With a killer storm on the way to New Orleans, people with cars left town. But those without the means had to stay. What we saw were the poorest of the poor, literally left behind in a city that’s two-thirds black—a city where white homes generally sit at higher elevations, while many poor blacks live in areas that flood much more easily. And now, the discussion is now as much about recovery as equality.
“You can’t talk about anything without talking about race in America,” says New Orleans native Andrew Young, a former Atlanta mayor and U.N. ambassador. Young is a veteran of the civil-rights movement. He says the racial divide exposed in the wake of the hurricane needs to be confronted.
“Any time there’s a real, difficult, and intractable difference in our society, our tendency is to ignore it as long as we can,” says Young.
So was one of the things that got washed away away this week the feeling that America's made a lot of progress in the racial divide? Young says, “no.” “I think everybody knew that all along. I just think we didn’t see it on television in such a concentrated way,” he says.
Young says that what played out in New Orleans this past week is the result of decisions made as long ago as the 1940s when farm work became scarce and many poor black families moved to urban America. “That’s true in almost every major city. We gave farmers money not to grow food and fiber. But we didn’t give any resources to the people who’d been living on those lands. And they crowded into cities without adequate education,” he says.
Many came to depend on city services, public transportation, and government subsidies. So when the government— with all its authority— told them to go the Superdome, they did, if they could.
Add to that an accident of the calendar: Katrina struck New Orleans on the 29th of the month.
“The first of the month in America is a very important date,” says Rep. Maxine Waters (R-Calif.) “Not only do you have pension checks, welfare checks, other kinds of resources basically for poor people, by the 29th you don’t have any money. You’re out.”
That’s true in a lot of major cities. But usually, you don’t see those people on television, or when you’re letting the good times roll on Bourbon street. This week we saw a different New Orleans.
“Many people go into the city, and they spend a little money in the French Quarter, or in the palatial homes of the Garden District. Even before the hurricane, places like the Ninth Ward might have shocked them. People from out of town always became aghast at the poverty,” says Louisiana State University Professor Craig Colten, who has written about hurricanes, New Orleans, and race.
In the nearly all-black Ninth Ward, more than a third of residents live below the poverty level. Now, they’re below water as well.
All of which begs an obvious question: Would help have arrived sooner if the crowd at the Superdome had been mostly white?
“This would not have happened if that crowd had been more powerful,” says Rep. Waters. “If they had been upper middle-class people and had resources.”
But if they had resources, they wouldn’t have found themselves here.
Even the black mayor of New Orleans apparently didn’t take his poorer residents into account during the evacuation— his plan didn’t involve any public transportation, suggesting that this may be an issue of class as much as race.
Is what’s going on in New Orleans an issue of white and black— or it an issue of sort of the haves and the have-nots?
Waters thinks its both. “When you take a look at the television screen America is seeing the majority black people who are basically being treated like dogs. They don’t see whites for the most part. They see blacks. And so people cannot help but raise the race issue.”
Andrew Young, who has been through a long struggle sees an even longer one ahead.
The truth is that it’s hard to divorce race from class in America. They’re two issues we almost never discuss honestly— unless we can’t avoid it.