Left Behind: Backdrop to a National Crisis
Peniel E. Joseph, Ph.D.
The tragic aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is the most recent expression of the deepening crisis of the American state in the age of globalization. This crisis of the American state is intimately connected to a series of events and political trends in the post-Cold War era. The most notable examples of these recurring circle of crises in recent years were embodied in the 2000 presidential election, the disturbing gap between rich and poor, growing disaffection of the American electorate, and the domination of information and knowledge by the power elite. Until the arrival of Katrina, the most obvious manifestations of these dangers were reflected in the twin crises of the national security state in post-9/11 America, and the American invasion of Iraq and subsequent occupation since 2002. Despite its ferocious rage, Katrina is not solely responsible for the untold devastation that was visited on the poor people of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast region. She is only guilty of exposing the cynicism of an American political system that allows masses of the poor, especially the black poor, to endure lives of quiet desperation amid a land of plenty. As in all monumental events, Katrina has a context. While mindful of the significance of its more recent national and global trends, Katrina has a deeper context in the marginalization of the black poor in the history of American public policy, as well as in the American imagination.
The recent disaster in New Orleans and the larger Gulf Coast region has, in addition to inflicting incalculable horrors on the region in the form of death and misery, opened up the vortex of race, class, and citizenship that provides a backdrop to this unfolding national crisis. Sluggish federal response, a president lacking the political will to convey the breadth of the catastrophe, corporate media reports that characterized the black poor as savages while portraying their white counterparts as struggling innocents, and the Louisiana Governor's hysterical threats to shoot "looters" bring these contradictions into sharp focus. Collectively, the masses of the black poor in New Orleans have waited much longer for government intervention than the agonizing hours and days it took to persuade government officials that the crisis was too overwhelming to ignore. The direct descendants of enslaved Africans, African Americans in New Orleans have lived and died, fought and struggled, and, often waited lifetimes for help that never came.
The death and devastation in New Orleans, a city that is two-thirds black, with a poverty line that hovers above thirty percent (84% of whom are black), represents the contemporary face of racism. Hurricane Katrina's assault on the poorest and most vulnerable segments of the African American community throws into sharp relief recent debates over black poverty, civil rights, and individual responsibility triggered by comedian Bill Cosby's controversial comments that decried the decline of community values, family structure, and individual responsibility among the black poor. In Katrina's immediate aftermath federal officials echoed Cosby's indictment of the black poor. They also openly questioned why those left behind had stayed in their homes in the face of Mayor Nagin's evacuation order. Why didn't they leave sooner? Because they couldn't. In an economic climate where, despite soaring oil prices and middle-class anxiety, Americans consider the ownership of ever expanding homes and gas guzzling SUV's a personal right, it's easy to forget those left behind during these prosperous times. But for all too many African Americans, the denial of adequate public education and professional opportunities to participate in American prosperity has a familiar ring to it. In an era where too many Americans congratulate themselves on the size of the black middle-class, the number of prominent black political figures, and the wealth of black entrepreneurs, the pitiful lives of the black poor goes rarely acknowledged and remains invisible.
African Americans in New Orleans represent the latest generation of blacks to live in shelter unfit for human beings, attend schools that do not educate, and be viewed by black elites and white politicians as undeserving Americans. Over a century ago the great African American intellectual W.E.B. Du Bois, in his pioneering study, The Philadelphia Negro, investigated the miserable living conditions of blacks in Philadelphia and concluded that racist public policy, not racial malingering, conspired to trap blacks in the inner city. Du Bois' intervention went unheeded during much of the first half of twentieth century America as waves of blacks migrated to big cities in the North, Midwest, and West. Confined to racially and economically segregated "ghettos," black urban development during and after the First and Second World Wars, was contoured by public policy (most notably the New Deal) that effectively prevented African Americans from enjoying the massive wealth transfers and subsidies (in housing, the GI Bill, etc.) that facilitated the baby boomers' entrée into America's postwar middle-class. Of course, it wasn't just northern cities (or urban areas for that matter) that were short-changed. Urban rebellions during the 1960s transcended regionalism. Although they are popularly remembered as having taken place in Harlem, Detroit, Newark, and Watts, the rebellions expanded the devastating nexus of race, class, crime, education, and poverty that would grip the 1970s. To add insult to injury, American social scientists largely ignored the long history of racial discrimination and policy exclusion that (along with deindustrialization and globalization) led to urban crises during the 1970s and 1980s and labeled urban America's most desperate residents as the "underclass." These are the African Americans who were left behind to die in New Orleans. In a different era, Black Power activists such as Huey P. Newton described this group as "brothers on the block" while Malcolm X characterized them as "Field Negroes."
Perhaps it is fitting that one of the most eloquent defenses of black people--and by extension, of American democracy and the very meaning of citizenship--has come from rap artist Kanye West, whose improvisational critique during an NBC hurricane telethon ("George Bush does not care about black people.") placed the spotlight on the media's hypocrisy and the White House's blatant callousness. Hip Hop, afterall, was borne out of the crucible of America's urban crisis, producing a generation of black and brown youth who know, against all odds, that their lives are worth living and saving. While Katrina has unleashed a national crisis, it also presents Americans of all colors with a tremendous opportunity. If the nation ever needed to be reminded of what's at stake when we discuss "race relations," this is no longer the case. Chester Himes once said that "A fighter fights, and a writer writes." Now is the time for progressives, radicals, and humanists of all stripes to do both.
Peniel E. Joseph teaches in the Department of Africana Studies at SUNY-Stony Brook. He is the author of Waiting Till the Midnight Hour: The Black Power Movement and American Society (New York: Henry Holt, 2006) and editor of The Black Power Movement: Rethinking the Civil Rights-Black Power Era (New York: Routledge, 2006) and can be reached at Peniel.Joseph@stonybrook.edu.