Essay

A Nation's Castaways

An often-invisible underclass, now front and center: Evacuees from New Orleans receive personal hygiene bags before resuming their long relocation trip to Dallas.
An often-invisible underclass, now front and center: Evacuees from New Orleans receive personal hygiene bags before resuming their long relocation trip to Dallas. (By Scott Saltzman -- Bloomberg News)

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By Lynne Duke and Teresa Wiltz
Washington Post Staff Writers
Sunday, September 4, 2005

On TV, we watch them: His braids are flying above his head and he's got a wild look on his face. He's running, one arm clutching a load of looted clothes, the other reaching back to tug at his pants, which are in danger of sliding past his rump. She's crying and forlorn and too young to be carrying a baby in her arms, but carrying one she is, and both are dirty and sweaty and hungry, reduced to an animal-like state of waiting and starving and begging for help. We see them through our respective prisms of race, and call them "refugees," as if they are foreigners in their own land.

They are the Other, these victims of Katrina.

And in this country, the Other is black. Poor. Desperate.

Mainstream America too often demonizes the Other because, well, we've been conditioned to do so. And because it's easier to put people in a box and then shove it in the corner, away from view. Then it becomes their problem, not ours. To talk about race, for those who are weary of it, is to invite glazed-over eyes and stifled yawns -- or even hostility.

But Katrina blew open the box, putting the urban poor front and center, with images of once-invisible folks pleading from rooftops, wading through flooded streets, starving at the Superdome and requiring a massive federal outlay of resources. Or dead, wheelchairs pushed up against the wall, a blanket thrown over still bodies. The Other is there, staring us in the face, exposing our issues on an international stage. It is at once an embarrassment -- how did we go from can-do to can't-do-for-our-own? -- and a challenge, critics charge: How do we stop ignoring the folks in the box, the inner-city destitute, and realize that their fate is ours as well?

Poor black people, says Lani Guinier, a Harvard University law professor, are "the canary in the mine. Poor black people are the throwaway people. And we pathologize them in order to justify our disregard."

But, she says, "this is not just about poor black people in New Orleans. This is about a social movement, with an administration that is bent on weakening the capacity of the national government to act. . . . I hope this is a wake-up call to all of America. To see this as the tip of the iceberg, the thin edge of the wedge. We ignored the early warning signals. But this is another early warning that we are ill prepared to function as a society."

Just as the United States was embarrassed globally by its ugly tradition -- racism -- being exposed during the civil rights movement, it is now shamed again by "the spectacle of a Baghdad on the Mississippi River and our own people being so poor and so destitute and so helpless at a time when we are talking about trying to spread democracy and curb looting in Baghdad," says Jim Sleeper, a lecturer in political science at Yale University.

Jesse Jackson describes the New Orleans convention center, where tens of thousands live in fetid conditions, as "the hull of a slaveship."

Inside the proverbial slaveship are the "captives," who have been described as running completely amok. But witness the man who feels so guilty about the pita bread, water and juice that he'd taken from a Wal-Mart to feed his family that he kept a list -- so he can pay it back later.

"I feel like an American again," the man says on TV after help began to arrive on Friday. "I thought my country had abandoned me."

But also among the abandoned was the young white woman holding her sick baby and crying as she says, "It's not about low-income, it's not about rich people, poor people, it's about people." It sounds more like a wish than a reality.


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© 2005 The Washington Post Company

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