Mary E. Dillard
is an Assistant Professor of African History and Global Studies at Sarah Lawrence College
Jose Saramago's prizewinning novel Blindness is about an epidemic of sudden blindness that grips a fictional city, and later, the entire country. It's a white blindness- instead of everything going dark, victims experience the loss of their eyesight as a white screen that suddenly removes their vision. Saramago describes the violence and lawlessness that the blinded victims descend into when the state turns against them instead of helping them. Sexual assault, bodies of the dead left to rot, the hoarding and stealing of food and the absolutely appalling sanitation conditions are the lot of the victims of this catastrophe.
In real life, this sounds a lot like the conditions faced by people who fled to the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. If a novelist, with no experience in emergency management, could envision the possibility of chaos that would ensue, why couldn't the experts from the Federal Government and the Red Cross, who are supposedly trained and knowledgeable about disaster management?
Like millions of people in this country and around the world, I sat riveted in horror and grief as I watched this tragedy unfold on the television news. The disaster in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has shocked and saddened us all. Not only the environmental destruction, but the inaction and arrogance of our political elites has been demonstrated for the world to see.
After days of waiting for water, food, and relief supplies to arrive, New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin, finally voiced his frustration in an urgent SOS, "I keep hearing that it's coming. My answer to that is B.S. Where's the beef?"
To that query, I would add, "Where's the state?" Or I should say, where was the state? In particular, our federal officials and disaster management teams were noticeably absent as the crisis unfolded. President George Bush's initial fly-over was poignant in its resonance for people on the ground. Just back from vacation, Bush and his handlers determined that it wasn't safe for him to go to hard hit New Orleans. He landed instead, in the welcoming bear hug of Governor Hailey Barber of Mississippi. Bush told the American people that the most urgent need was for funds. The nation responded immediately, and continues to respond, digging deep to provide cash, shelter, food, diapers, and clothing for the disaster victims. But didn't we already pay for this when we paid our taxes? Even if you are a staunch Republican and a loyal Bush supporter, you are going to have to start wondering at some point where all of your tax dollars for Homeland Security went? This episode showed us all the sham of what Bush's national security plan really is- cronyism and nepotism, another pay out for his friends, an opportunity to reward loyalty with lucrative government contracts, and a continuation of corporate welfare for the most wealthy.
Journalists, politicians and ordinary citizens have compared many of the images of New Orleans in particular, to Africa or have used the terms "Third World" to describe what they are seeing. As an African historian, I find this to be an interesting choice of words to describe a North American city. But are those Third Worlds parallels are accurate?
New Orleans has sometimes been described as one of the most African cities in the United States. During the era of the Trans-Atlantic slave trade, its port was a destination point for hundreds of slave ships plying the Gulf Coast. Its famous, former slave trading market "Congo square" bears the moniker of the homeland from which large numbers of Africans were enslaved. Much of this "Congolese" culture can still be found in the architecture, religious beliefs, and language patterns of Louisiana residents. In addition, in the same way that the state of California is considered to be part of the Pacific Rim, New Orleans has also been described as one of the northernmost cities of the Caribbean.
What we witnessed, this past week in this African/Caribbean city, were U.S. citizens being treated as if they were part of the Third World. The difference of course, is that New Orleans is situated in the wealthiest and most powerful nation in the world. Yet and still, people were left to drown, starve, dehydrate, and suffer, following a lackluster government response that most North Americans expected to occur only in other parts of the world.
How could this be?
I submit that hurricane ravaged, predominantly Black New Orleans IS the Third world. Globalization theorists tell us that the traditional descriptions of First, Second, and Third worlds have broken down. There can now be pockets of First World wealth and development in Third World nations and "internal Third Worlds", in First World nations. The way that globalization theories have played out on the ground in Africa has meant the withdrawal of the state in providing the most basic human services, the emphasis on the private sector to do it all, the concerns about environmental destruction as a result of unbridled neo-liberal economic policies, and an overall decline in the ability of local governments to provide for the health and welfare of their people. We witnessed all of these factors at play in New Orleans.
Because the majority of people who were trapped by the storm were poor, Black, or poor and Black, people have talked about the racism in the Federal government's emergency response. But I have a different analysis. The reaction to Hurricane Katrina should be viewed as the new face of environmental racism. Almost twenty years ago, sociologist Robert Bullard and the United Church of Christ's Commission for Racial Justice coined the term "environmental racism" to describe the large numbers of hazardous waste dumps located in poor Black and Hispanic communities. But environmental racism isn't just about "dumping in Dixie" as Bullard put it. It's also about the withdrawal of government funds for preventive public health services that have resulted in increased levels of asthma, diabetes, heart disease, and HIV infection in African American communities.
Environmental racism can be seen in the response to natural disasters as well: the role of the state in flying over/ surveying the disaster, the prioritizing of who gets evacuated, the response to environmental degradation, the decision of how extensively to clean up oil spills or whether to clean them up at all. Finally, environmental racism, in this case, is about how New Orleans will be rebuilt. Who will profit from the billions of dollars now flowing in, and who will find that their homes and livelihoods in New Orleans are gone forever?
Scholars of American history have long argued that the situation of African Americans and Native Americans, should be the true test of the health of freedom and citizenship in this country. This is because these two groups, despite the fact of having been born here over generations and having no where else to go, have been consistently denied the benefits of citizenship. Both groups, at different times in U.S. history, have been defined, not only as less than citizens, but even as less than human. This occurred again as looting began in New Orleans. Television news anchors noted condescendingly how "Unfortunately, situations like these bring out the best and worst in people, making some people revert to their most basic instincts." Again, novelist Saramago could anticipate this breakdown, but Louisiana Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco could not. On day two of the disaster, she ordered in what's left of the Louisiana National Guard. Not to evacuate people as a priority, but to protect private property from looters. In her speech to the media, Governor Babineaux Blanco described the Guard as "locked and loaded with orders to shoot to kill."
Why? A slow death by drowning, dehydration, or heat exhaustion wasn't enough? Law and order must prevail, but Black women can't be protected from sexual assault at the Superdome? Would she have used this militaristic language against the white looters, described in AP captions as "finding food"?
If the majority of victims of this tragedy had been white, would the response have been the same? If this is the initial response to so much suffering, what does citizenship in the twenty first century mean for African Americans?
Of the billions of dollars that will now be directed towards the Gulf Coast as Bush tries to buy his way back into the hearts and minds of most Americans, much of it will go to Hailey Barber's Mississippi. In the week following the hurricane, Republican Barber heaped praise on the President, pointing out that the United States Coast Guard was already assisting hurricane victims in Mississippi a day after the hurricane struck. Meanwhile, the White House continued to trade blame with the Democratic Governor of Louisiana about who was responsible for the slow response there. This difference in the level of Federal government response reminded me most of African governments accused of withholding famine and other humanitarian relief supplies from regions where opposition to their rule is the strongest. In other words, Bush's actions and the corruption endemic to his government mimic the very regimes in Africa that he sends Condoleeza Rice around the world to criticize.
As a nation, we watched thousands of people suffer and die on national television. But we are being asked not to play "the blame game". Where's the accountability?
Where's the beef? Where's the help? Where's the state?
The simple answer, of course, is-in Iraq.