Wednesday, October 12, 2005

Katrina and Race

A friend of mine recently asked for my feedback on an e-mail forward he received. In the e-mail, a Rev. Peterson criticizes the African American community for their response to the disaster of Katrina. You can read the e-mail here. Here are my responses to it. For a far more eloquent response to the history behind the response, click here. I'd be interested in your thoughts.

1) Whether we like it or not, there is a distinct line between what a member of a community can say about her own community and what an outsider can say. In a sense, one earns the right to critique by living out the particular experiences of a community and thus understanding deeply both the struggles and successes of the community. This does not guarantee your accuracy as Rev. Peterson demonstrates, but he has, in a sense, earned the right as a member of the community to critique harshly. Nevertheless, I would be extraordinarily cautious in purveying that privilege to others, especially in this country in which the shadow of racism has yet to be lifted. What I'm saying is that were the words written by the Rev uttered by a white person, they would be correctly deemed as racist; his statement is marked by hasty generalizations and a moral superiority that requires rejection. Yet, in a sense, he has the right to be that wrong! Outsiders do not. I would argue that forwarding the e-mail is a racist move in that it advocates the racist generalizations that make up the bulk of the argument.

2) The generalizations in the argument are simply unforgivable. To label all those who stayed as "primarily immoral, welfare-pampered blacks" neglects those who died in their hospital beds or in their nursing homes. It neglects the children who lost their lives or feared the loss of their lives. It neglects the number of poor whites who were unable to leave the city. Even more, it neglects the kind of socio-economic conditions that an economically stratified city engenders. Were there some "bad" people who stayed behind? No doubt, yet I found it fascinating that the media scrutinized so much the looters while there were decomposing bodies on the streets of a major American city. To extrapolate a moral assessment from the actions of a handful is simply illogical. Even more, we might observe that the anarchic aftermath to disasters is not isolated to certain races or peoples; this is a human phenomenon, not a racial one.

3) The famous "blame game": The fundamental question about Katrina is who is to blame. Nobody wants to take responsibility. Our president was too busy on vacation to realize the devastation until his aides made a DVD for him of the evening news! At the same time, the local government collapsed in the face of this disaster; they deserve blame. But the federal government's role, in my mind, is to use its size and resources when local and state governments fail. Under the tutelage of Mike Brown, FEMA collapsed.

But immediate causes are far too facile to explain this devastation. Katrina is about far more than government competence. It touches the core of the American psyche at the intersection of class and race. Let's leave out the wild rants of extremists right now. Can we agree that a city populated primarily by minorities in this country has the same political clout as affluent suburbs? Is their a moral obligation to treat all communities equally despite their political power? These are fundamental questions we must ask, not only about disaster relief, but about our education system. Stronger levees are not the answer to this pervasive problem.

4) Finally, perhaps the most atrocious bit of rhetoric is his argument that the US would crumble under black leadership. It is amazing that anyone could even fathom this argument today. Only a naive historical perspective permits one to assume that the US thus far has been an unmitigated success under the leadership primarily of whites; that is, Rev Peterson assumes that black leadership would cause the country to take a 180 towards decadence and crime. The litany of crimes is extensive from Manifest Destiny through today. Strides have been made towards a more equitable society, but we are not even close to that idyllic place yet. In the end, we are all humans under the curse of sin. Under black, white, or brown leadership, I think the results would have been much the same: a litany of crimes with a modicum of success and a historical construct that emphasizes the latter at the expense of the former. Sweeping claims like those of the Rev can only be labeled as they are: racist. And, to be honest, those who propagate his ideas share the blame.