Exiles from a city and from a nation
Sunday September 11, 2005
It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the misery we saw among the poor black people of New Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty. It happens about once every 30 or 40 years.
What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was the most naked manifestation of conservative social policy towards the poor, where the message for decades has been: ‘You are on your own’. Well, they really were on their own for five days in that Superdome, and it was Darwinism in action – the survival of the fittest. People said: ‘It looks like something out of the Third World.’ Well, New Orleans was Third World long before the hurricane.
It’s not just Katrina, it’s povertina. People were quick to call them refugees because they looked as if they were from another country. They are. Exiles in America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so they were never given high priority when the well-to-do got out and the helicopters came for the few. Almost everyone stuck on rooftops, in the shelters, and dying by the side of the road was poor black.
In the end George Bush has to take responsibility. When [the rapper] Kanye West said the President does not care about black people, he was right, although the effects of his policies are different from what goes on in his soul. You have to distinguish between a racist intent and the racist consequences of his policies. Bush is still a ‘frat boy’, making jokes and trying to please everyone while the Neanderthals behind him push him more to the right.
Poverty has increased for the last four or five years. A million more Americans became poor last year, even as the super-wealthy became much richer. So where is the trickle-down, the equality of opportunity? Healthcare and education and the social safety net being ripped away – and that flawed structure was nowhere more evident than in a place such as New Orleans, 68 per cent black. The average adult income in some parishes of the city is under $8,000 (£4,350) a year. The average national income is $33,000, though for African-Americans it is about $24,000. It has one of the highest city murder rates in the US. From slave ships to the Superdome was not that big a journey.
New Orleans has always been a city that lived on the edge. The white blues man himself, Tennessee Williams, had it down in A Streetcar Named Desire – with Elysian Fields and cemeteries and the quest for paradise. When you live so close to death, behind the levees, you live more intensely, sexually, gastronomically, psychologically. Louis Armstrong came out of that unbelievable cultural breakthrough unprecedented in the history of American civilisation. The rural blues, the urban jazz. It is the tragi-comic lyricism that gives you the courage to get through the darkest storm.
Charlie Parker would have killed somebody if he had not blown his horn. The history of black people in America is one of unbelievable resilience in the face of crushing white supremacist powers.
This kind of dignity in your struggle cuts both ways, though, because it does not mobilize a collective uprising against the elites. That was the Black Panther movement. You probably need both. There would have been no Panthers without jazz. If I had been of Martin Luther King’s generation I would never have gone to Harvard or Princeton.
They shot brother Martin dead like a dog in 1968 when the mobilization of the black poor was just getting started. At least one of his surviving legacies was the quadrupling in the size of the black middle class. But
Oprah [Winfrey] the billionaire and the black judges and chief executives and movie stars do not mean equality, or even equality of opportunity yet. Black faces in high places does not mean racism is over. Condoleezza Rice has sold her soul.
Now the black bourgeoisie have an even heavier obligation to fight for the 33 per cent of black children living in poverty – and to alleviate the spiritual crisis of hopelessness among young black men.
Bush talks about God, but he has forgotten the point of prophetic Christianity is compassion and justice for those who have least. Hip-hop has the anger that comes out of post-industrial, free-market America, but it lacks the progressiveness that produces organizations that will threaten the status quo. There has not been a giant since King, someone prepared to die and create an insurgency where many are prepared to die to upset the corporate elite. The Democrats are spineless.
There is the danger of nihilism and in the Superdome around the fourth day, there it was – husbands held at gunpoint while their wives were raped, someone stomped to death, people throwing themselves off the mezzanine floor, dozens of bodies.
It was a war of all against all – ‘you’re on your own’ – in the centre of the American empire. But now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it is, do not confuse charity with justice. I’m not asking for a revolution, I am
asking for reform. A Marshall Plan for the South could be the first step.
· Dr Cornel West is professor of African American studies and religion at Princeton University. His great grandfather was a slave. He is a rap artist and appeared as Counsellor West in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions.
Interview by Joanna Walters, in Princeton, New Jersey
Guardian Unlimited © Guardian Newspapers Limited 2005