Flushing out the ugly truth

The horror in New Orleans has exposed the nation's dirty secrets of race and poverty. Americans are ready to help. Will our leaders show the way?

Published September 1, 2005 11:17PM (EDT)

The nightmare in New Orleans has a lot to tell us about poverty: the desperate poverty of the city's African-American population, of course, but also the poverty of political debate in the U.S. today. The crisis unfolding before us -- dispossession, looting, people shooting at rescue workers, the president's dim response, and now, people dying in front of our eyes outside the Superdome - rubs our noses in so much that's wrong in our country, it's excruciating to watch. But I'm especially struck by the inability of our existing political discourse to describe, let alone to solve, the intractable social problems that have come together in this flood whose proportions and portents seem almost biblical.

Ever since the first looting photos made cable news I've felt sick, like here we go again, we're going to have a new round in the culture war about the poor. Are they victims, or barbarians? If Sean Hannity's attacking them, well, I sure as hell have to defend them. When right-wing pundit Neal Boortz is saying shoot them on sight, somebody has to say that's sick and crazy, right? Personally, with all the destruction in view on Tuesday and Wednesday, I couldn't be horrified by people stealing food; I didn't even care much about people running off with sneakers and beer and TVs. Looting Wal-Mart? I don't defend it, but what do we expect? These are desperately poor people who've been deliberately left behind, in so many senses of the word -- left behind by society, shut up in housing projects and hideous poverty, and now truly left behind by local and federal officials who failed to come up with an evacuation plan for people too poor and isolated to leave on their own. If looting Wal-Mart was the worst of it, I thought, we should consider ourselves lucky.

But it wasn't. Thursday we saw people shooting at rescue helicopters (with guns they stole from Wal-Mart, perhaps?), at hospital supply trucks, at workers trying to evacuate the sick from hospitals, the horrifying next chapter in an already awful story. I started to feel like my indifference to yesterday's looting was morally lazy, a reflexive shrug at having to really think about the poor, who they are, why they are. What a crazy, depraved way to treat people who are trying to help. But having said that, we're not absolved from trying to understand and reckon with the chaos. Like it or not, this crisis is going to be with us for a long time, because it's been coming for a long time - we're going to have to face issues of race, poverty and civil rights we've long chosen to ignore.

As I watched buses make their way from the Superdome to the Astrodome in Houston, in a surreal and perverse echo of the Freedom Rides of the '60s, a few thoughts were inescapable. Why didn't we send a caravan of buses into the city's poorest neighborhoods on Saturday or Sunday, when the dimensions of the disaster were already predictable? And what is really going to happen in Houston? These are dispossessed people who've been further dispossessed -- do we have a word for that? After a few days, the Superdome is already a slice of hell, with overflowing bathrooms, fights, rape allegations and now, people dying outside. Do we expect the Astrodome -- abandoned by the Houston Astros in 2000 for Enron Field, excuse me, Minute Maid Park -- to fare much better? Sure, Houston's got electricity and running water, but tens of thousands of scared, angry people packed into an abandoned sports stadium -- we couldn't come up with a better symbol of how little we care about the poor, how little we've thought about what to do with them, for them, if we tried.

As if to make sure we didn't miss the ironies, the same week as Katrina came news that the poverty rate has climbed again, the fourth straight year under President Bush. But let's be fair: John Kerry barely mentioned the poor last year. And while President Clinton's booming 1990s lifted some boats, and his welfare reform at least muted the ideological sniping about whether poor folks were victims or freeloaders, nobody's bothered lately to pay much attention to whether welfare reform made people's lives better, whether it paved a path out of poverty or just moved its subjects into the vast ranks of the working poor.

Then came Katrina, and we're forced to pay attention. We're forced to look at New Orleans, to really see it -- one of the nation's great party cities and also one of its poorest. If you go for Mardi Gras or the annual Jazz Heritage Festival, really if you go any old time, you know its majority black population is mostly hidden from white tourists. Beyond the gorgeous French Quarter and Garden District it's long been a crime-plagued, gang-ridden, corruption-befouled city. But as long as you stuck to Fodor's, you didn't have to care.

Now you do. Before Katrina, we were warned of coffins floating out of cemeteries, but instead we got poor black people flushed out of slums, and to some people they're apparently just as scary. But they're not going back any time soon. They're our responsibility now. They always were; we just ignored it.

Maybe we can't anymore. On cable news, our normally buttoned-down blow-dried correspondents, almost all of them white, are cracking under the strain of bearing witness to the suffering and even death of the people who weren't looting, who did the right thing and headed to the Superdome, only to find a worse hell awaited them. They've dropped their script and they're asking tough questions. CNN's Chris Lawrence was clearly shaken describing what he saw: "We talked to mothers holding babies, some of these babies 3, 4, 5 months old, living in these horrible conditions ...These people are being forced to live like animals. When you look at some of these mothers your heart just breaks ... People need to see this ... what it's really like here. We saw dead bodies. People are dying at the convention center, and there's no one to come get them."

Later, Anderson Cooper was even harsher, challenging Sen. Mary Landrieu for thanking President Bush for his efforts to aid her state. "Senator, I'm sorry for interrupting," he said. "For the last four days I've been seeing dead bodies in the streets here in Mississippi ... You know, I gotta tell you, there are a lot of people here who are very upset, and very angry, and very frustrated. And when they hear politicians thanking one another, it kind of cuts them them wrong way right now. Because literally there was a body on the streets of this town yesterday being eaten by rats because this woman had been laying in the street for 48 hours and there's not enough facilities to take her up. Do you get the anger that is out here?"

Of course, it's unfair to blame the president for an act of nature like Katrina. And yet it's irrefutable that this administration's backward policies and politics made this disaster worse than it had to be, and its belated response will do nothing to address the problems that have suddenly been flushed out into the open. The death toll from Katrina is likely to be higher than 9/11, but most of its victims will be black and poor, and I doubt we'll wage a war on poverty and neglect to match the war on terror launched after al-Qaida struck -- and if we did, I doubt it would be any more effective. The president, who continued his vacation while Katrina raged, just the way he kept reading "My Pet Goat" on 9/11, is headed for the Gulf on Friday. I'd like him to bring some answers, but I don't expect him to.

What I'd really like is to see him head today for the Superdome, bring his dad, and Bill Clinton, and John Kerry and Howard Dean -- any Democrat or Republican who cares, really - and go to work, feeding and comforting the refugees and finding out what they need. Then I'd like to see them put people to work, rebuilding the amazing historic city we've apparently lost.

Americans are ready to do the right thing. Americans want to help their neighbors -- even when those neighbors are people they don't know, who are poor and have different colored skin. If you close your eyes, you can imagine a silver lining. Inspired by a president who got down in the water himself and started bailing, America could find the will and the resources to put people to work building a country, not destroying one the way we're doing in Iraq. But that is just a dream. In the real world, the water is likely to keep rising. Still, I'd be thrilled to be proven wrong.

By Joan Walsh

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