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A Nation's Castaways
Katrina Blew In, and Tossed Up Reminders of a Tattered Racial Legacy

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.

The fact is, the most vulnerable victims of Katrina, though largely black, are also poor whites and Latinos. The poor are paying the highest price.

So it is no wonder that Katrina has re-ignited the debate over race and class.

There are those who argue, as does Manning Marable, director of Columbia University's Center for Contemporary Black History, that "the class element is inextricably bound to the race element." It has always been so because of the way policies and laws historically have been framed.

Roger Wilkins, the George Mason University historian, sees the historic sweep of the legacy of slavery in the helpless straits of folks marooned by the storm. Seen through that arc of history, Wilkins says that Monday's unmasking of the vast inequality within New Orleans is a "day a reckoning" for the United States: of reckoning with a history of ignoring the poorest of the poor that dates back to our earliest days.

"The worst education in the country is ladled out to the poor kids in big cities. And we're incarcerating black males at a higher rate than any time in our history. After all this time, one in four black people is still impoverished," says Wilkins.

The history of marginalizing black folk in America, especially poor ones, runs so deep that it occurs like second nature. It is one reason, say several prominent black intellectuals, that the response to the devastation of Katrina was so slow.

Racism runs "so deep that the folks who are slow to respond can't see it," says Russell Adams, professor of Afro-American studies at Howard University. "That's the unperceived character of racial behavior, of what I would call hidden racism where you don't know that this situation has a racial character to it, just like fish have trouble defining water."

Scholars are in agreement that race has shaped the lives and prospects of African Americans for generations. They part company on the extent to which racism continues to hinder black prospects in America today.

Many conservative thinkers espouse a race-neutral analysis. Racism doesn't cause poverty, they say, poverty is the result of a pattern of dependency that has set in among poor blacks.

In New Orleans, "you are dealing with the permanently poor -- people who don't have jobs, are not used to getting up and organizing themselves and getting things done and for whom sitting and waiting is a way of life," says Linda Chavez, president of the Center for Equal Opportunity and a former head of the U.S. Civil Rights Commission.

"This is a natural disaster that is exacerbated by the problems of the underclass. The chief cause of poverty today among blacks is no longer racism. It is the breakdown of the traditional family."

John McWhorter, a senior fellow at the Manhattan Institute, cautions against the use of the "nasty, circular, unprovable" argument of race because "this is a matter of the incompetence of the American infrastructure. It's not a matter of somebody in Washington deciding we don't need to rush [to New Orleans] because they're all poor jungle bunnies anyway."

Everyone, it seems, wants to weigh in on the subject.

There is the white TV anchor who muses that the left-behind are living paycheck to paycheck and therefore could not afford to evacuate, and how that paycheck-to-paycheck hustle is not a part of the white American experience. (Tell that to the scores of middle-class whites struggling to service their debt.) Or stand-up comic Bill Maher riffing on the subtleties of 21st century racism and the hurricane. And rapper Kanye West declaring at a concert fundraiser for victims, "George Bush doesn't care about black people." He said America is set up "to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible."

This feeling of being disregarded is pervasive in the African American community, where old wounds still sting. Witness a "Saturday Night Live" skit from 1998, where Samuel L. Jackson and Tracy Morgan indulge in a bit of hyperbole, playing African Americans in the fifth class steerage of the Titanic. Everyone was rescued before them -- even the furniture.

While that may have been comedy, its message is conveyed in all kinds of real-life ways. Deborah Willis, photographer and professor of the arts at New York University, laments some of the images coming out of New Orleans.

The frequent replay of what has become an iconic looting photo -- the guy with the flying braids and falling pants -- "desensitizes the viewer of finding compassion for what happened to the thousands of people who have died or who have suffered," she says.

It's an us- vs .-them kind of image, she says, and "a racialized image because of the way it's been used and reused over again."

Ian Haney Lopez, a law professor at the University of California at Berkeley, agrees: "If you see a photo from New Orleans of a white person with a shotgun, you think, 'Defending property.' If the news flashes a picture of a black person with a shotgun, you think, 'Looter.' "

Then, too, for many people of color, those images come loaded with baggage, in particular, a reflexive sense of guilt, the fear that the looting African Americans will be used to serve as a stand-in for the race as a whole. Ward Connerly admits that he felt a twinge when he saw the images: "I thought this is only going to fuel the perception, there those people go again. It was not as a -- quote -- black man, it was as a citizen who hates to see that kind of thing, but being fully aware of how it plays out in the minds of people."

The image of the ghoulish Other arose in natural disasters more than a century ago. In the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, minority groups (Germans, African Americans and Chinese) were rumored to be preying on white women by chewing on their fingers to steal their jewelry. It's not such a stretch to see parallels in the unconfirmed reports of roving bands of rapists in New Orleans.

So what lessons does New Orleans offer?

We are a multi-racial society, and indeed, New Orleans has historically been famed for its racial mixing and matching and resulting complicated family lines. Still, as a nation, we seem to keep aligning ourselves along strict black/white lines, never mind the more complex, brown and beige reality.

Remember Guinier's black canary in the mine. And the troubling specter of the federal government's seeming incompetence in the wake of a catastrophic national disaster.

"The lesson we can take from this is that the society cannot blithely ignore extreme disparities in economic and social situations," Adams says.

Noel Ignatiev, author of "How the Irish Became White" and editor of Race Traitor, a journal dedicated to the "New Abolitionism," suggests that the nation is poised at a pivotal point. He sees an opportunity for a realignment of thinking.

"White is not a matter of color. White is a matter of a sense of entitlement, a sense they are or ought to be entitled to specially protected place in society," he says. "But there are plenty of white folks on the bottom rung of society, people for whom whiteness isn't doing much at all.

Some may be awakening to the notion there's no use clinging to an identity that's doing them no good. If white folks start thinking of themselves as poor and dispossessed instead of privileged, it will change the way they act. We will see the beginnings of class conflict."

© 2005 The Washington Post Company