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Race on the levee

Observer Viewpoint | Tuesday, September 6, 2005

“I’m not sure I’m going to get out of here alive,” said Canadian tourist Larry Mitzel. “I’m scared of riots. I’m scared of the locals.” These words, from the coverage of the New Orleans disaster in Friday’s The Observer (“Chaos plagues city in storm aftermath”) could have been uttered by a British colonist who strayed too far away from his outpost and found himself among the natives at sundown. This is not simply an understandable fear of violence; it is the racist’s irrational fear of the “black mob.” It is the fear that outfits the National Guard with human hunting licenses in the form of “shoot-to-kill orders” against the “thugs” and “looters.” You better bet that if Notre Dame was hit by a tornado, there would no shoot-to-kill orders against the Irish.

The media this week is saturated with images of black people, dispossessed and angry, shouting at those armed soldiers. Kanye West summed it up well at a benefit concert for victims of Hurricane Katrina: “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, “They’re looting.” You see a white family, it says, “They’re looking for food.” NBC execs openly admitted they would have censored West’s insight if they had gotten a chance. So much for democracy in the U.S.A.

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina is rapidly becoming a flash point on the issue of race. It is bringing to the fore the tension that exists just below the skin of “civil public discourse,” that stoic code of manners and false peace covering up the legacy of 500 years of institutionalized racism and white supremacy in this country. We do well to remember that the possibility of race riots hung over New Orleans before the hurricane hit.

So now, how could this racial tension not surface when it becomes evident to the rest of the world that hundreds of thousands of black people in New Orleans have been living in segregated neighborhoods with lousy housing, lousy infrastructure, easily prone to dispossession when the levees finally break? How could it not surface when it becomes clear that the state left them to die there in the rotting ruins of submerged ghettoes?

Around Notre Dame’s sheltered campus there has been a sort of quiet disgust with the supposedly “uncivilized” behavior of the black survivors of Katrina. People have come up to me saying, “There are thugs firing at the rescue workers! It looks like a Third World country.” Again, the colonial gaze … armed black men: “the horror, the horror.” For a campus oriented towards benevolent service work in far away Africa – helping those poor, helpless beings “over there,” it is a revelation and perhaps an embarrassment to see that Third World conditions exist right here in the American City on the Hill.

As for the “thugs” and their “looting,” of course I believe that it is evil, fool behavior to fire at rescue workers. Or to rape people in the Superdome. Tinisha Green, one of the refugees, put it well: “It was like demons were here last night.” This behavior must be stopped, and I am sure there are sane people among the crowd who have tried to step in and do so. Any community, regardless of race, class or ethnicity, will have its share of heroism and its share of savage individualism when it comes to a time of crisis. It’s not like white people have never been violent or savage, to say the least. What the media has failed to emphasize so far are the stories of everyday black people helping each other, risking their own lives to save others.

As for the “looters,” I have to ask, what exactly is wrong with looting in the first place? St. Thomas Aquinas, centerpiece of traditional Catholic moral theology, points out that it is absolutely justified for hungry and naked people to take food and clothing from the rich in times of crisis (and of course, one could argue that for many working class people in New Orleans, the times of crisis began long before Katrina). The goods of the world, created by God, are meant to serve the common human community. Private property is not inviolable and can be seized so that others may live. But all too often under capitalism, private property and corporate privilege become sacrosanct, far more valuable than the lives of poor people, especially poor black people. When I see black families taking food from a grocery store in order to survive, I see a measure of human dignity, self-government and the will to live triumphing in the face of adversity.

The machinery of racism is at play here in a another way as well: because the leaders of U.S. official society believe Arab people are also unfit for self-government, Louisiana National Guardsmen and women are functioning now as traffic cops in downtown Baghdad while their own homes are destroyed and their own families are washed away in the toxic floodwaters. Such are the avoidable tragedies of Empire.

I’m taking a class now on the Hebrew Bible, and as I read the news I have the uncanny feeling that I am watching Old Testament events unfold in real-time. Citizens of Babylon, subjects of the Pharaoh that is U.S. Empire, we ought to pause and pray for the future. Then we must act – not only to help the victims of Katrina, but also to fight against the system of white supremacy that left them to die. This system is as mortal as the Gulf Coast oil rigs that once fed it. Every Biblical empire that failed to pursue social justice fell to a mix of ecological disaster and military chaos. The situation at the Superdome in New Orleans is undoubtedly reverberating in Detroit, Harlem, Watts, Nairobi, Capetown, Acheh. It’s adding one more layer to the sedimented anger of centuries. Institutionalized racism has held strong for 500 years, but there may come a time when the levees finally break.

Matthew HamiltonGraduate studentSept. 4