Personal Voices: An Unnatural Disaster
When Hurricane Katrina tore up the roof of my house, it didn't care that I'm black. My white neighbors, like my black neighbors, saw trees fall on their homes and saw their refrigerators rot and mold. They, like I, lived without electricity or phone for over a week after that color-blind natural disaster.
But an unnatural disaster hit us as well, the institutionalized racism that began centuries ago. The flooded areas of New Orleans were three-quarters black, while in dry areas, African Americans were a minority. Over the years, many well-off white people have left the city for gated suburban communities. The remaining whites tend to live on higher ground.
The unnatural disaster of racism swept away the savings accounts and credit cards with which poor black people could have bought their escape. A century of Jim Crow laws barred black families in the South from certain schools and jobs. Social Security benefits were not available at first to domestic and agricultural workers, the occupations of most African Americans at that time. Due to discrimination, most black WWII veterans were unable to use the GI Bill, which gave most white veterans the homeownership and college educations that have made their children and grandchildren so prosperous.
The unnatural disaster of racism swept away the cars with which poor black people could have escaped Katrina. Almost a third of residents of the flooded neighborhoods did not own the cars on which the evacuation plan relied. If the promise to the freed slaves of 40 acres and a mule had been kept, then six generations later, their descendents would own more assets, and the mule would now be a Buick.
Nor has this unnatural disaster abated today, as I learned from my own experience. Almost immediately after Katrina hit my town, I saw spray-painted signs warning that looters would be shot and killed. I was warned by a white neighbor not to move around too much lest I be mistaken as a looter.
When my daughter came to get me from my damaged house and drove me to her home in Indiana, we were turned away by a white motel clerk in Illinois on the pretext that there were no vacancies. A later phone call confirmed what their sign said, that rooms were available. I also experienced first-hand racial discrimination in gas lines, and in food and water distribution lines by a police officer.
The world noticed that the evacuees stuck in the SuperDome and those turned back at gunpoint at the Gretna bridge were mostly black. But who noticed that the first no-bid federal contracts went to white businessmen, cronies of white politicians?
It's hard for me to believe, but this persistent racism is invisible to many white people. A Time Magazine poll taken in September found that while three quarters of blacks believe race and income level played a role in the government response to Hurricane Katrina, only 29 percent of whites felt the same.
The color of money is green, but the color of poverty has a darker hue. Families in the flooded black neighborhoods of New Orleans had a 2004 median income of only $25,759 a year, barely more than half the national average. Why? Louisiana is a low-wage, anti-union state. Many workers have pay so low that they receive public housing and food stamps. New Orleans voters made history by approving a citywide living wage in 2002, but a court blocked it, allowing poverty wages to continue.
Last week I drove home to Louisiana. In my neighborhood I hear the constant buzzing of chain saws removing uprooted trees, and the sounds of hammering as roofers repair endless numbers of damaged roofs. The fragrances of Pine Sol and bleach tinge the air as residents attempt to save refrigerators and rain-soaked carpets. I thank God that my family and I survived the storm, and that the recovery has begun.
Yet I ask myself when the other recovery will begin.
Katrina revealed the racial wealth divide in New Orleans and the unnatural disaster that caused it. When will we rebuild our society so that everyone, regardless of race, has the means to escape the next disaster?