Why the levee broke

It looks like Hurricane Katrina is continuing to cause just as much emotional disruption along racial lines as it did physically throughout New Orleans and along the Gulf Coast. Anyone who was hoping that this particular element of the disaster would fade away once the rebuilding started can pretty much forget about that. The city is more likely to be completely rebuilt before all these unresolved racial issues are put to rest — if they are ever put to rest.

A friend of mine who lives in New Orleans, and who happens to be white, forwarded me an article she and her husband read about Nation of Islam Minister Louis Farrakhan’s suggestion that the federal government may have sabotaged one of the New Orleans levees so the predominantly black neighborhoods in the 9th Ward would be wiped out while the good white people of the city stayed high and dry. The outcome — at least as seen by Farrakhan — would be that New Orleans would be rebuilt bigger and better for well-to-do whites while leaving the poor blacks to fend for themselves.

“This guy carries racism to a much higher level ... to the very tippy top of the bullshit mountain,” she said.

The article, which appeared at buzzle.com, was entitled “Louis Farrakhan says Government Conspiracy Flooded New Orleans.” It goes on to say that Farrakhan said that he believes military explosives may have been used by the government to blow a hole in the levee, and that the resulting destruction and flooding amounted to no less than “mass murder” orchestrated by the federal government.


“I heard from a reliable source who saw a 25-foot-deep crater under the levee breach,” Farrakhan said. “It may have been blown up to destroy the black part of town and keep the white part dry.” In an NBC interview, Washington Post reporter Eugene Robinson jumped on the Farrakhan bandwagon by saying that many black people in New Orleans held the same view. “I was stunned in New Orleans at how many black [New Orleans residents] would tell me with real conviction that somehow the levee breaks had been engineered in order to save the French Quarter and the Garden District at the expense of the Lower 9th Ward, which is almost all black,” Robinson said. “These are not wild-eyed people. These are reasonable, sober people who really believe that.”


Ironically, my friend and her husband live in the French Quarter and were indeed very fortunate. Upon returning to their home recently, they discovered that their place had barely been touched, neither by the storm nor by looters. To say the least, they consider themselves extremely fortunate and lucky.

My friend is hardly the only white person I know who can’t stand Farrakhan, and so I wasn’t surprised when she e-mailed me this article to prove her point. After all, if Farrakhan weren’t a racist, then how could he possibly say something so crazy? What reasonable person, black or white, would ever believe that the federal government would go to such extreme lengths to disrupt the lives of poor black people in order to make the lives of wealthier whites more comfortable?

Well ... there’s a saying in the black community that any black person who isn’t paranoid is crazy. In a nutshell, based on the history of what has been inflicted upon black people in this country, it’s not too hard for many black people to believe just about any negative story telling them what the government is doing to them this time.

OK, let me just say this first, because I can already hear the fingers of furious readers burning up the keyboards. I personally don’t believe that the federal government was involved in the destruction of New Orleans. Why? Mainly because it wasn’t just the 9th Ward that suffered, nor was it only blacks who suffered, although poor blacks did suffer disproportionately. Still, I don’t see the government giving the thumbs-up to a plan that would place the economy of an entire city at risk just so that more upscale condos could be built for rich white folks. This is not to say that this couldn’t wind up being what happens unless that situation is monitored every step of the way, but I can’t see a plan to wreck an entire city OK’d in advance.

But as the buzzle.com story points out, there are a lot of people who don’t have any problem believing this kind of story at all. And just for the record, The Washington Post and other media outlets reported the suspicions as widespread among New Orleans blacks before Farrakhan endorsed them.

Beyond the question of whether a conspiracy caused the flooding, we have to grapple with what’s to come. According to an Oct. 19 Post article headlined “The Economics of Return; Class, Color May Guide Repopulation of New Orleans,” the poor aren’t the only ones beginning to wonder.


These days, as planners and politicians look ahead, many realize that the future of this city, which before the storm was more than two-thirds black and nearly one-third poor, swings on two simple questions: Are residents coming home? If so, which ones? It now appears that long-standing neighborhood differences in income and opportunity — along with resentment over the ghastly exodus — are shaping the stalled repopulation of this mostly empty city. ... Anxiety is building that New Orleans will not bounce back as Chicago did after the fire or San Francisco after the quake. There is concern that it will be much smaller, whiter, richer and more homogeneous: an anodyne, theme-park version of the Big Easy dominated by highbrow restaurants and lowbrow bars of the unflooded French Quarter.


Last weekend I attended the Millions More Movement in Washington, D.C. Although there were, at least in my opinion, far too many speakers, one theme that kept popping up and weaving in and out of remarks was the pathetic government response to Hurricane Katrina. Every time someone mentioned Katrina, the audience responded with strong applause to the acknowledgment of the black suffering involved. And when Minister Farrakhan finally made his appearance late in the afternoon and suggested that a class action lawsuit should be brought against the government for its handling of the episode, the applause rolled through the crowd like thunder.

Farrakhan later suggested, as part of his plan to revitalize black America, that black people should build their own ministries of defense, agriculture, culture and economic development — just for starters. Although black nationalism is always what the Nation of Islam has been about, my guess is that a number of listeners heard Farrakhan’s proposals with new ears simply because Katrina had let them know in no uncertain terms what the government thought of poor blacks. And when the New Orleans police were caught on tape beating the hell out of a black man — à la Rodney King — who was simply on his way to get a pack of cigarettes, it was confirmation that, no, we can’t all just get along.

Until we all get on the same page about what’s really going on, this storm is only beginning to rumble.

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