This piece originally appeared in TomDispatch.com in September 2004.
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 carless — mainly black — were left
behind in their below-sea-level shotgun shacks and aging tenements to face the
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 Orleans’
daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the “large group…
mostly concentrated in poorer neighborhoods” who wanted to evacuate but couldn’t.
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 past 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 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 L.A.’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 40th 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
superincarceration, 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 raisea 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 socioeconomic 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.
Mike Davis is the author of Dead Cities: And Other Tales
and Ecology of Fear, and co-author of Under
the Perfect Sun: The San Diego Tourists Never See, among other books.