Mark Naison on Race, Class and the Disaster
As Joan Walsh wrote in Salon last week, “The horror in New Orleans exposed the nation’s dirty secrets of race and poverty.” But as she went on to say, it not only revealed “the desperate poverty of the city’s African-American population…but also the poverty of political debate in the US today.” While, nearly a third of New Orleanians live below the poverty line, and conditions are even worse for children–fully half of the kids in Lousiana live in poverty—-the poor are barely mentioned by our leading politicians. (The only state with a higher child poverty rate is Mississippi, another victim of the hurricane.) As if to underscore the poverty of our politics, the same week the hurricane devastated the poorest regions the Census Bureau released a report that found the number of Americans living in poverty has climbed again–for the fourth straight year under President Bush. It is now clear that any reconstruction effort–amidst the widespread poverty in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast–will require a massive infusion of relief money. Yet, in an obscene display of distorted priorities, the White House and Republican Congress vow that permanent repeal of the estate tax–a windfall for millionaires–remains at the top of the agenda when they return to Washington this week. (Write your congressperson and demand that instead of repealing the estate tax, those funds be used to rebuild New Orleans and the Gulf Coast.)
For a powerful analysis of how the disaster’s impact has revealed “the fault lines of a region and a nation rent by profound divisions” of race and class, read Mark Naison’s open letter. It is one of many articles, statements, letters on this theme, that have been circulating in cyberspace in these last days. Naison is a professor of African-American studies at Fordham University in the Bronx.
?As I feared the first day the levees broke in New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina will turn out to be the worst environmental catastrophe in modern American history, far dwarfing Hurricane’s Andrew and Camilla and equalling, if not surpassing, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in its destructive impact. The flooding, and physical destruction of a historic American city, coupled with the complete destruction of homes, stores, businesses, roads and bridges along 80 miles of Mississippi coastline presents a humanitarian challenge of unprecendented proportions, with consequences that will be felt for years by those who lost loved ones, homes, businesses, jobs, and any sense of comfort or security.
?But this catastrophe also reveals, far more than September 11, how deeply divided our nation is and how far our social fabric has been strained, not only by the war in Iraq, but by policies which have widened the gap between rich and poor and left many poor people in American feeling marginalized and alienated.