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.
To read the entire article “What Bush Owes Black People,” pick up the December issue of ESSENCE.
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.