"We have an amazing tolerance for black pain," Jesse Jackson told CNN, implying that the Hurricane Katrina relief effort was delayed because those who were hardest hit were poor and black. Jackson elsewhere drove the point home by comparing the New Orleans convention center, where the refugees were first gathered, to "the hull of a slave ship." Shortly thereafter rapper Kanye West went off-script on an NBC special intended to raise money for the rescue effort. He informed us that "It's been five days because most of the people are black. George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Others have conveyed the point by implication. Rep. Elijah Cummings, when asked on CNN whether racism played a role, said, "I'm not sure. All I know is that a number of the faces that I saw were African-American." Meanwhile, Rep. Diane Watson took issue with calling survivors refugees: "Refugee" calls up to mind people that come from different lands and have to be taken care of. These are American citizens." For anyone who thinks that the rescuers saw blacks as less than fellow citizens, the meaning behind Watson's lexicography lesson came through loud and clear.
No one will deny that what we have seen on our television screens points to the tragic realities of racial disparity, in an unusually stark way. The almost all-black crowds sweltering, starving, and dying in the convention center have shown us that in New Orleans, as in so many other places, to be poor is often to be black. There is a debate to be had on whether this reality is the legacy of racismeither past or presentbut as we face the prospect of finding many thousands of dead as the waters recede, historical debates of this kind can and should wait.
To claim that racism is the reason that the rescue effort was so slow is not a matter of debate at all: It's nothing more than a handy way to get media attention, or to help sell a new CD. It's self-affirming, too, if playing the victim is the only way you know to make yourself feel like you matter.
It is also absurd.
To say "George Bush doesn't care about black people" means that one honestly believes that if it were the poor whites of Louisiana who happened to live closest to the levees, hardly anyone would have gotten wet. Fifty thousand troops would have been standing at the borders of the city as soon as Katrina popped up on meteorologists" radar screens. The National Guard would have magically lifted the long-entrenched bureaucratic restrictions that allow states to call up troops only when it is proven that they are needed. The U.S. Navy would have anticipated that refugees would number in the tens of thousands, and would have started the days-long process of loading up rescue ships with supplies a week before the storm actually hit. Suddenly, against all historical precedent, just for that week, the Federal Emergency Management Agency would have morphed into a well-organized and dependable outfit.
What previous example is this scenario based on? Surely people who level so trenchant a claim have some precedent in mind. For example, what about the hurricane that Katrina has just displaced as the third strongest on record to hit America? Ground zero for Hurricane Andrew, which left 250,000 people homeless, was Homestead, Fla., where whites were a strong majority. So was help pouring in as soon as the rain stopped?
Not exactly. Few people remember Kate Hale, who had her 15 minutes of fame as the Dade County emergency-management director who asked on national television, "Where in the hell is the cavalry on this one?" People went without electricity or food and dealt with looters for, as it happens, five daysjust as in New Orleans. FEMA was raked over the coals for the same bureaucratic incompetence that is making headlines now.
Is it so farfetched to admit that the problem here was the general ineptness of America's defenses against unforeseen disasters? One is inclined to consider the attacks of 9/11. Two presidential administrations neglected increasingly clear signs that Osama bin Laden was planning to attack us on our shores. It's unlikely that anyone supposes that had anything to do with racial bigotry (Clinton was our "first black president," after all). In general, bureaucracies are notoriously bad at foresight and long-term planning, and FEMA has never exactly offered a counterexample.
Of course, there will be those who will insist, no matter what the evidence, that racism slowed the rescue effort. They should, however, do more than strike poses: They should channel their alienation into something more constructive. As hundreds of thousands of poor blacks return to their home city, where so much will have to be rebuilt from square one, this could be an opportunity to create a coherent all-black enclave that warms the hearts of "black nationalists." With the massive funding from Washington that the reconstruction will require, New Orleans can build new schools with fresh supplies and modern equipment. Welfare-to-work programs can be beefed up with better provisions for childcare. For years to come, the city will offer ample opportunities for poor blacks to get training in construction, white-collar jobs, andtragically, but usefullymedical and foster care. There will also be an unprecedented chance to create small businesses to serve the community as it rebuilds.
The result could be a thriving black working class in New Orleans. Older blacks fondly recall the struggling but coherent black communities that integration dissolvedsometimes a little "segregation" can be a good thing.
New Orleans is where Homer Plessy boarded a first-class train coach in 1892, which sparked the Plessy v. Ferguson Supreme Court decision that legalized segregation nationwide. The Ninth Ward that Katrina pounded was the same Ninth Ward where four black first-grade girls braved racist taunts on national television in 1960, as they took their places in all-white schools. Couldn't the Congressional Black Caucus take this as an opportunity for activism both symbolic and proactive, and work with Louisiana and New Orleans to channel billions of dollars into making a real-life Chocolate City?
People inclined to see "racism" peeking out from behind every rock and tree tend to think poor blacks will be saved only by a Second Civil Rights Revolution. They might take the aftermath of Katrina as the closest thing the real world will ever give them to realizing that dream: a chance to create a strong, working-class black community from the ground up.
Alternatively, one could sit back and savor this moment as an opportunity for the idle catharsis that goes along with the calisthenics of identity politics. That would substitute for the real work of improving people's lives the cheap thrills of feeling goodthe Big Easy, indeed.