Garrett — Mike Davis — Poor, Black, and Left Behind

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Poor, Black, and Left Behind
By Mike Davis
The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan looked
sinisterly like Strom Thurmond’s version of the Rapture. Affluent
white people fled the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and
car-less — mainly Black — were left behind in their below-sea-level
shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the watery wrath.
New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by
the storm surge of a class-five hurricane. Civil defense officials
conceded they had ten thousand body bags on hand to deal with the
worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a
plan to evacuate the city’s poorest or most infirm residents. The day
before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orlean’s daily, the
Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the “large group…mostly
concentrated in poorer neighborhoods” who wanted to evacuate but
Only at the last moment, with winds churning Lake Pontchartrain, did
Mayor Ray Nagin reluctantly open the Louisiana Superdome and a few
schools to desperate residents. He was reportedly worried that
lower-class refugees might damage or graffiti the Superdome.
In the event, Ivan the Terrible spared New Orleans, but official
callousness toward poor Black folk endures.
Over the last generation, City Hall and its entourage of powerful
developers have relentlessly attempted to push the poorest segment of
the population — blamed for the city’s high crime rates — across the
Mississippi river. Historic Black public-housing projects have been
razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. In
other housing projects, residents are routinely evicted for offenses
as trivial as their children’s curfew violations. The ultimate goal
seems to be a tourist theme-park New Orleans — one big Garden
District — with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks
and prisons outside the city limits.
But New Orleans isn’t the only the case-study in what Nixonians once
called “the politics of benign neglect.” In Los Angeles, county
supervisors have just announced the closure of the trauma center at
Martin Luther King Jr. Hospital near Watts. The hospital, located in
the epicenter of LA’s gang wars, is one of the nation’s busiest
centers for the treatment of gunshot wounds. The loss of its ER,
according to paramedics, could “add as much as 30 minutes in transport
time to other facilities.”
The result, almost certainly, will be a spate of avoidable deaths. But
then again the victims will be Black or Brown and poor.
On the fortieth anniversary of the 1964 Civil Rights Act, the United
States seems to have returned to degree zero of moral concern for the
majority of descendants of slavery and segregation. Whether the Black
poor live or die seems to merit only haughty disinterest and
indifference. Indeed, in terms of the life-and-death issues that
matter most to African-Americans — structural unemployment,
race-based super-incarceration, police brutality, disappearing
affirmative action programs, and failing schools — the present
presidential election might as well be taking place in the 1920s.
But not all the blame can be assigned to the current occupant of the
former slave-owners’ mansion at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The
mayor of New Orleans, for example, is a Black Democrat, and Los
Angeles County is a famously Democratic bastion. No, the political
invisibility of people of color is a strictly bipartisan endeavor. On
the Democratic side, it is the culmination of the long crusade waged
by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to exorcise the specter of
the 1980s Rainbow Coalition.
The DLC, of course, has long yearned to bring white guys and fat cats
back to a Nixonized Democratic Party. Arguing that race had fatally
divided Democrats, the DLC has tried to bleach the Party by
marginalizing civil rights agendas and Black leadership.
African-Americans, it is cynically assumed, will remain loyal to the
Democrats regardless of the treasons committed against them. They are,
in effect, hostages.
Thus the sordid spectacle — portrayed in Fahrenheit 9/11 — of white
Democratic senators refusing to raise a single hand in support of the
Black Congressional Caucus’s courageous challenge to the stolen
election of November 2000.
The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, steers a straight DLC course toward
oblivion. No Democratic presidential candidate since Eugene McCarthy’s
run in 1968 has shown such patrician disdain for the Democrats’ most
loyal and fundamental social base. While Condoleezza Rice hovers, a
tight-lipped and constant presence at Dubya’s side, the highest
ranking, self-proclaimed “African American” in the Kerry camp is
Teresa Heinz ((born and raised in white-colonial privilege).
This crude joke has been compounded by Kerry’s semi-suicidal
reluctance to mobilize Black voters. As Rainbow Coalition veterans
like Ron Waters have bitterly pointed out, Kerry has been absolutely
churlish about financing voter registration drives in African-American
communities. Ralph Nader — I fear — was cruelly accurate when he
warned recently that “the Democrats do not win when they do not have
Jesse Jackson and African Americans in the core of the campaign.”
In truth, Kerry, the erstwhile war hero, is running away as hard as he
can from the sound of the cannons, whether in Iraq or in America’s
equally ravaged inner cities. The urgent domestic issue, of course, is
unspeakable socio-economic inequality, newly deepened by fiscal
plunder and catastrophic plant closures. But inequality still has a
predominant color, or, rather, colors: black and brown.
Kerry’s apathetic and uncharismatic attitude toward people of color
will not be repaired by last-minute speeches or campaign staff
appointments. Nor will it be compensated for by his super-ardent
efforts to woo Reagan Democrats and white males with war stories from
the ancient Mekong Delta.
A party that in every real and figurative sense refuses to shelter the
poor in a hurricane is unlikely to mobilize the moral passion
necessary to overthrow George Bush, the most hated man on earth.