When I stepped into Houston’s Reliant Park on September 16 and saw the thousands of mostly Black and poor folks who had been chased there by Hurricane Katrina’s ugly force, I felt the hurt and desperation of a people whose middle name throughout U.S. history has been “exile.” Grown men openly wept; resourceful women were emotionally depleted; young people had whatever innocence remained from their poverty-battered childhoods cruelly washed away. They were desperate for hope beyond the hell and high water into which they had been plunged. Instead, the richest nation in the world shuttled them to dangerous quarters where theft and sexual foul play lurked. The government had miserably failed them in their hour of need.
Katrina’s violent winds and killing waters have swept a stark realization into the mainstream: The poor had been abandoned by society and its institutions long before the storm. Now that the hurricane and its aftermath have blown the facade off Black suffering, it is a good time to reflect on what the government owes Black folks, and what we owe one another.
George W. Bush and company owe the Black poor, and the rest of us, a federal government that comes on time to our rescue. It is utterly shameful that FEMA left the people in the Delta, the poorest in the nation, dangling precipitously on rooftops and in attics because of bureaucratic snafus and bumbling. Homeland Security failed woefully in mobilizing resources to rescue those who had no food, water or shelter. Because the government took its time getting into New Orleans, Katrina took many more lives than she would otherwise have claimed. Hundreds of people, especially the elderly, died while waiting for help. Incompetence wasn’t the only issue; cronyism, too, hamstrung the rescue operation. The blatantly inept former head of FEMA, Michael Brown, presided over a disaster-management organization that he was ill-equipped to run. The world saw our government’s negligence up close in frighteningly full color.
Bush owes it to us to use the pulpit of the presidency to address the health crisis in Black America. When Katrina swept waves of mostly poverty-stricken folks into global view, it also graphically uncovered their poor health. More than 83,000 citizens, or 18.8 percent of New Orleans’s population, lacked health insurance. Nationally there are about 45 million Americans without health insurance; many of them are Black and destitute and resort to the emergency ward for health maintenance. If Bush is the compassionate conservative he says he is, he must fix a health system that favors the wealthy and the solidly employed.
Bush owes it to Blacks to relieve the exorbitant poverty that has extinguished hope for millions of us. Those Gulf regions hardest hit by Katrina were already drowning in extreme poverty: Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation, with Louisiana just behind it. More than 90,000 people in the areas hit by Katrina make less than $10,000 a year. Black folks in these areas are strapped by incomes that are 40 percent less than those earned by Whites.
While Blacks make up 32.5 percent of Louisiana’s population, their offspring account for 69 percent of the children in poverty. Nearly 9 percent of households in New Orleans didn’t own or have access to a vehicle. This makes it painfully clear just why so many people couldn’t evacuate before Katrina struck.
If Bush is serious about what he said in Katrina’s aftermath, that this nation must “rise above the legacy of inequality,” a legacy that “has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which has cut off generations from the opportunity of America,” then he must change his mind about slashing $35 billion from Medicaid, food stamps and other programs that help the impoverished combat such a vile legacy.
Bush and the federal government also owe the Black poor better schools. Bush’s No Child Left Behind Act of 2001 promised to bolster the crumbling educational infrastructure, but conservative politics have only exacerbated the problems: underperforming schools, low reading levels and wide racial and class disparities. Oddly, Bush has failed to sufficiently fund his own mandate, reinforcing class and educational inequality. The wide racial disparity in income means that Blacks live in concentrated poverty, which further stifles the academic success of Black children. In New Orleans, underemployment, unemployment and unstable employment ganged up on deprived Blacks.
Bush owes us an apology for fostering an environment of detachment. When Blacks say that race played a role in the government’s delay in responding to the army of hurt people amassed in the Gulf States, we didn’t mean that most White folks hate Black folks. What we meant is that the character of White response to Black pain is predictably nonchalant as a historical fact. This is what Kanye West meant when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people.” He condensed into a sentence an ancient argument about the relation between official culture and Black life. While George Bush may care about Blacks, President George Bush is the face of a government that has increased Black suffering, no matter how many Negroes he puts in vaunted places. He may have promoted some Blacks, but he has left the rest of us far behind. Bush’s slow response was but a symptom of a larger political neglect.
We owe it to ourselves to agitate until the world opens its eyes to our suffering. Ultimately, what Katrina’s gale forces have uncovered, yet again, is the strong disagreement between Blacks and Whites over the role that race plays in who gets what in our society-and which group most often gets left out, and left behind. Polls taken shortly after Katrina prove the racial divide. A CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll found that 60 percent of Blacks believed that race caused the government’s delay in rescuing folks, while only 12 percent of Whites agreed. The racial divide was similar when taking class into consideration: 63 percent of Blacks blamed poverty for the slow rescue, while 21 percent of Whites held that view.
Until White folks feel the full force of our pain and open their eyes to our suffering, that divide will continue. We must vigilantly hold the media accountable for framing us as savages or thugs-most recently by labeling a young brother gathering food in chest-deep Katrina waters as a “looter,” while a White couple in similar straits was said to have “found” food.
We Blacks who have been fortunate must open our mouths more regularly to blast the plight of the poor. We must argue for what enlightened Black policy experts and social critics have called for over the last several decades: a Marshall Plan for the inner city, using federal funds to rebuild our most needy communities. Otherwise we, too, will be guilty of drowning our poor in hateful judgment and malign neglect.
Michael Eric Dyson is the Avalon Foundation Professor in the Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania. He’s the author of 11 books, plus Come Hell or High Water (Basic Civitas Books), due out in January 2006.