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No Longer Invisible

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By Eugene Robinson
Friday, September 9, 2005

NEW ORLEANS -- Beside the interstate leading into this abandoned city there's a self-storage warehouse whose flimsy walls were peeled away by the hurricane. The contents are almost undisturbed, stacked neatly in their exposed compartments. You can see all the inconvenient things that people stowed out of sight and out of mind.

That's what this unreal disaster did to New Orleans and the whole country. Things we tried to tuck away and forget about are suddenly out there for the world to see. As a nation we can deal with them or not, but we no longer have the option of pretending they don't exist.

Chief among this inconvenient baggage is poverty. After seeing who escaped the flood and who remained behind, it's impossible to ignore the shocking breadth of the gap between rich and poor. It's as if we don't even see poor people in this country anymore, as if we don't even try to imagine what their lives are like. Think about what just happened -- a record-book hurricane was bearing down on the most vulnerable city in the country, and it didn't dawn on officials at any level that many people didn't have cars in which to flee, money to stay in hotels or upstate friends with enough space to take them in.

To be poor in America was to be invisible, but not after this week, not after those images of the bedraggled masses at the Superdome, convention center and airport. No one can claim that the post-Reagan orthodoxy of low taxes and small government, which does wonders for the extremely rich, also inevitably does wonders for the extremely poor.

What was that about a rising tide lifting all boats? What if you don't have a boat?

The other unavoidable inconvenience is race. In New Orleans, race and class overlapped to such an extent that it was difficult to pry them apart. Were people forgotten or treated with disdain because they were black or because they were poor? Mostly because they were poor, I'd say. Was the African American majority ill-served by an African American mayor? Mayor Ray Nagin clearly loves his city and its people, but at one point bitter crowds at the Superdome were honoring him with the chant "[Expletive] Ray!"

Still, there was a racial component in the way the residents of New Orleans looked at one another in this crisis. When the city broke down into anarchy, some whites began seeing any black man as a robber, looter, carjacker or rapist. Horrible crimes were indeed committed, but there were far more reports of crimes that never took place.

But, yes, some black men were robbing, looting, carjacking and raping. It was like a social explosion, muffled by the enfolding waters -- destruction for destruction's sake, reminiscent of what we saw four decades ago in the Watts riots. Most black New Orleanians had nothing to do with any violence, but I was surprised at how many of them were quick to believe that some nameless, powerful "they" had somehow engineered the levee failures to protect the French Quarter and wealthy parts of the city by surrendering poor black neighborhoods to flooding. Some whites, meanwhile, stayed in the city and joined together in vigilante bands to keep out the unwashed hordes.

I saw myriad examples of whites and blacks working together, helping one another, striving for the common goal of survival. I saw evidence of the unique New Orleans cultural gumbo that is so much a part of the city's self-image. But the instances of mutual suspicion, of quick separation into us vs. them, were too real to ignore.

New Orleans looks ruined and uninhabitable. It sits in an untenable position, wedged between lake and river in a busy corridor for hurricanes; the French founded the city in 1718, and just four years later it was all but wiped out by a storm. But you can bet the city will be rebuilt. In their book "The Resilient City: How Modern Cities Recover From Disaster," scholars Lawrence J. Vale and Thomas J. Campanella point out that destroyed cities almost always rise again.

"The question is, what do we mean by recovery?" said Vale, head of the Department of Urban Studies and Planning at MIT. "Is it getting the hotel occupancy numbers back up in the French Quarter? Or is it fixing low-income schools or working on the worst housing problems? Who is going to set those priorities?"

Now it's time to drain the water, bury the dead and clean away the muck. But for a city and a nation that put poverty and race into a locker and ignored them for 20 years, cleanup is just the beginning.

eugenerobinson@washpost.com


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