hurricane Katrina spun toward the Gulf Coast, the
National Weather Service warned that high-rise buildings
in New Orleans would sway and possibly collapse,
peaked roofs would fly off, there would be extensive
flooding, and more. At the time, Mr. Bush was riding
his mountain bike around his 1700-acre ranch in
Texas. The vice president of the United States was
fishing in Wyoming. The Secretary of State was attending
Broadway plays and buying shoes in exclusive New
York City boutiques. Michael Brown, the now disgraced
former head of FEMA, kept making dumb and then dumber
statements to the media. The director of Homeland
Security looked like a little lost boy, hoping that
someone would tell him what to do.
levees broke and floodwaters poured into New Orleans.
Thousands of people, the vast majority of them black,
fled to shelters, expecting to survive the hurricane
and to be rescued once the storm subsided. Soon,
food and water ran out, the toilets overflowed,
garbage piled up, people got sick and died. Abandoned
in a sweltering pit of human misery, these survivors
cried out for help. Days passed, help did not arrive.
Diabetics went without insulin, the elderly succumbed
to dehydration, and mothers nursed their babies
next to decomposing bodies.
the floodwaters recede in Louisiana and elsewhere,
the blame game intensifies. Mr. Bush and friends
deny that racism played a role in the federal government's
sluggish response to hurricane victims. They deny
that people were abandoned to drown and to die slowly
of starvation and disease because they were black
or, regardless of the color of their skin, because
they were poor. Mr. Bush says that he intends to
find out why the federal government failed the help
victims of Katrina. He is going to convene a panel
to study this disaster. He will not rest until he
learns what the government did right and what it
resident in the White House need not waste the taxpayers'
money trying to figure out why poor people were
abandoned to die in New Orleans. A visit to most
any urban war zone-Washington, D.C., North Philadelphia,
South Chicago, East New York, neighborhoods in Milwaukee,
Los Angeles, Baltimore, and Boston-will answer that
question. In the richest nation on earth, the poor
are throwaway people. In the most powerful empire
the world has ever known, the poor live in substandard
housing, work at low paying jobs, lack health insurance,
and suffer from relentless racism and discrimination.
In the United States of America the gap between
the rich and poor is wider, and growing faster,
than in any European nation.
the early 'Sixties, President Lyndon Baines Johnson
declared a "war on poverty." For a brief
period it appeared that the government might be
serious about helping tens of millions of desperate
American citizens. The war in Vietnam ended that
illusion, and a series of presidents-Richard Nixon,
Ronald Reagan, George Bush the elder, Bill Clinton,
and G.W. Bush the younger-chose to use the poor
as scapegoats for the nation's ills, or simply to
ignore them altogether.
debacle in New Orleans reveals how little the Democratic
and Republican parties care about people who live
in poverty. New Orleans demonstrates the country's
"let them eat guns and drugs" approach
to disadvantaged people. In every major American
city, and rural areas as well, the poor are being
cut off public assistance, they are losing jobs
to sweatshops here and abroad, and they are watching
their meager wages diminish as the costs of living
increase. Until there's a disaster like Katrina,
or the poor rise up in the streets, we pretend they
do not exist, or we tell ourselves that the poor
are responsible for their plight, and even enjoy
Bush administration may rebuild neighborhoods destroyed
by the hurricane, but how will the government explain
that it has no plans to provide well paying jobs,
good schools, and decent housing for all impoverished
Americans? Having seen with their own eyes the contempt
with which poor people are treated, will Americans
now demand that we stop spending billions to destroy
Iraq, and start investing in our own country?
ripped the lid off the myth that the United States
is a meritocracy where all citizens have a right
to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.
New Orleans exposed how the poor live and die in
the richest and most powerful nation on earth. It
is impossible to blame the victims of this natural
disaster. They were not victims of benign neglect.
Their deaths were not an accident. The dead in wheelchairs,
lying in the streets, and floating in polluted waters
weren't found with ropes around their necks. Nevertheless,
it's clear that they were lynched.