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Melissa Harris-Perry: Fear Is Driving America's Politics, But Hope Is the Only Antidote

In her speech Monday in Washington, D.C., at Take Back the American Dream, Perry explained that racism, anti-immigrant panic and the war on women all drive our politics.

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August 29, 2005.

The legacy of Hurricane Katrina

August 29, 2005, was the day that the levies failed in the City of New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. Maybe it's actually not that day, because on that day, and on the five subsequent days immediately after the levies failed and the city flooded, we behaved just as we did in the immediate post-9/11 moment. We got scared of our racial enemies.

The governor of Louisiana, a Democrat; the mayor of the City of New Orleans, a black Democrat; jointly decided to suspend search-and-rescue efforts in order to focus on law and order. Until -- until -- the national media recognized that there were people -- black people, actually; women, elderly and children -- starving and dying (video) in the city center. It wasn't until the images of African American women, the elderly and children who were dehydrated in the heat of a New Orleans August finally turned the language away from this kind of law-and-order language and into what The Economist called "the shaming of America."

I don't know if you remember this, looking at the image right now -- if I'd have gotten myself together I would have put it up as a PowerPoint -- was the image of The Economist magazine, in the second week of September, 2005. An African American woman is on the cover; she's wearing a New Orleans tee shirt, and [the headline] says, "The Shaming of America."

I'd like you to pause and ask yourself how many black women have appeared on the cover of The Economist magazine. And I don't know her name. I live in New Orleans, I've studied Katrina, and I don't know her name. And yet there are very, very few black women who ever have appeared...and yet the notion that there was still a collective shaming that happens in a country that fancies itself a place where women and children are first -- Hurricane Katrina actually shames us into an anti-war stance.

Here's how it goes: From September 11, 2001, until about September 4, I'm gonna give it, of 2005, we are trying to participate in the nationalist, patriotic fervor against the imagined racial enemy that is those others over there that are activating terrorism against us, right until the levies failed, we realized that we allowed our own citizens to drown, to die, dehydrate, on camera, and we go, "Oh, if you can't give water to an American city for a week, how can you prosecute a foreign war?"

And the Democratic Party feels a little steel drop down its spine. All these media folks who live in New York City who realize that if this is how we respond to disasters, they're screwed -- and for the first time we start hearing an active anti-war message [from the party]. This, of course, is how, in 2006, Democrats win back the House.

They win the House in 2006 because, for the first time, they have articulated an actual paradigm difference to the Republican Party for the first time in five years. And, of course, we remember the response to the anti-war message that won the mid-term elections in 2006: the surge. The response to the American people saying, "We want out of the war," is that the White House sent more soldiers into the war.

It is exactly the opposite that happens in 2010 when, by taking over the House, the Republican Party decides it as a mandate from the American people to turn back what they had just done in 2008. [The Bush] White House, in 2006, told us, "We don't care what happened in the mid-terms. We are running this war effort." And we let them.