Wednesday, September 21, 2005

Race and Katrina

Jumping into a discussion of race and class in America is foolhardy. And trying to do it in the "haiku" style of blogging where everything must be reduced to a couple of lines or--at most--a few paragraphs that people can read and respond to during a 10 minute coffee break makes it even more suspect.

But I'm game. And no doubt a fool too :^)

The Obvious Role of Race in New Orleans

Sometimes the pictures tell the story. We've all seen them.

Had a catastrophe like this hit any city in America, most of the dead and displaced would be black and latino. It doesn't take a PhD to figure that out.

The Ambiguous Role of Race in New Orleans

Katrina devastated the whole city and region. The hurricane was no respecter of pigment.

And the relief effort, once it got started, made no distinctions on the basis of skin color.

Incompetence and corruption--from the highest levels of government to the city level--are the best explanation for why the relief effort was so poorly executed and so slow. Our FEMA director was a surprisingly underqualified crony with connections to a highly placed, old college room-mate. That kind of corrupt and arrogant patronage has been true for a long time in Washington. Sadly, it's gotten no better under the current crop of righteous Republicans. Given the unprecedented amounts of pork in some of the bills passed by this Congress, many thoughtful people think it's gotten worse.

Still though, the slowness of the response probably did have something to do with race.

My family and I lived in SoCentral LA during the riots there in the early 90's. That catastrophe had a lot to do with race. Black man beaten savagely by white police officers. White officers declared not guilty by a white jury in the San Fernando Valley. Blacks and Latinos exploding into a fury that burned and destroyed wide sections of the city including my family's neighborhood.

It took the National Guard 3 days to respond in sufficient force to the riots. By that time large parts of the city had been destroyed and lots of people were dead.

What if those angry black and latino people had taken buses to the white west side of LA, which many of them do every day to work as servants and gardeners, and started their angry retaliatory mayhem in Brentwood?

Anybody who thinks it would have taken 2-3 days for National Guard troops to arrive in that instance may not understand the history or sociology of Southern California.

Was New Orleans, a city overwhelmingly populated by poor black people in one of the most historically racist parts of the country, really that different than LA? If New Orleans had been a prosperous and mostly white city, would it have taken many days for help to arrive?

Given the incompetence I mentioned above, maybe. But I wonder.

The Irrelevant Role of Race in New Orleans

Over the past number of years I've lost some of my sympathy for racial explanations.

I'm not even sure, exactly, what the idea of "race" means at this point.

The ideas of "class" and "culture" may explain a lot more about what happened in New Orleans and what's happening in the US and around the world.

That's what I want to get into next time.


Blogger Specter said...

A little lower down than state government. Though accomplished at playing the blaim game, the mayor of New Orleans is a raving lunatic.

11:04 PM  
Blogger Jennifer said...

I totally agree that it is actually class & culture first, but then class & culture have a lot to do with race... not everything, but a lot. I heard someone on NPR comment that if the news crews had been anywhere else in Louisiana besides in New Orleanes, in the more rural parts, we would have seen a lot more poor whites. That would have been a good thing for America to see, I think.

6:13 PM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Ya, I wasn't very impressed with his honor the mayor, either, Specter. And I think it would be good to see large numbers of poor whites in the media too, Jen, but unless a hurricane hits Appalachia, it's probably not gonna happen. Media outlets don't do poor people unless it's a major historic catastrophe.

6:11 PM  
Blogger V said...

Here's a comment from someone from Louisiana. I'm from Lake Charles. Our town was hit hard by Rita. Nothing like N.O.(That's short for New Orleans here) But it had a profound effect on our little city. We have plenty of whites and that's what they showed on the news. WE had time to evacuate. WE decided to leave. We haven't gotten to go back home yet. The one comment I'd like to make is that the media is so quick to judge people and their reactions to a catastrophic event. They are all about sensationalism. Why is it that a black man was looting when he found food. But a white couple found food at a local grocery store? And what exactly did Wolf mean when he made the comment about the people of N.O. being "so poor, and so black"? What does any of this have to do with the hurricane and it's destruction? NOTHING. We all react differently in the event of tragedy like this. When we couldn't find gas, we didn't panic. When we couldn't get water, we didn't panic. Didn't go to the extent of looting, probably because there was none to loot. But we kept our cool and made rational decisions because we had enough time to get to safety without panic. I just want to go home now. I miss Lake Charles and I hate politics.
By the by, nice blog. I'll be back to visit. Feel free to check out mine. Not quite as serious as yours. lol. Have a great day.

10:43 PM  
Blogger jon said...

I agree with everything you say before and after you make the analogy to the LA riots. We already discussed my disagreement with that portion and I don't understand why the evidence I put forth didn't hold any weight at all. What I really care about, though, is probably the same thing as you - where do we go from here? If these are the problems, what are the solutions?

and mac - thanks much for your enlightening comment. You gave me a perspective more important than anything I have. I agree with your decrying of media sensationalism, but in that category I would include the response to the pictures as well. Anything that can be possibly taken as racist is sensationalized. There were pictures of black people captioned "looting" and pictures of black people captioned "finding". There were pictures of white people captioned "looting" and pictures of white people captioned "finding". Why has such a big deal been made out of two specific pictures out of thousands posted by reporters? Because making a lot of noise about race makes a good story.

12:10 AM  
Blogger Wordcat said...

Ya, I agree with both of you guys. Race is so ingrained in our thinking and has been for so long that it's sort of a default setting. Thanks for the insights Mac! I'll check out your blog.

10:15 AM  

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