Katrina & racism: A double whammy

Feb 15, 2006 at 12:00 am

Hurricane Katrina ripped apart New Orleans and other areas of the Gulf Coast in late August of last year. By mid-January, author, intellectual and Detroit native Michael Eric Dyson had not only finished writing a 200-page book about the disaster, but had it published. Anyone who has ever written a book and attempted to get it published could become dizzy trying to figure how in the hell the man managed to pull this off.

Of course, Dyson is one of the most prolific writers around, and not all of his 10 previous works are what I would consider top-of-the-line products. Even for the most brilliant among us — and Dyson without question is blessed with a gold-plated intellect — it sometimes pays to slow down for a sec and take a few deep breaths, especially when you're about to dive into deep water. I'm a huge Prince fan, but one of my biggest criticisms of the man over the years is his tendency to crank out too much product. Maybe his restless creativity simply won't permit him to rest — genius is funny that way.

But Dyson got this one right. I mean, he nailed it. Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster turns the fallout from one of this nation's worst natural disasters into an indictment of America's racial, cultural and class divide; it's the best argument of its kind that I've read thus far. Although some of what Dyson points out isn't necessarily new, meaning he isn't the first person to say it, what is new is the evidence he marshals to back up his belief that Katrina is all the proof we need that poor American blacks have been largely forgotten by their own country, largely because they are so despised. Consequently, it was little surprise that when the hurricane shredded what little tenuous hold they had on a meaningful existence, there was hardly a rush to send help.

First, some stats. According to Dyson's book, although blacks make up 31.5 percent of Louisiana's population, 69 percent of all Louisiana children living in poverty are black. Nationally, 39.6 percent of the elderly have disabilities, but in New Orleans the number is 57 percent. The national median income is $44,684, but in New Orleans it is $31,369.

"More than 90,000 people in each of the areas stormed by Katrina in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama made less than $10,000 a year. Black folks in these areas were strapped by incomes that were 40 percent less than those earned by whites. Before the storm, New Orleans, with a 67.9 percent black population, had more than 103,000 poor people. That means the Crescent City had a poverty rate of 23 percent, 76 percent higher than the national average of 13.1 percent."

Furthermore, New Orleans has a 40 percent illiteracy rate, and more than half of all black ninth graders won't graduate in four years, says Dyson. Louisiana also has the third-lowest rank for teacher salaries in the nation.

In other words, these people were already living a disaster before the hurricane even became a whisper. They had less access to basic resources prior to the storm than most folks would even be able to comprehend. And as Dyson points out repeatedly, there were numerous studies detailing what a storm of Katrina's magnitude would do to New Orleans. The New Orleans Times-Picayune even produced a multipart series about the disaster that was sure to come.

But despite all the advance warnings and all the available information laying out what needed to be done, the Bush administration nevertheless cut much-needed funds from the very federal agency that would have provided the money to adequately strengthen the levees.

"Bush's ignorance of the precarious state of levees in New Orleans is ironic since his administration was responsible for severe budget cuts in the Army Corps of Engineers programs that may have literally stemmed the tides of Katrina. ... Federal funds for another $250 million worth of projects aimed at strengthening levees eroded or sunken by hurricane activity in the Atlantic basin have all but dried up. The culprit: the war in Iraq, which not only stymied the response of the National Guard to Katrina, but which diverted critical resources from the Army Corps of Engineers as well."

And then, as if that weren't bad enough, Bush decided to hire his good buddy Michael Brown — a sick joke of an incompetent who, it was later discovered, padded his résumé — to run FEMA.

But of course that wasn't all. Because once the storm did hit, there was actually considerable help available from the U.S. military and other highly qualified organizations, both public and private, that were standing by, ready and willing, to go in and lend immediate assistance to the victims of the crisis. Naturally, they were either turned away or, in the case of one particular very frustrated military unit, never received the necessary call giving them permission to attend to the business of saving American lives as they were trained to do. When asked why they were being refused entry, one organization was actually told that it was because the appearance of all that assistance might encourage folks to stay instead of leave town as they had been ordered. Of course, now that so many have left town, it is appearing increasingly doubtful whether they will ever be able to return because they won't be able to afford the new prices.

Nothing, not even the fallout from the O.J. Simpson trial, has ever more accurately lit up the hidden cracks and fault lines that continue to erode race relations in contemporary America. What the Simpson trial showed us in boldface was that the justice system in America isn't so much about justice as it is about who can afford to pimp the system. This particular system has been biased against blacks for so long, creating a rumbling volcano of anger and resentment, that when blacks got the chance to see white folks get a taste of what it feels like to get screwed like a whore by Lady Liberty they stood up and cheered. Who really cared whether O.J. was guilty or not? White folks got a taste of white folks' justice, even if it was just that once, and that was reason enough to throw a party.

What Come Hell or High Water shows us in equally glaring boldface type is that blacks and whites don't live in the same America, but sometimes it seems like black folks are the only ones aware of that fact. To drive the point home, Dyson quotes a CNN-USA Today-Gallup poll which found that 60 percent of blacks polled believed race was a primary reason for the government's slow response, whereas only 12 percent of whites polled agreed with that assessment. Furthermore, "63 percent of blacks blamed poverty for the slow rescue, while 21 percent of whites held that view."

"Until many white and well-off folk feel the full force of black pain, and open their eyes to see racial and class suffering, that divide will only widen. And the black poor will continue to be left behind long after Katrina recovery efforts are over."

I'll say it again; Dyson nailed it.

Keith A. Owens is a Detroit writer, editor and musicians. Send comments to [email protected]