Another Case of Government for Some
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"We authorized $8 billion to go to Iraq lickety-quick. After 9-11, we gave the President unprecedented powers lickety-quick to take care of New York and other places. You mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through, a place that is so unique when you mention New Orleans anywhere in the world everybody's eyes light up. You mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying everyday that we can't figure out how to authorize the resources that we need?"
-- The Honorable Ray Nagin, Mayor of the City of New Orleans
The stories stack up before our eyes: Poignant portraits of human beings in ultimate pain from the yawning, unfathomable loss of loved ones, of all that means home; a feisty, passionate mayor who refuses to be political in the face of the mounting death toll; the racist imagery of desperation framed as criminality; and a governor who acts quickly to offer the death penalty for petty appropriation of property. As for punishment for the public neglect that caused the loss of life? There will be no shoot-to-kill orders on that one.
Louisiana, Mississippi, Alabama -- the states hardest hit by Katrina -- are for many African Americans our real home. No matter how comfortable we become in our digs in the cities to the north, this region is where many of us have our roots. It's where Big Mama showed us tomatoes on the vine. It holds the smell of clean linen, pressed hair and church pews on hot Sunday afternoons. Each crushed home, each missing relative is part of a chain that binds each of us one to another.
This is why millions of us watch the events unfold in horror and knowing. Horror at the incredible loss of life and knowing that once again we are forced to face the fact that to politicians, black life is cheap.
There has been a lot of discussion on the internet about the uneven, racist news coverage. The now famous Yahoo News story in which black people were described as looters and whites as "finding" food has found its way to mainstream media. Reporters want to know, "How could this happen?"
We know how. It happens everyday. Yet, this may be but a distraction from the more fundamental bias in the coverage and even more importantly, the bias in public policy.
Public infrastructure has been racialized for many decades now. The reason why those levees were not repaired, why there were no buses to evacuate the people that FEMA director Michael Brown callously described as "choosing not to evacuate" are all consequences of public policy that characterizes public investment -- particularly urban investment -- as wasted resources upon the undeserving.
After decades of constant attack, the local hospital, the neighborhood school, the park, the library have all become the institutional equivalent of welfare queens and "shiftless Negroes." According to the right, they are simply not worth your hard-earned money. Government is a gated community where those who can afford it can access its "amenities." All the rest of us will have to catch as catch can. People of color, low-income folk, those of us on the other side of the gate, know how deadly this can be.
Urban areas and other communities with high concentrations of people of color have suffered decades of disinvestment and disfranchisement. Urban areas are less likely to have fair representation at the state and federal level due to apportionment schemes designed to dilute their voting power. Therefore, they are more likely to lose their public hospitals and other critical services. In many states, the suburbs and rural areas are considered the "real" residents and the urban areas are political stepchildren.
Even in the face of thousands dead, Louisiana's governor has New Orleans mostly fending for itself. Local black residents report that many mainstream relief efforts are bypassing their neighborhoods and reporters are looking for "more sympathetic" victims (read white). Even celebrity coverage was skewed. Green Bay Packer and Kiln, Miss. native Brett Favre had cameras following him, while black future Hall of Famers, who also sustained serious losses, like Marshall Faulk, were mostly ignored.
Media coverage matters. Its relationship to public policy, and ultimately how the two shape our reality, is complex. The inhumane stereotypes and negative imagery help steer the public toward inhumane policies and savage behavior. A black man in a vestibule raises a wallet that morphs into a gun in the eyes of a cop. A mother looking for food becomes a drug-crazed criminal down the nose of a rifle. Seconds later, a loved one is gone.
It has to end.
African Americans and all people of goodwill can make a difference in this fight. Don't just watch the tragedy unfold and get angry. Pick up your phone, send off an email, talk about it with your neighbors, in your church, your mosque, your temple, your beauty salon. Write the President, Congress, the governor of Louisiana, FEMA Director Michael Brown, CNN and anyone else who treats our lives cheaply and let them know that we are not having it. Do it so your kids won't have to do it as often. Do it for Big Mama and Uncle John. Do it for all of us because we know, with the certainty of sunrise, that this dis won't be the last.