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Wednesday, December 14, 2005

Katrina’s Lingering Shadow

As a rising river bore down on New Orleans, city leaders made the decision to set off 30 tons of dynamite on the levee at Caernarvon, about 15 miles downriver from Canal Street. The explosion eased pressure on levees at New Orleans by speeding the water past the city, but it flooded St. Bernard Parish.

The flooding was horrific. In the midst of a horrible natural disaster, the leaders of New Orleans made a fateful decision. A plan was hatched to ease the pressure on the levees throughout the city: blow up other levees and flood impoverished St. Benard Parish. 30 tons of dynamite were purposely exploded on the levee at Caernarvon.

This is no conspiracy theory regarding Hurricane Katrina. The preceding was the true account of the Great Mississipi Flood of 1927.

Many people in the African-American community have accused the government of a repeat in 2005. Accounts of a large blast are widespread among locals in the lower 9th ward. Non-interested scientists, however, insist that there was no repeat of the 1927 event during Katrina. I don't believe the concurrent conspiracy theory either, but that's not the point of the story. Massive racism and poverty are so entrenched that the dynamite theory doesn't sound so far-fetched. The policies of the Republican party are doing essentially the same thing by destroying opportunity and entrenching privilege.

Just three and a half months after one of the worst natural disasters in American history, we seem to have forgotten. Republicans wouldn't stop chanting "9-11" because they successfully manipulated our fear to promote illegal wars. They want to forget Katrina as quickly as possible because the only thing anyone remembers is the poverty and the suffering.

The devastation of Katrina provided a rare opportunity to examine class inequalities in American society. The conservative plan for government necessarily leaves some people out in order to make the rich even wealthier. Capitalism is a great system, but without proper regulation it hurts the poor at the expense of the wealthy. Minimum safeguards should be provided for people so that individual merit can win out over entrenched privilege. Our current system is filled with inefficiencies because the people in power are not as smart or moral as they should be. People of low intelligence such as President Bush can fly through college if they have rich parents who can buy their children careers. The residents of the 9th ward in New Orleans had no such ability. A genius black girl has less of a chance for success than a stupid white male. This kind of society is going to lead to the destruction of the planet and horrendous suffering on the way there.

Katrina provided a grand opportunity to rethink poverty. Here are the words of the great, but highly flawed, Lyndon Johnson: "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America." "This administration today, here and now, declares unconditional war on poverty in America." Meanwhile, the Republican Party has never tried to do anything but oppress and exploit the poor. Tax cuts for the rich and cuts in social programs do not stimulate the economy but do result in millionaires becoming billionaires. Nevertheless, this became the Republican mantra when Reagan took control in the 1980s, and the War on Poverty was forgotten.

The issue of American poverty cannot be separated from the issue of race. Most of it these days isn’t through old-fashioned overt racism, but rather via institutional racism. The legacy of slavery persists today because 150 years, or 7 generations, is simply not enough enough time to undue the cycle of entrenched poverty. Similarly, President Bush comes from entrenched privilege due to his rich ancestors. As much as white America disagrees in order to feel better about their relative success, the legacy of slavery directly affects race relations in 2005.

New Orleans was a perfect example of tragedy of certain poverty and the disproportionate share of the suffering that African-Americans bear. Race played a direct role in the tragedy, contrary to what President Bush claims. Before Katrina, 18.4% of New Orleans residents were in poverty. For African-Americans, it was 35%. If that doesn’t sound so bad, here’s a chilling thought: for a family of 3, the poverty line is a combined household income of $16,090 per year. Certainly, huge masses of people make more than $16,090 per year and still struggle to take care of their basic needs. The racial imbalance is staggering. 21 percent of all children in the United States live in poverty, but 46% of African-American children and 40% of Latino children live in poverty.

The reality is that the rebuilding process is, itself, racist. Federal dollars went mostly to Republican cronies such as Halliburton. Karl Rove, after all, is in charge of the reconstruction effort despite having no qualifications to do so. The rebuilding is occuring in the rich, white neighborhoods. Meanwhile, poor neighborhoods such as the Ninth Ward remain toxic wastelands. The wooden neighborhoods will certainly need to be condemned; the plans for rebuilding are slow and sketchy. A report from the Urban Land Institute commissioned by Mayor Ray Nagin suggested that resources should be focused on the wealthier and less damaged areas of the city first. More dangerous was the report’s suggestion as to whether it made sense at all to repopulate areas such as the Ninth Ward that faced the worst flooding.

Before Katrina, African-Americans composed 65% of the New Orleans population. The Department of Housing and Urban Development estimates the new percentage will be 35-40 percent. Conservatives frothed at the mouth at the idea of using New Orleans as a testsite for a conservative New Deal. They wanted a city built for rich people and corporations. Plans for the poor were non-existent. This reflects the Republican tendency to believe in Social Darwinism in order to justify their entrenched privilege and success.

We can't let the government forget about the horrors Katrina's aftermath exposed.

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