There's something comforting about the conservative worldview that sees every tragedy through the lens of personal responsibility. It insulates us privileged folk from wondering whether we might be participating in a system that perpetuates injustice. Listen to the conservatives and you are absolved of all responsibility for the welfare of others. After all, the poor choose not to work. The homeless are choosing to live an "alternative lifestyle." And now, the refugees in New Orleans are described as "choosing not to evacuate" by the primary person in the U.S. government who is responsible for their protection.
Paula Zahn should be commended for asking FEMA director Michael Brown yesterday whether he believed the New Orleans' refugees bore some responsibility for their predicament. She gave him a chance to clarify previous statements suggesting just this. But, astonishingly, Brown replied :
"...I said that some either chose not to evacuate and some were unable to evacuate. And I -- my heart goes out to every -- even if they chose not to evacuate, my heart still goes out to them, because they now find themselves in this catastrophic disaster. " [emphasis added]
Unbelievable. In a way, it would be a relief to be as blind as Brown appears to be to what Katrina has revealed so plainly: how poverty in America is compounded by race. As multiple commentators have now observed, one of the most heartwrenching aspects of this tragedy is that it's hitting hardest those with the least means to rescue themselves or recover. The fact that the people stranded in New Orleans are there because they have no other choice is so obvious that nearly every news report includes an anecdote about people having no money and nowhere to go outside the city. And if Brown—as director of the nation's premier emergency response agency—can't grasp the complex factors influencing who survives and who perishes in a crisis, then the fact that FEMA is failing them on such a massive scale becomes easier to understand.
Today, Earl Ofari Hutchinson explains the intersection of racism and poverty we see laid bare in New Orleans :
While criminal gangs who take advantage of chaos and misery did much of the looting, many desperately poor, mostly black residents saw a chance to grab items they can't afford. They also did their share of the looting. That makes it no less reprehensible, but it's no surprise. New Orleans has one of the highest poverty rates of any of America's big cities. According to a report by Total Community Action, a New Orleans public advocacy group, nearly one out of three New Orleans residents -- the majority of whom are black -- lives below the poverty level. A spokesperson for the United Negro College Fund noted that the city's poor live in some of the most dilapidated and deteriorated housing in the nation.
But New Orleans is not an aberration. Nationally, according to Census figures, blacks remain at the bottom of the economic totem pole. They have the lowest median income of any group. Bush's war and economic policies don't help matters. His tax cuts redistributed billions to the rich and corporations. The Iraq war has drained billions from cash-starved job training, health and education programs. Increased American dependence on Saudi oil has driven gas and oil prices skyward. Corporate downsizing, outsourcing and industrial flight have further fueled America's poverty crisis. All of this happened on Bush's watch.
And in a particularly eloquent essay, Salon's editor Joan Walsh (subscription only) counsels that this crisis should open a conversation in this nation about race that we have put off for too long:
The crisis unfolding before us -- dispossession, looting, people shooting at rescue workers, the president's dim response, and now, people dying in front of our eyes outside the Superdome -– rubs our noses in so much that's wrong in our country, it's excruciating to watch. But I'm especially struck by the inability of our existing political discourse to describe, let alone to solve, the intractable social problems that have come together in this flood whose proportions and portents seem almost biblical.
As if to make sure we didn't miss the ironies, the same week as Katrina came news that the poverty rate has climbed again, the fourth straight year under President Bush. But let's be fair: John Kerry barely mentioned the poor last year. And while President Clinton's booming 1990s lifted some boats, and his welfare reform at least muted the ideological sniping about whether poor folks were victims or freeloaders, nobody's bothered lately to pay much attention to whether welfare reform made people's lives better, whether it paved a path out of poverty or just moved its subjects into the vast ranks of the working poor.
Like it or not, this crisis is going to be with us for a long time, because it's been coming for a long time -– we're going to have to face issues of race, poverty and civil rights we've long chosen to ignore.
The Bush administration may choose to ignore the complexity of this crisis, but those of us in the reality-based community cannot. And as E.J. Dionne points out today, the crisis may have the silver lining of reminding Americans what government is good for. And why the safety nets currently being shredded on Capitol Hill are so important to America's poor and vulnerable.
| Friday, September 2, 2005 12:45 PM