An American Tragedy
On Foreign Soil
For the most part, the obscenity of Katrina exposed, for me, a great national tragedy: thousands if not millions of our brothers and sisters growing up in crippling poverty without a reasonable education or perhaps eschewing education as unimportant because that was the cultural dynamic at work there. There seemed to be an almost tribal ignorance in play, the Civic Center and Superdome looking like the slums of Nairobi, likewise filled with uneducated, ignorant folk. And, yes, I realize how that makes me sound, like I’m looking down on these people. But it is, nonetheless how they came across: like the residents of Kenya’s hopeless slums, the suffering have-nots who are mostly illiterate and unemployed. I’d never seen anything like it. Not just so many black people but so many black people living so far beneath the privilege of the Will Smith / Bill Cosby standard. Not the literal wealth of the successful actors but the promise of a progressive African America the characters they portray represent.
Scrambling to play catch-up, FEMA and the other government
agencies rushed forward, approaching this community in a generic
manner, expecting to find, as did I, a baseline reference
to a shared American experience. What I saw, on every screen and
in nearly every interview, was something quite different: a very
different cultural experience which produced, in these folks, a
radically different perception of the world. We, collectively,
looked for the lower middle class throughline
of African American normalcy among New Orleans’ most overlooked
populace. As a native Ninth Ward resident explained to me in
sobering, withering detail: The Fresh Prince of Belle Air
is not the baseline reference for this community. As was
explained to me, New Orleans’ Lower Ninth Ward was a place of
extremely low expectations. The logic and morality birthed from
those expectations produces a very different mindset, a kind of
caste system forged by a benign acceptance of these lowered
expectations for life and love.
The clumsy rescue effort saw a bunch of white men from government agencies shouting instructions through bullhorns at ten thousand people whose reception of those words were colored by the polo shirts and khakis many of these guys wore. Nobody in the Lower Nine wears polo shirts and khakis. Those items were icons of a life and opportunities unavailable to these people. It is likely none of these young men could identify with the guys in the khakis, whether black or white. It was a job none of these young men likely believed they themselves could ever attain, some cushy job involving little if any manual labor where they got to wear polo shirts and khakis, carry clipboards and shout instructions to hundreds of people through a bullhorn. The men in khakis were likely oblivious to this. I know I was. It was explained to me that I could sit with these young men and talk for hours about how, in America, opportunity was available to everyone, and many of these young men wouldn’t be able to process what I was saying. Yes, they hear and understand the words, but we, all of us, process information through our experience, through the accretions of our culture.
The FEMA guys kept talking to these people as if they were from Brooklyn or, worse, Scarsdale. These people were not from Scarsdale. The Feds had landed on an alien planet. A world of people who look just like people they think they know, who look like like Will and Bill, but who, in many cases, have lived a transformative experience which, over time, created its own language and its own logic. In retrospect, it is now doubtful to me that anyone who rushed down there took even a second to consider the fact they were about to engage a dysfunctional subculture, an almost primitive race who would, under normal circumstances, be suspicious of or anxious about an army of strangers invading their lives. Add in the trauma of having been abandoned to the flood, and you have a recipe for anarchy. But none of the would-be rescuers, most of whom were white outsiders, white charities, white ministries, took the time to consider the language barrier our to even understand the culture enough to find practicable means of communicating with these people in a productive and non-threatening way. Instead, we set our expectations at Will Smith and were shocked, as I foolishly was, to discover a virtual nation of people whose response to our response was shockingly incoherent.
To one extent or another, we’ve all acted stupidly toward these people, applying a one-size-fits-all standard and not taking time to understand who these men and women were. For, if we had, we’d understand better that their misery began long before Katrina.
For Black America, the gross horror of Hurricane Katrina was seeing, all over national television, the reinforcing of black stereotypes. Thousands of images of not what the NAACP and Urban League show on their promotional films but of the Black America most of White America imagines in their hearts. Many middle class blacks are, frankly, embarrassed by these images: armed thugs shooting at rescue workers. Fat men, histrionically hollering about The Government this and The Government that, squatting on lawn chairs in the sweltering heat blaming the hurricane on The White Man, rather than sorting into patrols to clean up the restrooms and grounds and to protect the women—most especially—from roving thugs who robbed and raped them at night. Loud, ignorant, pregnant teens, inarticulate—what we used to call “country”— these are stereotypes many of us have worked very hard to overcome. And while each of us certainly has a Cousin Leroy somewhere who’s just as country as they come, the images we prefer to see on a national scale are Cosby and Denzel and Halle. This was a disaster for us, socially and emotionally, because these images forced us to confront our own guilt in having grown comfortable with leaving these people behind. In being forced, now, to defend and embrace the very specter we’ve struggled to rid ourselves of all of our lives.
In Another Land: Is this Kinshasa? Mogadishu? Nairobi?.
No larger event in modern history has better demonstrated how utterly and unapologetically racist this nation is, that tens of thousands of its own citizens could be stranded, for days, in a disaster zone only to be herded into another. This was something that could never happen in Dallas. Never possibly happen in Richmond or Belle Air Whether the levees broke or, as conspiracists would have it, were deliberately dynamited in order to save the city’s economic centers, really doesn’t matter. New Orleans was, for long weeks, a third world country. A place where the police force splintered, sworn officers becoming looters. Inhumane and unsanitary conditions at the Superdome, where hurricane victims were victimized again—robbed, beaten, raped, stabbed, shot. The racial divide in America, presumed to have been, for the most part, sealed by the rise of the black middle class and the manufactured false unity post-9/11, exploded after Katrina, with blacks blaming whites and whites—who did nearly all of the rescuing both physically and financially—resenting the fingers being pointed their way.
In truth, there had been no healing, no true social compact. White and Black America pretended there was, and, until Katrina, that pretense was just as good as the real thing. Katrina, or, more specifically, the unending horror of the 24-hour news cycle covering the disaster, changed all that. We were bombarded, ever minute of every hour, day after day, with the specter both White and Black America had ridiculously attempted to ignore: the literal epitome of the black stereotype: histrionic, inarticulate, irrational. And we, both black and white, were taken aback—not only by the natural disaster but by the social one. It was as if Jim Crow had ended but nobody told them. Who were these people? Where did they come from?
These were, literally, forgotten people. Expendable in every conceivable sense. Seen by both blacks and whites as contributing little if anything to society. Uneducated and purposeless. The image Black America has worked diligently to dispel in the minds of White America. Every day of my adult life I have been forced, at social gunpoint and under threat to my professional career, to overcome this very image which I believe is deeply ingrained in the minds of most of White America: the ashy, uncouth, uneducated, inarticulate Negro living off the dole. This was not, of course, the whole story of Katrina's poorest victims, but for me, and I believe much of America, the shock that these people, in this day and age, still exist, was an electric one.
Which may explain why help was so slow in coming. This wasn't a group of scientists from Cal Tech, not Congressmen on a fact finding tour, not a convention of the nation's intelligentsia. Many voices in the bombardment of sound bites were urban hillbillies. Pre-Katrina average household income in New Orleans Parish's Lower Ninth Ward was less that $27,000 with 25% of total households earning less that $10,000 per year. Over 40% of residents had no high school diploma, with 11% not having completed 9th grade [source: Greater New Orleans Community Data Center]. A Third World Nation is usually thought of as a nation of ignorance. It is not their skin color that creates the environment, it is the environment itself that shapes their view of the world and defines their opportunities. These were people the nation, both black and white, failed to engage, failed to empower, failed to rescue long before Katrina.