Michael Eric Dyson kicks off the Princeton University Store’s reunion week series of author appearances on Thursday, June 1, at 4 p.m. Dyson, who received his Ph.D. in religion from Princeton, is an ordained Baptist minister and professor in the humanities at Penn. His new book is “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.” A prolific author, he is perhaps best known for writing “Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?”
Dyson’s new book takes a hard look at which groups suffered the most in New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, and at what their fate says about American culture and priorities. Here is an excerpt:
by Michael Eric Dyson
If race grabbed the biggerst headlines in the aftermath of Katrina because of poverty and politics, its force was also felt in other dimensions of the cultural and personal response to the hurricane. The media became a big part of the story. Reporters’ anger at the government’s tragic delay leaped off allegedly neutral pages and TV screens even as the stories also reinforced stereotypes of black behavior in exaggerated reports of looting and social anarchy. The black elite stepped up to express support for the poor and outrage at their treatment, putting aside, perhaps even denying, elements of its own recent assaults on poor blacks.
The disaster also sparked renewed interest in the “race or class” debate as to what element of the dyad accounted more reliably for the fate of the black poor.
But one of the untold stories of Katrina is how the hurricane impacted racial and ethnic minorities other than blacks. For instance, nearly 40,000 Mexican citizens who lived (mostly in trailers) and worked in New Orleans were displaced. Altogether nearly 145,000 Mexicans in the entire Gulf Coast region were scattered by Katrina. Latinos make up 3 percent of Louisiana’s population, 124,222 people of the state’s 4,515,770 residents. Many Latinos who live in the South are foreign born and are undocumented laborers on farms or in hotels, restaurants, and other service industry jobs.
The fear that government officials and police would target undocumented immigrants discouraged many Latinos from seeking hurricane relief, despite messages from Mexican president Vicente Fox that the American government had assured him that it wouldn’t take such action.
Thousands of Native Americans on the Gulf Coast were hard hit by the storm as well. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), several Native American tribes were in harm’s away across the damaged region, although early on there was little contact with affected members. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was little information about the death tolls among the six federally recognized Native American tribes in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including the Parch Band Creek Indian Tribe in Alabama; the Coushatta Indian Tribe, Jena Band of Choctaw, and Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in Louisiana; and the Chitimacha Tribe and the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi. For one tribe near Chalmette, Louisiana, the local high school served as a tribal morgue, holding the bodies of Native American workers, including shrimpers and other fishermen, who were drowned in the flooding near New Orleans.
There were also nearly 50,000 Vietnamese fishermen who labored on the Louisiana coast — while others worked in the service and manufacturing industries — along with a large contingent of Filipino American shrimpers, part of the oldest Filpino community in North America. A community of Vietnamese shrimpers also lived and worked near Mississippi; many them were displaced, while others died in the horrible pounding Katrina. There were nearly 30,000 Vietnamese evacuees dispersed to Houston, although many of them were denied entry into the Astrodome, finding shelter instead at Houston’s Hong Kong City Mall.
The oversight of Latino, Native American, and Vietnamese and Filipino suffering in the catastrophe not only reinforces for the latter three groups their relative invisibility in American culture, and for Latinos their relative marginalization in the region. It shows as well that our analysis of minorities must constantly be revised to accommodate a broader view of how race and ethnicity function in the culture.
As important as it is, the black-white racial paradigm simply does not exhaust the complex realities and complicated interactions among various minority groups and the broader society.
The black-white racial paradigm was also pressured by an enduring question among social analysts that was revived in the face of Katrina: is it race or class that determines the fate of poor blacks?
Class certainly loomed large in Katrina’s aftermath. Blacks of means escaped the tragedy; blacks without them suffered and died. In reality, it is how race and class interact that made the situation for the poor so horrible on the Gulf Coast. The rigid caste system that punishes poor blacks and other minorities also targets poor whites.
Even among the oppressed, however, there are stark differences. Concentrated poverty doesn’t victimize poor whites in the same way it does poor blacks. For instance, the racial divide in car ownership partially reflects income differences between the races. However, as if to prove that not all inequalities are equal, even poor whites are far more likely to have access to cars than are poor blacks. In New Orleans, 53 percent of poor blacks were without cars while just 17 percent of poor whites lacked access to cars.
Moreover, one must also account for how the privileges of whiteness that transcend class open up opportunities for poor whites that are off limits to the black poor, whether it is a job offer at a restaurant wary of blacks or a schoolroom slot in a largely white, stable community. This is not to deny the vicious caste tensions that separate poor and working class whites from their middle-class and upper-class peers. Such tensions result in a dramatically different quality of life for the well-off and the have-nots. I simply aim to underscore the pull of racial familiarity that is often an unspoken variable, and sometimes the crucial difference, in the lives of the white and non-white poor. It is bad enough to be white and poor; it is worse still to be black, or brown, and female, and young, and poor. Simply said, race makes class hurt more.
In African American life, class and caste differences show up most dramatically in the chasms between the black fortunate and the black poor. As I watched Hurricane Katrina sweep waves of mostly poor and black folk into global view, I thought of the controversy stirred by Bill Cosby’s assault on the black poor — that they are detrimentally promiscuous, disinclined to education, unappreciative of good speech, determined to saddle their kids with weird names, and bent on blaming the white man for all their ills. Cosby’s views were widely celebrated in the press, and in many quarters of black America, especially among the black elite — the Afristocracy.
Those few who were publicly critical of Cosby were said to be making excuses for the black poor while denying their need to be responsible for their own destinies. Others agreed with Cosby that the poor hampered their own progress because they were either too lazy or too ignorant to do better. In any case, Cosby, and a slew of critics, believed that the black poor suffered because they desired or deserved to be poor.
In fact, it’s easy for all of us who live in relative prosperity to forget that most of us are here because we had the good sense to be born to the right parents. While a few impoverished young adults can still scratch and claw their way into the mainstream, it is getting harder and harder to do so as the industrial jobs that created the great middle class are disappearing. (Why do you think so many working-class sons and daughters volunteer for the armed forces?)
Income inequality is increasing in this country; the latest census shows that the number of people living in poverty is rising. Still, a few predictable voices on the far-right fringe are already thinking up ways to blame Hurricane Katrina’s victims for their plight. Some are playing up the lawlessness of a few thugs; others are casting responsibility for the crisis solely on local authorities. Haven’t we listened to those callous self-promoters long enough?
Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed levees and exploded the conventional wisdom about a shared American prosperity, exposing a group of people so poor they didn’t have $50 for a bus ticket out of town. If we want to learn something from this disaster, the lesson ought to be: America’s poor deserve better than this.
In fact, for the first time in more than 150 years Mexico sent aid to the United States in the form of an army unit of nearly 200 soldiers and 45 vehicles that joined a Mexican Navy crew helping hurricane survivors. It also sent food, medicine, nurses, and doctors to Louisiana, as well as a ship transporting ambulances and trucks. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sent translators and established a relief fund, while its Arizona branch sent four container trucks with sleeping bags, water, and food.
Latinos in other areas were affected by the hurricane as well. In Bossier County, Louisiana, many Central Americans were employed in the service industry. And Baldwin County, Alabama, was home to many farm workers who lived in migrant camps. Many of them, and Jamaican immigrants as well, had either lost their documentation or had sought refuge in hotels, and not designated shelter areas, for fear of having their citizenship status scrutinized. That fear outweighed the fact that undocumented immigrants, at least in theory, do have rights to disaster relief.
Critics came down on either side during the crisis, but in this case, that might equate to six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. It is true that class is often overlooked to explain social reality. Ironically, it is often a subject broached by the acid conservatives who want to avoid confronting race, and who become raging parodies of Marxists in the bargain. They are only concerned about class to deflect race; they have little interest in unpacking the dynamics of class or engaging its deforming influence in the social scene. In this instance, race becomes a marker for class, a proxy, blurring and bending the boundaries that segregate them.