Posted by: sean | September 4, 2005

Treading oily water

From my hotel room in Samarkand, I saw on BBC World and TV5 that a force four or five hurricane had hit the gulf coast of my childhood. It looked pretty bad, but most of the news seemed aimed at oil investors and insurance companies. Crude was up to an all time high of over 70 dollars a drum, and the dollar value of Katrina’s destruction was to be higher than ever seen before.

No one was mentioning the people, not yet. Then I started hearing short reports of human suffering and a breakdown of civil society. There was price gouging, violence and looting. The first always happens, during every single hurricane, but the last two were new to my ears. I called my father and he assured me that they had been untouched on the Alabama coast and that there were few problems there. Mississippi and Louisiana, however, were another matter altogether. When I got back home, I started seeing the newspaper pictures and some others on the internet, which was re-broadcasting television images.

There were masses of poor and black people who had stayed behind. People, like my father, were complaining about these people, saying that they were stupid to have stayed behind when there was a mandatory evacuation. I couldn’t help but wonder where they would have gone and how they would have gotten there. For the 100,000 citizens of New Orleans who are dirt poor, how mandatory is a mandatory evacuation without free buses taking them to free Ramada Inns stocked with free food and running water?

And so once again, the victims are to be blamed. Old women in wheelchairs perched upon their rooftop with saltine crackers and warm Coca Cola are being lectured about fiscal responsibility and preparedness four days after their last meal, while we tut-tut from our comfortable lazyboy recliners and try to ignore that a third of Mississippi’s National Guard and half of its equipment is in Iraq or Afghanistan instead of Biloxi or New Orleans. The media shows us what we knew to be true all along: white people find food, and black people loot for it.

But then I saw one man on television, during his fourth day in the convention center with no food or water, who said, “My family is not going to starve to death. I will do what I have to do to feed them.” I don’t see why we shouldn’t make a distinction between taking food from a grocery store and taking flat screen televisions from an electronics store. If the first is looting just like the second, then I’m afraid any sensible person should be looting, seeing as how the government has proven itself incapable or unwilling to help these people.

Leon Wynter has done a piece on the poor black people we see on our television screens, which can be heard here (in an edited form) and read here in its entirety:

Last Saturday the “official” evacuation looked like nothing more than the start of a very long weekend–people with available credit, mostly white, stuck in traffic. Or was that the 60’s white flight to the suburbs. No, no, it was the stampede of white Dixiecrats into the party of small government and big oil, AFTER they got to the suburbs. But where is THAT video?

Instead, we’ve got talking heads. The FEMA director insisted to CNN that he makes “no judgement” as to the reason why Auntie and nephew stayed sadly behind. He didn’t want to “second guess” them. That’s a euphemism for saying they had no good reason at all. Not when tax cuts have brought so many new jobs and so much prosperity. […]

In my metaphor, what we are seeing is the SS Deep Dixie. It has been gored by an iceberg that everyone saw coming. It’s poorest blackest passengers are trapped in the steerage of political minority, going down slowly, but not without putting up a dirty fight. And sometimes they come up, treading water, like rats in an oil-slicked sea.


  1. If New Orleans is 2/3s black in the first place, couldn’t this instead be viewed as a class issue? If this happened in Wisconsin, I think the poor would still experience similar negligence. The use of black=looter media stereotypes is depressing either way.

  2. The fact of the matter is that it’s often impossible to distinguish race and class matters in the US.

    In any case, I think it’s safe to say that while the poor are always neglected in the US, the poor and black are even more neglected. So it seems that both race and class are at play here, as usual.

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