[Imc-neworleans] From Margins of Society to Center of the Tragedy
carlwebb1965 at yahoo.com
Fri Sep 2 13:23:44 PDT 2005
September 2, 2005
>From Margins of Society to Center of the Tragedy
By DAVID GONZALEZ
The scenes of floating corpses, scavengers fighting
for food and desperate throngs seeking any way out of
New Orleans have been tragic enough. But for many
African-American leaders, there is a growing outrage
that many of those still stuck at the center of this
tragedy were people who for generations had been
pushed to the margins of society.
The victims, they note, were largely black and poor,
those who toiled in the background of the tourist
havens, living in tumbledown neighborhoods that were
long known to be vulnerable to disaster if the levees
failed. Without so much as a car or bus fare to escape
ahead of time, they found themselves left behind by a
failure to plan for their rescue should the dreaded
day ever arrive.
"If you know that terror is approaching in terms of
hurricanes, and you've already seen the damage they've
done in Florida and elsewhere, what in God's name were
you thinking?" said the Rev. Calvin O. Butts III,
pastor of Abyssinian Baptist Church in Harlem. "I
think a lot of it has to do with race and class. The
people affected were largely poor people. Poor, black
In the days since neighborhoods and towns along the
Gulf Coast were wiped out by the winds and water,
there has been a growing sense that race and class are
the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck.
Just as in developing countries where the failures of
rural development policies become glaringly clear at
times of natural disasters like floods or drought,
many national leaders said, some of the United States'
poorest cities have been left vulnerable by federal
"No one would have checked on a lot of the black
people in these parishes while the sun shined," said
Mayor Milton D. Tutwiler of Winstonville, Miss. "So am
I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No."
The subject is roiling black-oriented Web sites and
message boards, and many black officials say it is a
prime subject of conversation around the country. Some
African-Americans have described the devastation
wrought by Hurricane Katrina as "our tsunami," while
noting that there has yet to be a response equal to
that which followed the Asian tragedy.
Roosevelt F. Dorn, the mayor of Inglewood, Calif., and
the president of the National Association of Black
Mayors, said relief and rescue officials needed to act
"I have a list of black mayors in Mississippi and
Alabama who are crying out for help," Mr. Dorn said.
"Their cities are gone and they are in despair. And no
one has answered their cries."
The Rev. Jesse Jackson said cities had been dismissed
by the Bush administration because Mr. Bush received
few urban votes.
"Many black people feel that their race, their
property conditions and their voting patterns have
been a factor in the response," Mr. Jackson said,
after meeting with Louisiana officials yesterday. "I'm
not saying that myself, but what's self-evident is
that you have many poor people without a way out."
In New Orleans, the disaster's impact underscores the
intersection of race and class in a city where fully
two-thirds of its residents are black and more than a
quarter of the city lives in poverty. In the Lower
Ninth Ward neighborhood, which was inundated by the
floodwaters, more than 98 percent of the residents are
black and more than a third live in poverty.
Spencer R. Crew, president and chief executive officer
of the national Underground Railroad Freedom Center in
Cincinnati, said the aftermath of the hurricane would
force people to confront inequality.
"Most cities have a hidden or not always talked about
poor population, black and white, and most of the time
we look past them," Dr. Crew said. "This is a moment
in time when we can't look past them. Their plight is
coming to the forefront now. They were the ones less
able to hop in a car and less able to drive off."
That disparity has been criticized as a "disgrace" by
Charles B. Rangel, the senior Democratic congressman
from New York City, who said it was made all the worse
by the failure of government officials to have
"I assume the president's going to say he got bad
intelligence, Mr. Rangel said, adding that the danger
to the levees was clear.
"I think that wherever you see poverty, whether it's
in the white rural community or the black urban
community, you see that the resources have been sucked
up into the war and tax cuts for the rich," he said.
Outside Brooklyn Law School yesterday, a man selling
recordings of famous African-Americans was upset at
the failure to have prepared for the worst. The man,
who said his name was Muhammad Ali, drew a damning
conclusion about the failure to protect New Orleans.
"Blacks ain't worth it," he said. "New Orleans is a
Among the messages and essays circulating in
cyberspace that lament the lost lives and missed
opportunities is one by Mark Naison, a white professor
of African-American Studies at Fordham University in
"Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights
movement fought to achieve, a society where many black
people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as
they were by segregation laws?" Mr. Naison wrote. "If
Sept. 11 showed the power of a nation united in
response to a devastating attack, Hurricane Katrina
reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation, rent
by profound social divisions."
That sentiment was shared by members of other minority
groups who understand the bizarre equality of poverty.
"We tend to think of natural disasters as somehow
even-handed, as somehow random," said Martín Espada,
an English professor at the University of
Massachusetts and poet of a decidedly leftist
political bent who is Puerto Rican. "Yet it has always
been thus: poor people are in danger. That is what it
means to be poor. It's dangerous to be poor. It's
dangerous to be black. It's dangerous to be Latino."
This Sunday there will be prayers. In pews from the
Gulf Coast to the Northeast, the faithful will come
together and pray for those who lived and those who
died. They will seek to understand something that has
yet to be fully comprehended.
Some may talk of a divine hand behind all of this. But
others have already noted the absence of a human one.
"Everything is God's will," said Charles Steele Jr.,
the president of the Southern Christian Leadership
Conference in Atlanta. "But there's a certain amount
of common sense that God gives to individuals to
prepare for certain things."
That means, Mr. Steele said, not waiting until the eve
"Most of the people that live in the neighborhoods
that were most vulnerable are black and poor," he
said. "So it comes down to a lack of sensitivity on
the part of people in Washington that you need to help
poor folks. It's as simple as that."
Contributing reporting from New York for this article
were Andy Newman, William Yardley, Jonathan P. Hicks,
Patrick D. Healy, Diane Cardwell, Anemona Hartocollis,
Ronald Smothers, Jeff Leeds, Manny Fernandez and Colin
Moynihan. Also contributing were Michael Cooper in
Albany, Gretchen Ruethling in Chicago, Brenda Goodman
in Atlanta and Carolyn Marshall in San Francisco.
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