Marcellus Andrews is a senior research associate at the Center for Economic and Policy Research in Washington D.C., and an economist in New York City. Today on Capitol Hill, an alliance of groups led by the Hip-Hop Caucus is gathering to urge action to rebuild the Gulf Coast.
This morning, a wide-ranging collection of citizens will gather at the Rayburn Office Building, under the auspices of members of U.S. Congress, to hammer out a strategy for a Gulf Coast Renewal Campaign. The plan is to chart a course of action in light of our government's malignant incompetence before, during and especially after the near-biblical destruction wrought by Hurricane Katrina. These good people include displaced men and women of the Gulf region, Congress members, activists from the Gulf region and beyond, artistic luminaries from every venue—stage, screen, music, theater and the literary world—public intellectuals, and other concerned citizens. They are united by their determination to force the government to do something about the plight of the hundreds of thousands of American citizens stranded without jobs, housing or hope by a nation that is somehow blind to their fate. By showing up on Capitol Hil todayl, they seek to make visible the imperative that an effective and just response to their plight remains at the top of the Congressional agenda.
This meeting—the Katrina Emergency Summit—asks for simple things that should be provided to all Americans aftera natural disaster, but have been withheld from the poor and disproportionately black victims of Katrina and her equally malign cousin, Rita: the right to a place to live; to return to one's home and neighborhood; to get medical care after the disaster; to have protection against financial ruin as a consequence of disaster; and to resume life as a member of the city, town or hamlet. This strategy session asks all governments involved—especially the federal government—to provide many of the goods and opportunities that Katrina's displaced had been denied by virtue of poverty and color: a decent education, housing, employment and equal voting rights. It would be a mistake to think that this gathering of citizens is using the suffering of Katrina's victims to press their own agenda, for the demands being made form the root-level demand that the nation provide equal protection for the lives, livelihood and property of all citizens without regard to race, wealth, region or position.
Life In The Face Of Disaster
There will be a tendency among many—including progressives—to see demands for an inclusive, democratic and egalitarian rebuilding process as a racial justice issue, as a response to the fact that black people are being evicted from the Gulf region by a free-market reconstruction process that makes protection from natural disasters dependent upon race and wealth. The would be a great mistake: The poor and working-class victims of Katrina, though disproportionately black, are suffering because the government of the United States has failed to provide equal protection for the lives and livelihoods of all citizens. This is a national security issue in the strict sense that the nation has permitted economic inequality to undermine the basic right to life and livelihood of all citizens in the face of natural disasters. Economic inequality—which has a profound racial component in the Gulf region and the nation—meant that hundreds of thousands of people were vulnerable to Katrina because they could not afford high ground, or could not afford a car, gasoline or a bus ride out of New Orleans, or were too poor to buy insurance for homes that they had inherited from their forbearers.
We all tend to interpret "national security" in military terms.Yet, a hurricane of the size and power of Katrina, just like a major earthquake or a tsunami, is a distinct threat to the national community because of the destabilizing scale of death and destruction. The lives of millions of citizens are at risk; the nation as a whole, through the federal government, is the only actor capable of responding to the crisis in a manner that treats all citizens as equally valuable. For rich and poor alike, the effects of the disaster reverberate throughout the nation through the economy, through family ties and through our federal system of taxation that redistributes monies from rich to poor regions. Major storms like Katrina, and, unfortunately, like the future monsters that will be born as a consequence of global climate change, are national security problems. If the citizens of this country to not have an equal right to protection of life and livelihood in the face of natural disasters, then there is little meaning to the idea of American citizenship or an American commonwealth.
Allowing the free market to allocate the risk of death and financial ruin in the face of natural disaster on the basis of race and class is a direct violation of the principle that all citizens' lives are of equal value in the eyes of the government. First, all citizens should have an equal right to be protected from death, injury and penury in the wake of disaster. Second, all citizens should have an equal right to be restored to at least their pre-disaster state when calamity destroys their lives and well-being.
A free-market rebuilding process like the one underway in the Gulf at this moment necessarily means that as a matter of public policy the lives of the poor, the black and the weak are deemed less valuable than those of the well-off, white and strong. It is not enough to say that the many victims of Katrina did not buy flood insurance, or enough homeowners' insurance, or did not pay attention to the warnings of potential disaster and the fact that they could not afford to take such big risks with their lives. No one deserves to die or become destitute because they cannot afford insurance, fail at school, make bad choices when young, or happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time when disaster strikes. The right to recover livelihood after disasters should not be based on wealth or race. There is nothing radical about this idea, as it is simply an implication of the principle that governments need to protect their citizens equally, without regard to the size of their bank accounts or the color of their skin.
Unfortunately, the Katrina Emergency Summit will likely fail for two reasons. First, because the balance between markets and governments in this age of conservatism tilts in favor of property rights over citizens' rights. This need not be so: We can surely have a capitalist society where the government taxes well-off people in order to provide life and livelihood protection from natural calamities for everyone—if this kind of solidarity is valued by those who own politics. But in our current economy, freedom from taxation is in and sharing is definitely out.
Second, the summit will fail because the participants are without practical political power, because the Democratic Party has turned its collective back on the poor—especially poor black Americans.
The hard economics of the current predicament mean that the poor residents of the Gulf region are a completely replaceable labor force whose low wages and modest schooling make them too poor to serve as a reliable customer base. They are too dependent on government help in a region committed to the conservative program of low wages and low taxes. And they are too expensive compared to an immigrant labor force that will work for even less and make no demands on the public purse. The Democratic Party is an organization with no reason to help poor people who do not contribute money, do not vote and do not exert pressure through organized resistance to abusive employers, business elites and conservative governments. In fact, too many poor and black people in the Gulf region, like their brothers and sisters throughout the United States, have waited for the Democrats to represent their interests. But the party sees no benefit to protecting the lives and well-being of people who have little economic weight in the marketplace. It is time for poor people and black people to understand that we are seen as a dead weight on American society, both because our demands for justice are expensive and because we are despised.
Despite all this, a meeting in Washington dedicated to improving the well-being of Katrina's poor victims is encouraging, not least because it finally acknowledges the right of all people to literal and economic survival in the face of disasters. But meetings in Washington are of little value when global climate change promises more Katrinas in the future, and when our society has chosen to abandon poor people to the ravages of the free market rather than protect them. The summit will matter, however, if it is the birth of a new politics of equal protection—a politics of the right to life and livelihood in the face of disasters, and, perhaps, in the face of a whole spectrum of risks that are beyond the control of individuals or communities.
We need a new politics of equal protection if the poor and the weak are going to survive in the world of death and suffering that the conservatives have so deliberately constructed.