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.

?When the full tally of the dead from this storm and its aftermath, which includes those who will die from diseases contracted due to heat, starvation and contaminated water as well as the storm itself, we will see what TV photos of rescue operations are revealing–that the greatest loss of life, and the greatest suffering, was occurring among Louisiana and Mississippi’s black poor. Look who we see wading through the the floodwaters in New Orleans streets, look who we see lining up to get into the Superdome, look who we see being taken off roofs. And look who we see being arrested for “looting.” Unlike September 11, which revealed a city united in pain, and grief, and determination to rebuild; this crisis reveals communities which are profoundly divided by race and class, and in which the black poor in particular, bear levels of hardship which far exceed those of any other group.

?Not since the great Mississippi River Flood of 1927 have the economic and racial isolation of the black poor been revealed in such stark relief by an environmental catastrophe. What the images Americans on the evening news reveal about who is dying, who is trapped, who is without food, who is drinking contaminated water and yes, who is looting, should give all of us pause. Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws.

?One other thought comes to mind. If the American armed forces, including the national guard and army corps of engingeers, were not bogged down in a needless, unprovoked war in Iraq, would the response to this catastrophe have been quicker? Would the levee repair have taken place more quickly and effectively, more food and medicine delivered, more troops sent to preserve order? When all is said and done, many Americans will question whether the response to this catastrophe was hampered by the strain the Iraq war has exerted on our military’s rapid response ability in the United States.

?I make these observations not in any way to detract by the heroism of tens of thousands of rescue personnel and ordinary people who have saved, and continue to save lives through their actions. Every one of us needs to give them, and the people of the affected states, or complete support, economically, politically, spiritually, and by any act of personal generosity that can ease someone’s suffering.

?But we also cannot shrink from what this tragegy reveals about us as a nation at this stage in history. If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack; Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region, and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.

Dr. Mark Naison
August 31, 2005

And for a powerful comment on how the tragic events in New Orleans have laid bare the bigotry and lie of equal opportunity, read Gary Younge in Monday’s Guardian.

An Appeal to Support the New Orleans Times-Picayune

Dear friends and colleagues,

The impact of Hurricane Katrina on working journalists in Louisiana has been overwhelming. In particular, the staff of the New Orleans Times-Picayune brought the country the story while losing their own homes and neighborhoods and workplace. It’s because these courageous local journalists risked their lives to remain on-scene that we learned of the catastrophic failures of our government.

Now the staff of the Times-Picayune faces an uncertain future. As many as half lost their homes, and it is not clear whether the paper will continue to publish.

The journalists and support staff of the Times-Picayune need our help. Please pass this appeal to others who might be interested.


As many as half of New Orleans Times-Picayune staffers–from senior editorsto receptionists and printers–and their families apparently lost theirhomes in the horrible aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. They lost everything.

Newhouse Newspapers, which owns the paper, has extended salaries for aperiod of time and offered other benefits, whether or not employees can makeit to work. Heroically, the paper continues to publish on the web( and now in print.

But what our friends are facing is staggering, unimaginable.

Please help by contributing whatever money you can. Please note, thatbecause we had to set up this fund in a hurry, contributions are not yet taxdeductible. You can send money via electronic transfer from your bank or bycheck to:
“Friends of the Times-Picayune”
With checks payable to Sterling Bank, Account #151027625
Mail to:
Sterling Bank
Bayou Bend Office
5757 Memorial Drive
Houston, Texas 77007-8000

Please forward this note to others in your news organization, friends,professional groups or websites for posting.