New Orleans Forsaken
Pretense was back in vogue. Whites pretended that racism played no part in the debacle, with only 12 percent accepting that race played a factor in the slow response, according to a CNN poll two weeks after the hurricane. The proportion of African-Americans who felt it had been a factor was five times higher. The last time the nation had seen the same event and reached such entirely opposite conclusions on grounds of race was the O.J. Simpson trial.
That anyone could have witnessed the scenes outside the Superdome and Convention Center and think race did not play a part speaks to the level of denial that remains among white Americans and to the persistence and prevalence of racism. Katrina charted a path from the subtle and undramatic institutional racism that has become entrenched at every level of American society to its most crude and devastating consequences--destruction, displacement and death.
For some whites it was too subtle. In this New South, black demands for full citizenship fell foul not of the law of the land but of the law of probability. African-Americans were more likely to be flooded, more likely to be displaced, less likely to be able to return and, when the mayoral elections were held this past spring, less likely to be able to vote.
That race was a factor is beyond question--in a Southern city just fifty-one years after integration became law and forty years after the Voting Rights Act, race is a factor in almost everything. Yet to attribute the discrepancy between black and white attitudes entirely to racism is as legitimate and convenient as to blame the Bush Administration for the whole fiasco. To do so would misunderstand race not as the starting point from which to engage with broader issues but as the end point to which all problems affecting African-Americans inevitably lead. Such an approach not only allows whites, even those who are poor, to disregard every issue apparently pertaining to blacks as a discrete problem borne from race. It also has crippled the left in any bid to make connections between African-Americans and others on grounds of class, gender, sexual orientation or almost anything else that might overcome this antipathy.
So while race was clearly a factor, it was not the only factor, or even the dominant one. Those African-Americans with money could leave, and most did. Those without could not.
A basic understanding of human nature suggests that nearly everyone in New Orleans wanted to escape Katrina and survive. A basic understanding of American economics and history shows that, despite all the rhetoric, wealth--not hard work or personal sacrifice--is the most decisive factor in determining who succeeds.
In a nation that prides itself on taut bootstraps and rugged individualism, these axioms strike at the heart of one of America's great taboos--class. Those who could not get out after the storm were the same ones who could not get on before it. Katrina arrived at the end of the month and some were waiting to get paid. One in four in New Orleans did not have a car, yet there was no public transportation out of the city. Even if they did have a car, they needed money to fill it up with gas and for a motel at the end of the trip. Of those who had the choice, many among the old and infirm and those who cared for them preferred to take the risk with the hurricane than to endure the certain discomfort of sitting in traffic for hours and then trying to find somewhere to stay.