society, that at the bottom of the rungs all the time are poor African-Americans.”

According to WLS-TV of Chicago, after the 1927 Mississippi River flood that devastated New Orleans, thousand of black men were forced to perform slave labor repairing levees. About 330,000 African-Americans lost their homes and in many cases were not allowed to reclaim their land, the station reported on Friday.

In the late 1930s, after another hurricane, white officials rounded up black citizens at gunpoint and used them as human sandbags in New Orleans, according to a Friday report on ABC’s “Good Morning America.” That occurred on the heels of the United States’s entry into World War II, which ironically was fought to save the world from bigotry.

The legal and social tradition of mistreating blacks started with American slavery and has continued uninterrupted ever since. It is why Malcolm X, the famous civil rights activist from the 1960s, argued that the United Nations should intervene to protect black Americans. It is why blacks burned many major cities in 1968 after the assassination of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Katrina has brought this scandalous reality into fresh focus, and this time the whole world is watching. New Orleans is a city of nearly 500,000 residents, two-thirds of them black. Twenty-eight percent of the city’s residents live below the poverty line. Since news reports indicate that the people who remained in the city were mostly poor, and virtually all of the people who have been photographed or taped are black, we are entitled to ask: Why are all of the poor people living in the city of New Orleans black?

The answer implicates the unfinished business from America’s centuries of slavery. America practiced slavery for longer than it has been banned, and it was fundamentally determinative of the country’s social order. Until the 1960s, nearly all black people inside America were products of the trans-Atlantic slave trade. Once captured, uprooted, processed, deported from Africa, and sold in the United States, slaves were not allowed to marry, were not allowed to learn to read, and were not allowed to own property.

In 1863, Abraham Lincoln finally freed nearly all of the millions of black slaves. They were provided nothing to accompany their “freedom,” though white church groups quickly established scores of high schools and colleges across the South to educate promising blacks after the civil war. Nearly 100 of these colleges remain open and fully accredited.

While many descendants of slaves, through exceptional ingenuity, hard work, and faithfulness to excellence, now are achieving more, by many measures, than even the vast majority of the white people, most black Americans still suffer at some level. Fourteen decades after slavery was outlawed, nearly all of our major cities’ worst areas remain full of bad-off blacks marginalized in ways similar to their slave-American ancestors. New Orleans is typical in this respect. Boston, Chicago, Cincinnati, Detroit, Philadelphia, and most other major cities are similarly situated, and very probably would have looked the same way as New Orleans appeared, had a disaster like Katrina struck them.

ABC News has reported that in the pre-storm evacuation, there were no plans made for people who did not own cars — 100,000 residents of New Orleans. New Orleans residents are medically imperiled, too, in a nation where poor people generally cannot afford health care and medical emergencies often force middle-class families into bankruptcy. The city, for instance, reportedly has the highest incidence of kidney dialysis in America. Kidney failure strikes blacks disproportionately. No wonder the poor people did not evacuate before the storm. Go where, to whom, and how? They were cooperative and orderly in accepting the cityÕs invitation into the 96,000-seat Superdome before the downpour started. But instead of serving as a sanctuary, it gradually morphed into a dark rape room and death trap.

If officials had planned as if these black people mattered, then babies would not be dying from lack of water in the streets while hundreds of billions of their parents’ tax dollars go, for example, to a war to impose democracy on a people who did not ask for it. Why didn’t we build stronger levees years ago? Why didn’t we evacuate the city when we saw the disaster coming? Why didn’t we take the survivors drinking water the day the hurricane turned away? The federal government has been rightly faulted. “They don’t have a clue what’s going on down there,” New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin, who is black, told WWL-870 AM of New Orleans Thursday night. “They flew down here one time two days after the doggone event was over with TV cameras, AP reporters, all kind of God damned — excuse my French everybody in America, but I’m pissed.”

The Rev. Jesse Jackson called President Bush’s response “incompetent,” his Friday tour of certain areas “ceremonial.” Speaking at a relief center in Baton Rouge early on Friday, the longtime civil rights activist said the flooding that caused thousands to be trapped inside the city was caused by a lack of federal funding for its levee system and hurricane planning. The resulting tragedy, he said, has largely hit New Orleans’ black residents, because they were too poor to evacuate before the storm.

“There’s a historical indifference to the pain of poor people and black people,” he observed. Jackson also asserted that the news media has “criminalized the people of New Orleans” by focusing on violence in the city. Earlier, President Bush had told Diane Sawyer of ABC News that looters stealing food should, like others breaking the law, face “a zero-tolerance” law-enforcement approach, even if they needed the provisions.

Black survivors recognize the abusive patterns and are speaking up.”We are out here like pure animals,” the Rev. I. [AP reported Issac, spelled that way, as his first name] Clark, 68, told the Associated Press outside the New Orleans Convention Center, where corpses lay in the open and other evacuees complained that they had been dropped off and given no food, no water, and no medicine. “We don’t have help.”

Pointing at an elderly woman dead in a wheelchair and covered with a blanket among stranded survivors around the city’s crowded convention center, 47-year-old Daniel Edwards told the AP: “I don’t treat my dog like that. I buried my dog.” Echoing the point I heard from
three separate black-American cab drivers I spoke with in Washington, D.C., on Friday, he added: “You can do everything for other countries but you canÕt do nothing for your own people. You can go overseas with the military but you canÕt get them down here.” With the hurricane disgrace unfolding, “we’ve had to turn the mirror onto ourselves,” jazz legend and New Orleans native Wynton Marsalis told an ABC News reporter Friday after declaring that the response is unfolding as poorly as it has because the vast majority of the victims are black.

“Shame, shame on America,” declared Congresswoman Diane Watson, a black Democrat from California speaking at a Congressional Black Caucus press conference condemning the federal failures. “We were put to the test, and we have failed.”

Eventually Jackson arrived in the New Orleans disaster zone, speaking to reporters after leading a bus convoy to rescue 450 students trapped at Xavier University, one of the post-slavery colleges founded for blacks. Jackson said 120,000 people in New Orleans make less than $8,000 a year. Walking among the people and speaking to reporters, he grew obviously outraged.

“Today,” he explained later, “when I saw 5,000 African Americans on the (Interstate) 10 causeway, desperate, perishing, dehydrated, babies dying, it looked like Africans in the hold of a slave ship, it was so ugly.”

Amos N. Jones is a 3L from Lexington, Kentucky. Reach him at amosjonescomment@aol.com.

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