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On Our Own

There were a number of white looters involved in the L.A. riots in 1992, a fact ignored or suppressed a decade ago. And so, as a black viewer, I was relieved when Channel 4 News in Britain finally found a white face among the victims of Hurricane Katrina pushing shopping carts through the water. The woman insisted to the camera that it was the police who had told people to go into stores and get what they needed. She hadn’t taken any clothes, she said. She was surviving, not shopping.*

Almost all the other white faces I saw during the television report were those of national guardsmen, pleading officials, and helicopter rescue personnel. I was so busy hoping that the news would get across the commonality created by the emergency that I completely missed the point. There is a reason nearly everyone whom reporters found on the beachfront in Biloxi, Mississippi, was white and in some cases low-income: US-style residential segregation.

And there is a reason why the people left behind in New Orleans were black: they make up the majority of the population within the city limits and among them are the city’s poorest citizens. However, they don’t make up the majority of the greater New Orleans area. Black people are not in the majority in any metropolitan region in the US.

Black people watching in the rest of the country understood right away what was happening. The poor had been left to be washed away—no money, no car, no bus ticket, nowhere to go—then to fend for themselves. Maybe pockets of rich people will be discovered, guarding their possessions, but most likely there will be stories of the poor defending what they had. Those with money, white and black, got out.

A black guy, a volunteer, was filmed using an axe to chop through rooftops to help people escape. They were soaked, and the dread they’d just escaped in those attics of ever-rising water was suggested by the expressions on their faces. The rest of the US could see their fear, but they couldn’t see the country’s fear of them.

In the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them. Officials in the affected areas are having their say about the inadequacy of the measures the federal and state governments had in place to cope with the catastrophe, but maybe one of the reasons the rest of the country sat around and didn’t seem able to take hold right away was their fear of the black people left behind, a fear that comes from racism.

When I heard that Red Cross and other relief workers had been told not to go on the New Orleans streets, I had to ask if they were white. One story quoted a black woman who complained that the truckloads of national guardsmen wouldn’t make eye contact with the people in the streets. Maybe they are under orders determined by the emergency, but in the South the national guard—given shoot-to-kill orders—is overwhelmingly white.

Louisiana has a large poor white population, but where have they gone? Where are the white people? New Orleans sits in a basin and hasn’t the same pattern of suburbs as other US cities, but it does have them. Ninety percent of the houses in the town of Slidell, just over the bridge across Lake Pontchartrain, have been ruined. The west-lying towns, on higher ground, all have a river side, their backs to the levee. Where are those residents? They got out.

The novelist Richard Ford, who lived in New Orleans for many years, observes that Mayor Nagin had been brave to tell everyone to leave. People in the Superdome were alive, he says, because they were there, not somewhere else. But then conditions quickly deteriorated, and the mayor was the only public official who strongly protested the federal government’s failure to help. Of the 15,000 people shipped to the Houston Astrodome, the vast majority were black. The crowd at the convention center included some white people, but the feeling among black people seems to be that the press and television once again found an occasion to portray black people as lawless; that if there had been an equal number of whites stranded in a destroyed city, federal government help would have been dispatched more quickly; and that at least something of the deep racism in US society has been exposed inadvertently—to an international audience.

The Astrodome is no solution. The army bases that have been closed recently in the South as economy measures should have been opened up. It is a scandal that it took so long for there to be air drops of any kind. Maybe Bush can’t respond convincingly to the calamity because to do so would require thinking, along New Deal lines, of the kind of governmental agencies and radical programs that he is ideologically opposed to.

After years of inadequate investment in the country’s infrastructure, this could be the first grave consequence of its misspending. The US telephone systems, bridges, railroads, and highways are in poor shape. The authorities were told twenty-five years ago that the New Orleans levees could not withstand a storm of Katrina’s magnitude, but a city that votes Democratic wasn’t going to get the necessary allocations to refortify them. In fact Bush heavily cut requests for money to strengthen the levees holding back Lake Pontchatrain.

We are becoming like the countries we criticize and pity, places where the state and the society have less and less to do with each other. We are on our own, but then black people have always known that.

—September 8, 2005

  1. *

    The television report didn’t have the information included in a Stratfor newsletter: that “witnesses reported seeing New Orleans Police Department personnel involved in the looting of a Wal-Mart retail store on Tchoupitoulas Street.”

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