If not now, when?

One American woman. Twenty acres and a 1650 farmhouse in Tuscany. Random introspection and hilarity, depending on the day.

01 September 2005

The disaster of our own making: the race & class divide in America

Despite an occasional jab at The-Powers-That-Be, I do, really, try pretty hard to leave political commentary out of this here little corner of the web. To quote my dear friend the Sensitive Rebel (aka Sean of The Sean Show), "There are a ton of other bloggers who cover politics, and while some are great, the majority rehash news stories by adding on a snarky comment. I’d rather be silent and be thought a fool than reveal how much of a hack I am by blogging it." I couldn't have said it better myself.

I do, however, feel powerfully motivated every now and again to just offer up some random social observation. I have been mesmerized as I watch - totally helpless and ridiculously far removed - the aftermath of Katrina through the tiny 10" screen of my laptop. I have been moved to tears more than once, and anguished at how much like a third world country the gulf coast looks. My heart and thoughts go out to all those down there who survived and are trying to maintain order and salvage homes, businesses, and lives as I type this. I fervently hope that a stronger spirit and unified American community will arise from this vicious adversity.

Though the apparently devolving situation does beg a few questions about our socio-economic structure: the ever-increasing gap between the haves and have nots. I feel woefully inadequate to comment or to offer solutions (and know I'm too likely to devolve into snarky comment-dom), here instead I offer snippets of others' commentary that resonated with me, lo these 6,000+ miles away, as I was able to do nothing but "click here to donate" and hope that what little I can send will somehow help.

From my buddy Joe at "JoeSentMe.com":
Where are we going to house a million displaced residents of Louisiana for months, maybe years? What about the victims in Mississippi and Alabama? It seems there is an opportunity to repopulate our rust-belt, Midwestern and Southern mill towns. A new Homestead Act is in order. Anyone made homeless by this nightmare can have any empty old house if they agree to fix the place and live there for a number of years. I read a few years ago that Ralph, Iowa, was paying people a bounty to move to the dying town. America is full of Ralph, Iowas. We need to utilize this resource. .... You'll forgive me for saying so, but President Bush came up awfully small yesterday in his rose-garden address. Where was the call for national sacrifice? Where was the call for a day of national prayer and reflection? Regardless of what you think of any president's politics, we look to him and his bully pulpit in times of crisis. The last thing I wanted from my president yesterday was to be the front man for his Cabinet and a speech full of meaningless and incomprehensible statistics. I fervently hope he does better tomorrow. .... I live about 1,200 miles from the Gulf Coast, but I have two guest rooms in my house that victims of this storm can use for as long as they need it. Newburgh/Stewart International Airport is just a few miles away. What group will step forward to mobilize the American people to open up their doors? How can we compensate the airlines so they can fly these people to where rooms and food are available? I'm no logistics expert, but why aren't we air-dropping food, water and supplies into New Orleans and Mississippi? And why weren't we doing it yesterday? Now is not the time, but soon we'll have to discuss why New Orleans didn't stock the Superdome and its Convention Center with huge supplies of food, rations and portable toilets. Demanding an evacuation before a storm is one thing. Realizing that tens of thousands of people can't or won't go is another. There was time, days, to prepare. It's clear New Orleans didn't do it. The saddest thing I have heard in five days: Some people in Mississippi died because they couldn't evacuate. Why? It was the end of the month, they lived paycheck to paycheck and they didn't have the ready cash to gas up the car. I understand the natural reflex to shake our fists at the wind and pledge to rebuild New Orleans bigger and better than ever. But someone explain to me why we should rebuild a town that is located in the geographic equivalent of a soup bowl surrounded by water? This will happen again. Maybe not in our generation, but some time. Wouldn't it be better to leave what's left of New Orleans as a huge monument to man's folly in taking on nature?'

From Jack Shafer at www.Slate.com:
"I can't say I saw everything that the TV newscasters pumped out about Katrina, but I viewed enough repeated segments to say with 90 percent confidence that broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class. Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren't wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact... In the their frenzy to beat freshness into the endless loops of disaster footage that have been running all day, broadcasters might have mentioned that nearly all the visible people left behind in New Orleans are of the black persuasion, and mostly poor.

'To be sure, some reporters sidled up to the race and class issue. I heard them ask the storm's New Orleans victims why they hadn't left town when the evacuation call came. Many said they were broke—"I live from paycheck to paycheck," explained one woman. Others said they didn't own a car with which to escape and that they hadn't understood the importance of evacuation. But I don't recall any reporter exploring the class issue directly by getting a paycheck-to-paycheck victim to explain that he couldn't risk leaving because if he lost his furniture and appliances, his pots and pans, his bedding and clothes, to Katrina or looters, he'd have no way to replace them. No insurance, no stable, large extended family that could lend him cash to get back on his feet, no middle-class job to return to after the storm. ....

...'When disaster strikes, Americans—especially journalists—like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we're all in it together. This spirit informs the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, in which a "can't we all just get along" moment arrives at the film's end: Volcanic ash covers every face in the big crowd scene, and everybody realizes that we're all members of one united race.

But we aren't one united race, we aren't one united class, and Katrina didn't hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians—and perhaps black Mississippians—suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they're racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn't pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, "Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?"

AND, finally, and most importantly ...excerpts from the message that I wish I was articulate enough to write myself: from she-who-I-want-to-be-when-I-grow-up, Patti at 37 Days:

...It’s just bloody overwhelming; I feel so ill prepared, so inept, so inadequate to solve the gaping aches around me. And I feel so selfish sometimes when I simply walk away from need, when I close my door, when I say no or turn the channel. And now, the hell that was New Orleans and Biloxi and their neighbors: unimaginable dislocation, death, destruction, drowning, all that people had in the world floating in an oily brew of stagnant water, including the bodies of loved ones. This is not an inconvenience or a rise in gas prices. No, these are people’s wild and precious lives.

What happens when our infrastructure collapses? Most of us will never know, not in this country, no. But some in the Gulf Coast of the United States know it harshly right now, up close and personal. While I’m brushing my teeth and using too much water in the shower, they know. While I’m talking on my cell phone and emailing this to you, they know. When I’m eating dinner cooked in my own kitchen and watching the waters rise in New Orleans on the evening news, they know. And they will know for a long time to come. And of course, the hardest hit are always those who were already the hardest hit, those who are always the hardest hit: the poor. How can they possibly rebuild their lives when their livelihood has been destroyed, just like their homes? Where on earth will they go when they leave the Superdome, that last safety net before the free fall?

The wave of horror I feel at the world’s pain has been revealed to me as a peculiar form of privilege; there is a sense of horror and a terrible sense of relief at the same time, if I am honest. I am not there, which allows me the luxury to have an intellectual response to this event. I must dig deeper into what it means to be connected to these people who are so affected; it is that intellectual response to tragedy that keeps us immune, that makes these tragedies all the more possible in the world. I manage my reaction to them by keeping them small tragedies, the size of my TV screen—I cannot allow that to happen and I must all at the same time. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Congo? Nothing. What am I doing about what’s happening in the Middle East? Nothing. What am I doing about starving children in the world, about starving children in my town, about the man with no shoes downtown? Nothing. Nothing. Nothing.

What can we do? It’s not enough to watch the news and feel empathy for those we see on rooftops waiting to be saved, or those we see desperate for water and food to give their children. It’s not enough to sit in the dryness of our own homes and criticize the relief efforts and wonder when on earth Mr. Bush might wrap up his happy vacation to take a look-see at the devastation. It’s not enough to wish you could help. You can and we must.

I urge you to contribute as much money as you can to the American Red Cross to help with this relief effort—not a comfortable amount, but a slightly uncomfortable amount, a dollar figure that will be different for each one of us.... "

Yes, as I read through the commentary -- removed, literally, on my hilltop 6000 miles away, my heart swells with pride thinking of those who are DOING, not just watching and praying. Those who are called to be aidworkers are the truly saintly among us. Please, it's not enough to sit on our couches watching CNN and shaking our heads in sadness - at Katrina, or the Sudan, or the Typhoon, and ... and... and...

If you are a "Have" that hasn't, I beg you to donate now: www.redcross.org Because it is the only thing we CAN do right now. Ultimately the voluntary flow of money and aid from the haves to the havenots in times of crisis, while woefully inadequate and not sustainable as a long-term social system, it is the best we can do today.


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