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Race, Class, and Katrina

Nakul Vyas

An increasing number of public figures are lambasting the government for its slow response in New Orleans — what one local official, Aaron Broussard, called “one of the worst abandonments of Americans on American soil ever in U.S. history.” These figures are accusing the government of forsaking the predominantly African-American poor population. Black leader, Reverend Al Sharpton said “I feel race was a factor. Why? I remember almost a year ago to the day I was in Florida when a hurricane was coming … and I saw the White House move … National Guard was already alerted before the storm ever hit. It seems to me that if we can be alert in Palm Beach, Florida, we could have been alert in New Orleans.” Palm Beach, incidentally, is a mostly white upper-middle class area.

Reverend Sharpton’s observations reflect the long history of American society neglecting the poor generally and blacks specifically. The Bush administration, which represents the wealthy segments of America, has more important priorities than saving the poor. A certain unilateral occupation of an oil rich country comes to mind.

A U.N. report released on Sept. 7 documents the increasing divide between the haves and the have-nots in the U.S. According to the report, compiled by Kevin Watkins, the former head of research at Oxfam, black infants are twice as likely as white babies to die before their first birthday. The U.S. is the only wealthy nation without universal health care. U.S. infant mortality rates have grown in the last five years, and now match those of third world countries like Malaysia. The report links poverty to war, and describes the U.S. as having “an overdeveloped military strategy and an under-developed strategy for human security.”

Critics have elaborated on the connection between the disaster and money spent in Iraq. Local officials requested $60 million for the Southeast Louisiana flood control project, but the federal government provided only $10 million. “The Bush administration has obviously had its attention focused in terms of the budget on Iraq … and it’s been looking to cut back in the corps of engineers,” said John McQuaid, reporter for the Washington bureau of the New Orleans Times-Picayune. In a 2002 investigative series entitled Washing Away, McQuaid predicted that a hurricane, like Katrina, would cause grievous damage to the city.

Even if the Bush administration had ignored McQuaid’s warnings, however, they still could have acted decisively after the disaster struck. Instead, White House officials continued their vacations. President Bush remained on his ranch in Crawford, Texas for two days after the hurricane made landfall and was photographed laughing and playing the guitar. Vice President Cheney and Secretary of State Condoleeza Rice continued their vacations for three days. In the days after the hurricane hit, Rice took tennis lessons from Monica Seles, saw the Monty Python play “Spamalot” on Broadway, and went hunting for shoes on Fifth Avenue. A person shouted, “How dare you shop for shoes while thousands are dying and homeless!” The person was removed from the store.

The federal government was not the only group to fail the poor and predominately black citizens of New Orleans. The national media chose to portray blacks as looters. On an NBC fund-raising telethon, hip-hop superstar Kanye West departed from his script to condemn the media. “If it’s a black family, it says we’re looting. If it’s a white family, it says they’re looking for food.” Before NBC cut the live broadcast, West added “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Even if some blacks and poor people did engage in looting, I find it laughable to denounce people abandoned with no food and water, who have lived in poverty their entire lives.

In a city where half the households make less than $28,000 a year, the authorities issued what New York Daily News columnist Errol Louis called “an almost cynical evacuation order” to people with no transport and no money for hotels. I’d call it callous if not criminal. Barbara Bush, mother of the president, displayed a similar contempt for the poor in her comment about the refugees in the Houston Astrodome. “You know, [they] were underprivileged anyway, so this is working very well for them.”

Did race or did class motivate the speed of response? It is hard to untangle because race is a class issue. If you are black you are more likely to be low-income, and it is always the poor who suffer the most in our society. It is the poor who freeze when a snowstorm hits Boston. It is the poor who are maimed most often in our wars abroad. It is the poor who had no place to go before the hurricane hit, who had no cars to escape the city before the flooding, and who are now stranded on rooftops in New Orleans without food and water. The poor are the ones suffering and dying, as usual.

Nakul Vyas is a member of the Class of 2008.