While the government turned on the overwhelmingly black victims of Hurricane Katrina as if they were the problem, local residents took food, water and clothing to make it through the floods. They were treated as criminals to be contained, called animals for the very desperation they endured. Wild and unsubstantiated stories of wanton rape echoed old Southern tales of white women in danger, and the black skin of the victims was supposed to blind us to their manifest suffering.
When the Army Corps of Engineers warned that the city’s protective levees couldn’t withstand a severe hurricane, they were ignored. Not one of the politicians making that decision even needed to say why. It’s not about race, just so long as it’s rich white people making decisions about poor black lives.
Government incompetence and bureaucratic corruption were hidden behind outlandish exaggerations of attacks on rescue workers as federal officials literally turned away aid and left tens of thousands stranded for days without food, fresh water or toilets at the Superdome. And then, when the troops were finally marshalled, they came “locked and loaded” to menace the survivors. A jail was hastily constructed out of the same Greyhound bus station that failed to evacuate residents with nowhere to go, who were too poor to own cars. The same troops who leveled Falluja were brought in to protect property while men and women, old people and children were literally dying in the flooded ghettos.
There are heroes to this story, but they don’t have titles of responsibility and power. In small towns and big cities, everyday people collected food, assembled their cars into impromptu supply convoys and headed down to New Orleans. And a brave few, such as Kanye West, said the plain truth: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” He didn’t need a cue card to know what he had to say.
The problem is bigger than Bush, even if his smug indifference puts an ugly face on the deeper reality. White supremacy is the creaking spine of America.
It must be said plainly: Black people were brought to this country in chains. They picked the cotton and built the roads. Black women nannied the children of privilege, and endured the subterranean vices of puritan longing. In the aftermath of slavery, African-Americans were turned into share-croppers on the old plantations and wage slaves in the cities. When basic civil rights were wrested from the white power establishment, literally nothing was done to end the systematic economic and social subordination of black people as a people. Welfare and prisons regulated the masses, while about one in five “made it” into the middle class. Black people never got their 40 acres and a mule. Instead of hating poverty, this system taught us to hate the poor – to hate ourselves. To fear.
There is blame to go around. But no shuffling of chairs at the table of power can whitewash this crime. There will be blueribbon panels and partisan acrimony, the television buzz will turn bodies in the street into talking points and “policy imperatives,” as surely as the Kerner Commission met a generation ago to dissipate the anger that burned city after city in righteous rage.
They lied us into war. They manipulate our fears and turn us against each other. There is an us and a them.
Let it be said in all clarity that this is not our government. It does not serve us or work for us or care about out lives. It serves only one master whose name is money.
The same people who collected food for the suffering are now gathering rage. Another hurricane is coming, this one made of flesh and blood, and breathing fire.