IT'S ABOUT POVERTY AND RACE, STUPID
In my previous post, I was still trying to work out some clarity from a jumble of different thoughts and even though I touched on both class and race, I didn't crystalize on it until now.
What we're seeing in New Orleans isn't simply the failure of (pick your choice): the local city and county governments, state emergency officials, FEMA (they got herbed by Paula Zhan of all people), and every politician up to and most certainly including President Bush to handle this emergency. It's certainly that of course - not enough preparation, not enough response organization, etc. It's not even that the Bush administration diverted money from shoring up the levees in order to pay for Iraq.
The humanitarian crisis in New Orleans right now is all about poverty and race.
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Yet, despite all the righteous hand-wringing that's going on, it seems like few are talking about what should be so blatantly obvious, especially if you've been watching cable or network news.
Luckily, some people have been bringing up this exactly issue, including:
- Jack Shafer's "Lost in the Flood"
- Joan Walsh's "Flushing Out the Ugly Truth"
- Andrew Buncombe's "'The ones who could not leave were poor folks. Most are black'"
"Well Larry, it's apparent the vast majority of those suffering in New Orleans right now are both poor and black?"
"Wow, why do you think that is?"
"Probably because they're poor and black and no one cared enough to address their needs in the first place."
"That's very interesting. After these commercials and a plug for my Sunday, "Larry King Special" show, we'll talk more about that..."
No one, especially me, is denying the fact that if you look at the total population who've been dispossessed, it's cross-class, cross-color. New Orleans is basically destroyed and many different kinds of people lived there. What I'm addressing is the current conditions of those still left in New Orleans and not the majority of middle class or wealthy who fled town already.
I was talking about some of this with a friend tonight who basically floated out the fear that maybe people would stop caring about the humanitarian crisis given how the visible victims are both poor and black. In other words, he feared that latent racism will eventually lead to these people being forgotten though of course, the issue here is that they were forgotten to begin with.
Moreover, let's just call this for what it is:
- 1) Much of the frenzy over looters is a red herring to deflect attention away from more important issues (like saving dying people and alleviating the suffering of tens of thousands of others).
2) If the looters were whiter and less poor, the media and public's response would be considerably less hysterical.
3) If New Orleans wasn't such a poverty-stricken city to begin with, nor a city with an over 60% black population, it's possible that federal and state officials would have spent more resources in preventing this kind of disaster from happening to begin with. (Though, in all fairness, perhaps not building a major city in a bowl-like depression between two large sources of water might have been a good idea too).
And while we're at this, let's talk more about looting.
Is there looting? Yes, of course there is. But as I asked yesterday: so what? This isn't people looting stores after their hometeam won a championship game and decided to get all mobbed up over it. This isn't like the 1992 L.A. Rebellion/Riots where looting was part of the rebelling/rioting (depending on your perspective). We're talking about looting in the midst of the worst disaster (by American standards) people here can imagine and I don't think you can really overdramatize the level of desperation that has set in amongst people who have lost everything, made all the worse by the fact that they probably didn't have that much to begin with.
If you don't believe that America's not-so-hidden disdain for both the poor and black has nothing to do with this, just read the message boards out there where people have no qualms with expressing their true feelings. The attitudes quite plainly suggest that looters should be summarily executed for - *gasp* - stealing from stores that are already nearly destroyed. In fact, I saw one absolute moron argue that what we need to do is pull all the law enforcement officers off of rescue duty, posse 'em up, and send them out to take out the looters. Since, of course, stopping someone from ripping off Foot Locker is more important than saving lives. God forbid I should actually quote Bol but here it goes - Mr. Crawford quite succinctly captured the situation in his own, Bol-esque way: A white man's property rights > A jig's life
I'll put it another way: for those who want a "shoot looters" policy (and this includes some very prominent public folks), what they're practically advocating is that killing a looter (who just happens to be black) is more important than saving the life of children (who just happen to be black too). I don't doubt that if the looters were white, there'd still be much outrage but I am almost certain, more sympathy as well. If it were all white babies being shown 24/7 on cable news, everyone from FEMA on down would be working their asses off to do more.
Not to sound too cynical but none of this should be so surprising. I said this before, but I swear to god, Derrick Bell and many others called this same scenario years ago. All Katrina did was wash away the pretense and let the true ugliness surface.
This isn't a moral defense of looting. However, it is to say that all the whipped up hysteria about looting really deflects attention away from far more important issues. People in the Superdome have gone 2-3 days without water or food. What's more important? Them? Or the local Wal-Greens? And why is it that people want to keep fixating on the looting, even though no one can really confirm how bad it is (whereas, we can far better confirm the number of actual dying and suffering in shelters, hospitals, etc.)? Is it because people's latent fears of the poor and colored are all bubbling up to the surface? (Read: yes).
Now, before some knee-jerk out there starts to bang away at their keyboard, I'm certainly not condoning snipers shooting at hospital workers. I'm also horrified by the rumors coming out that roving groups of men are raping women in the streets and in the Superdome. But there's no reasonable way that you can equate looting with raping and sniping and considering that the police can't even protect people in the Superdome from being raped or dying, then I don't really think the issue is out there in the streets of New Orleans. You have a collapse of infrastructure and organization and everyone is suffering as a result. That's the real issue. Looting is a symptom, not the disease here.
It's late and I feel like I'm beating a dead horse but the short story is this: people need to stop talking about the looters and start talking about how they're going to save those who can still be saved.