Black Poverty's Human Face

By Mark D. Naison

Hurricane Katrina may well turn out to be the worst natural disaster in modern American history, surpassing hurricanes Andrew and Camille and equaling, if not exceeding, the San Francisco earthquake of 1906 in its destructive impact. The flooding and devastation of an historic U.S. city, coupled with the desolation of homes, stores, businesses, roads, and bridges along 80 miles of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama coastline, presents an unprecedented humanitarian challenge whose effects will be felt for years to come.

But this catastrophe also reveals how deeply divided our nation is economically and racially. Our social fabric has been strained by policies that have widened the gap between rich and poor, leaving many of America's worst off feeling marginalized and alienated. Those who were left behind in a flooding city have just as surely been left behind in the society at large.

The full tally of Katrina's dead (including those who will perish in the days to come from heat, starvation, and diseases contracted from contaminated water) will no doubt confirm what the television images of rescue operations revealed: that the greatest suffering and loss of life occurred among Louisiana and Mississippi's black poor. It was they we mostly saw wading through the floodwaters in New Orleans streets, lining up to seek shelter at the Superdome and New Orleans Convention Center, and being airlifted from rooftops. Unlike September 11 -- which revealed a New York united in grief and determination to rebuild -- this crisis highlights communities riven by race and class and in which poor blacks bear levels of hardship that far exceed any other group.

INDEED, NOT SINCE THE GREAT Mississippi River Flood of 1927 (when 330,000 blacks were displaced to camps) has the economic and racial isolation of the black poor been rendered in such stark relief by an environmental calamity. What the images Americans saw on the evening news revealed about who was dying, who was trapped, who was without food, who was drinking contaminated water -- and, yes, who was looting -- should give us all pause. Is this what the pioneers of the Civil Rights Movement fought to achieve -- a society in which black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?

Perhaps the only good to come from Katrina's wake will be those very images that chronicled its horror. The sight of tens of thousands of desperate black people crying for help outside the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center have had the same effect on viewers as the shots of Bull Connor turning firehoses and dogs on teenage demonstrators in Birmingham, Ala., in 1963. A hundred years from now, people will regard those pictures as symbols of American civilization at the dawn of the 21st century and of the continued isolation of poor blacks within the wealthiest nation on earth.

One of the things I learned living through, and participating in, the civil rights movement of the 1960s is the importance of visual images. Without TV footage and news photos of segregationists beating peaceful demonstrators, the full horror of Southern segregation would have never mobilized either a world audience or the American public. Now, via Katrina, concentrated, racialized poverty in America has a human face it never had before. And that face will live on in people's memories and nightmares as a permanent part of the historical record. How we deal with those images, and the conditions they reflect, will define the character of this nation for decades to come.

That's why we must ask difficult questions about how Katrina played out. Would the response to the destruction in New Orleans have been quicker if the majority of the victims were not poor people of color? Was government's reaction hampered by the strain the Iraq war has exerted on our military and the National Guard's ability to respond quickly to crises at home?

In no way should these issues detract from the heroism of tens of thousands of rescue personnel and ordinary people who saved -- and continue to save -- lives along the battered Gulf. Each of us needs to support them and the affected residents economically, politically, spiritually, and by any act of personal generosity that can ease the suffering.

But we cannot shrink from what this tragedy reveals about America today. If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack, Hurricane Katrina exposed the fault lines of a region -- and a nation -- rent by profound social divisions. Fixing New Orleans' breached levees without repairing that greater divide will leave only half the job done.

Mark D. Naison is Professor of African American Studies & History and Director of Urban Studies at Fordham University in New York, and author of White Boy: A Memoir

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