Bill Fletcher, Jr. is the President of TransAfrica Forum, a Washington, DC-based non-profit organizing and education center formed to raise awareness in the USA regarding issues facing the nations and peoples of Africa, the Caribbean and Latin America. He can be reached at email@example.com.
The complete failure of the Bush administration—and to a lesser extent state and local authorities on the Gulf Coast— to respond to the devastation of Hurricane Katrina has raised questions about the motives at play. The fact that the lives of hundreds of thousands of poor and black people were thrown up for grabs and that the Bush administration could not mobilize any significant response for five days has led many people to assume that this was an act of planned genocide. How else, one may wonder, could such a thing have been allowed to happen?
There is another way to think about the disaster: the steerage on the Titanic. To refresh your memory, that was the section of the ship that provided the cheapest accommodations and where the poorest were housed. It was also the lowest part of the ship, the least safe and the site of overwhelming death. One may remember, as portrayed in the film Titanic , that the passengers in steerage were literally locked in, trapped like rats such that they could not escape the rising water.
Does this somehow sound familiar?
Did the builders of the Titanic design it in such a way that they aimed to kill the occupants of steerage? Not at all. They did, however, design it so that if anyone was going to die, it would be those in steerage. Their deaths were acceptable for the builders of the Titanic. After all, those in steerage were considered a less-relevant population than the rich on the upper decks.
The capitalism of the contemporary era shares many of the same values informing the builders of the Titanic; the poor are not the responsibility of society at large. The construction of the Titanic was not simply a technological matter. There was a decision that the poor could be sacrificed in order that the rich survive. That is the essence of capitalism in general, but particularly neo-liberal capitalism—the capitalism of this era. There need not have been an intent to wipe out thousands of poor and black people in the Gulf. The assumptions about how money would be spent, what was necessary, etc., meant that in the face of disaster, the poor and the black would be sacrificed, and the rich would have their SUVs [read: life boats]
For decades, this nation’s economic policies have created a widening gap in personal wealth, making it impossible for many Americans to achieve economic security no matter how hard they work. The (largely unionized) jobs that provided opportunities for workers to climb out of poverty have been disappearing. In their place are low-wage service jobs, part-time employment or nothing at all. This is what makes comments such as those offered recently by conservative critic Linda Chavez , so outrageous and insulting. Instead of finding the sources of Gulf Coast poverty in an economic system that casts off hundreds of thousands of people, Chavez and her allies place the blame on so-called family values. Chavez never grapples with the question of how to keep families together when their worlds collide with the shockwaves of the modern economy.
Through directing tax cuts to serve the rich and powerful; through the allocation of billions of dollars to pursue an illegal war and occupation of Iraq; through urban relocation programs that destroy entire communities, the steerage compartments of the good ship ‘Gulf Coast’ were created. All that was needed to create total devastation was a collision with an iceberg.
The infrastructure of New Orleans had been collapsing for years. Various scenarios within the last five years indicated the catastrophe that could unfold if a Category 5 storm hit New Orleans. There was recognition, now openly being admitted, that tens of thousands of the poor of that city might be left stranded in the face of a major hurricane while the rich could climb into their SUVs and escape.
There simply were not enough lifeboats, because those in steerage where just not that relevant.
After years of attacking the public sector and the rationale for essential government programs and taxes, the conservative right has reaped the results. They calculated that they could get by without investing the necessary resources into repairing the growing inequality in America. They calculated that they could ignore the plight of the Gulf Coast’s poor. Each hurricane that missed the Gulf Coast was another source of relief and a confirmation that it was better to put resources into wars and tax cuts than into saving the lives of those at the bottom.
So, it did not have to be a conspiracy, because, in fact, the game of U.S. capitalism has been rigged from the beginning. We just happened to see the results in bloated bodies, crying and ill children, the devastation of a beautiful coastline, and the possibly permanent displacement of hundreds of thousands of people.