I was in New Orleans visiting my mother and other relatives less than a week before Katrina hit. Even though we already had an eye on the approaching hurricane, I had no thought, when I boarded the plane to leave, that the city I’ve known all my life would never be the same again.
I don’t have space or words to catalogue the horrors and outrages associated with the plight of New Orleans and its people. In any event, the basic story is now well-known, and we’re entering the stage at which further details mainly feed the voyeuristic sentimentalism that will help the momentarily startled corporate news media retreat gracefully to their more familiar role as court heralds. The bigger picture will disappear in the minutiae of timelines and discrete actions.
What will be lost is the central point that the destruction was not an “act of God.” Nor was it simply the product of incompetence, lack of empathy or cronyism. Those exist in abundance, to be sure, but they are symptoms, not ultimate causes. What happened in New Orleans is the culmination of twenty-five years of disparagement of any idea of public responsibility; of a concerted effort–led by the right but as part of a bipartisan consensus–to reduce government’s functions to enhancing plunder by corporations and the wealthy and punishing everyone else, undermining any notion of social solidarity.
I know that some progressives believe this incident will mark a turning point in American politics. Perhaps, especially if gas prices continue to rise. I suspect, however, that this belief is only another version of the cargo cult that has pervaded the American left in different ways for a century: the wish for some magical intervention or technical fix that will substitute for organizing a broad popular base around a clearly articulated, alternative vision that responds to most people’s pressing concerns. The greater likelihood is that within a month Democratic liberals will have smothered the political moment just as they’ve smothered every other opportunity we’ve had since Ronald Reagan’s election. True, Nancy Pelosi and others finally began to bark at the Bush Administration’s persisting homicidal negligence. But my hunch is that, as with Iran/contra, the theft of the 2000 election and the torrent of obvious lies that justified the war on Iraq, liberals’ fear of seeming irresponsibly combative and their commitment to the primacy of corporate and investor-class interests will lead them to aid and abet the short-circuiting of whatever transformative potential this moment has.
This will also obscure the deeper reality that lies beneath the manifest racial disparities in vulnerability, treatment and outcome. The abstract, moralizing patter about how and whether “race matters” or “the role of race” is appealing partly because it doesn’t confront the roots of the bipartisan neoliberal policy regime. It’s certainly true that George W. Bush and his minions are indifferent to, or contemptuous of, black Americans in general. They’re contemptuous of anyone who is not part of the ruling class. Although Bush and his pals are no doubt small-minded bigots in many ways, the racial dimension stands out so strikingly in part because race is now the most familiar–and apparently for many progressives the most powerful–language of social justice. For roughly a generation it seemed reasonable to expect that defining inequalities in racial terms would provoke some remedial response from the federal government. But for quite some time race’s force in national politics has been as a vehicle for reassuring whites that “public” equals some combination of “black,” “poor” and “loser”; that cutting public spending is aimed at weaning a lazy black underclass off the dole or–in the supposedly benign, liberal Democratic version–teaching blacks “personal responsibility.”