Sunday, September 04, 2005

Katrina, the "Third World", and the scripting of race

Hurricane Katrina has stripped a veneer off the American facade that hides class and race differences from the rest of the world. Of course, for most people who carefully follow these issues both in the US and around the world, there's no veneer. The effects of classism and racism around the world are bare and open for everyone with a discerning eye. Or perhaps, with an eye attuned to social differences, because there are many with a seemingly "discerning" eye who believe that racism doesn't exist, or if it does, that it's non-white people who are racist against whites. Or that black people are responsible for what befalls them.

There are specific things that have been said, that have the appearance of being off-the-cuff and spontaneous, yet on closer scrutiny, they are things many people have always wanted to say, but have not had the occasion to. Katrina has been that occasion. I'm in particular talking about two issues. First, disbelief that what has happened in New Orleans could not have happened in the US, with many journalists, from the BBC, CNN, etc, saying it is as if this is Africa, or somewhere else in the Third World. Second, that black people are to blame, either for having been too poor to own cars and evacuate, or for the leadership structure in New Orleans being largely black. One remark that I responded to on the Malawi listservs Nyasanet and Malawitalk, on Saturday, September 3, was by a Malawian who said black people deserve the bad public opinion they get, because they behave aberrantly.

While I am concerned with racism and its adverse effects on people of color around the world, I am also concerned about the lack of concern about racism amongst educated Africans both on the continent and abroad. Of course racism is abhorrent and has no place in society, regardless of who the perpetrator is. Nor am I arguing that blacks are blameless.

Other Malawians seemed shocked at seeing mostly black people taking the blunt of Katrina, compelling one Malawian, Walusako Mwalilino, to post on Nyasanet and ask: "Why are you surprised that the calamity in New Orleans has hit black people harder than whites? Where have you been?" The juxtaposed AFP and AP photos on Yahoo News that portrayed blacks as "looting" and whites as "finding" triggered a huge reaction in the US and abroad, forcing the AFP to ask Yahoo News to remove their photo from the website.

The likening of the tragedy unfolding in the wake of Katrina to disasters in Africa exposes a deep-seated, essentialist attitude about Africa and the so-called Third World. This is the attitude that equates Africa and the Third World with catastrophe, and nothing else, while the US and other so-called developed countries are associated with greatness and advancement, and nothing catastrophic. Underlying this attitude is a failure to understand what causes the catastrophes Africa is associated with. It is an attitude that assumes that there is something about Africans and Third World people that CAUSES the catastrophes, and not the other way round. My initial reaction has been to point out that this is happening right in the United States itself, why should it be likened to some place else?

It is the same attitude that one sees when some Westerners visit an African city which is as large and bustling like aby city in the world, and when they return they remark: it was more like Europe or America, not like Africa. I'm sorry, but Katrina hit the Gulf Coast of the US, not some pleace else in Africa or the Third World. And the disaster that unfolded there happened in the United States; you can not wish it away or liken it to another place. The veneer has been stripped, for those who have been in what can only be described as denial.

On NPR, National Public Radio (US), I caught the end of an interview with someone who said that after Katrina, everyone in New Orleans would now have an equal chance of rebuilding; everyone would have the same beginning point and it would be up to an individual to make the best of their future. Unfortunately I didn't hear who this person was, nor what else they said. But the bit I heard, understood as-is, is an unmistakable view held by people who apparently resent the criticisms leveled against racism. There was something in the subtext of what this person said that betrayed a simmering anger at anti-racist discourse, somebody who sounded as if they had always hoped for this moment when history would be erased and everyone would begin anew, on a fresh page, with no one having a headstart over others.

While I too would hope for such a moment, unfortunately Katrina is no such occasion. Katrina may have razed to the ground buildings and homes, but it certainly has not erased racism. I don't see much reason to hope that from now on, blacks, arabs, latinos, native americans and other minorities will be treated with the same favorable attitudes as whites generally are. It will not be the same for people who lost everything they owned as those who still have capital stashed away in banks and in social networks.

Later in the early evening I watched CNN's Lou Dobbs repeatedly asking guests and reporters why nobody was blaming the black mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin, and the black "power structure." At one point, Dobbs said:

"It is also important, because Reverend Jesse Jackson, the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP have injected a straightforward and dramatic and perhaps even truthful charge that much of the failure here is because of race. But we should put in context, it seems to me also, that the city of New Orleans is 70 percent black. Its mayor is black. Its principal power structure is black. And if there is a failure to the black Americans who live in poverty and in the city of New Orleans, those officials have to bear much of the responsibility."

At another point, with another guest, he asked:

"Why has there not been, from the Congressional Black Caucus, the NAACP, other certainly well-meaning groups, focusing on the racial issues here, no mention of the fact that the mayor of New Orleans, who has to bear first responsibility in this, Ray Nagin, is himself black? That the power structure of the city of New Orleans is primarily black? The police department, the majority of which is black? Why has there been no focus on those facts and those responsibilities?"

Lou Dobbs went further to allude to differences in the way New York residents reacted to September 11, and the way "a few" New Orleans residents have reacted to Hurricane Katrina. "It's too easy to compare this to the way the people of New York City responded to September 11, and to look at the way in which some of the residents, certainly only a few, but some of the residents of New Orleans have responded," he said.

The entire program struck one as Lou Dobbs looking for support for his view that the mess brought about by the response that Bush called "unacceptable" was really the responsibility of black people in New Orleans. Even if he added that the federal government was also to blame, that had become common knowledge. His real issue was with the black people of New Orleans. Add to that his drawing comparisons between the looting in New Orleans and the absence of looting in New York, one saw a keen attempt by Dobbs to bring out a view he too, like the NPR interviewee, had long waited for a moment like this one to air. Missing from these kinds of views are any attempts to put events in a historical context to understand what has caused poverty in New Orleans, and the role racial relations in the US has played. It's as if everything just started today, and is therefore subject to the same type of critique.

Congressman Mel Watt, who chairs the Black Congressional Caucus, told Lou Dobbs class was more of an issue than race in the response to Katrina, and that there were differences between the 9/11 attacks and Katrina. "The difference here, it seems to me, was in New York, everything around the affected area of 9/11 was still intact. This is a whole city that's lost its infrastructure, and the local authorities really had no capacity to respond. So the federal government really had to bite the bullet and take the whole responsibility, and it just didn't do so early enough." While congressman was correct about the differences between tha attacks on New York, and the hurricane in New Orleans, his refusal to acknowledge the role of race was predictable of a US elected official.

When late in the evening CNN broke the news of the passing of the US Supreme Court's Chief Justice William Rehnquist, I began suspecting that the race debate shaping up in the wake of Katrina would go the way all such debates go--overtaken by new developments, and then buried and forgotten.

When such a debate ensued after Senator Trent Lott's comments on December 5th, 2002, at a 100th birthday celebration for Senator Strom Thurmond, now deceased, he was forced to resign as Senate Majority Leader, a move that killed the debate before it went any distance. Katrina appears to be such a strong hurricane whose aftermath, in its various forms, might linger around longer than previous events that expose the race problem in America, and in Katrina's aftermath, in the words of Lou Dobbs, "embarrassed a very proud nation". Kanye West, the rapper, decided to speak his mind and veer off a script prepared for him. This was the first time for me to hear that some of what we see and hear spoken on TV, by individuals apparently speaking their mind, is in fact sometimes scripted for them by the TV networks they appear on.

There's probably much more that is scripted in daily discourse in the US. With Katrina, one hopes more people will come out of denail, and veer off script.


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