Published on Thursday, September 8, 2005 by CommonDreams.org
Katrina: Don't Stop at the Top
by Alec Dubro
|Since I missed the Trail of Tears and the Japanese internment, the disaster in New Orleans stands as the most disgraceful single incident on American soil in my 60 year lifetime. Unfortunately there is a visible thread that runs through all three of these appalling events: none would have been possible without the support of a significant proportion of the populace.
It would be gratifying and tactically advantageous to leave the responsibility at the federal doorsteps and let the various committees assign blame and the liberals reap their rewards. It would also be dishonest in the extreme.
Every step along the way to the Superdome consisted of a decision, a conversation or at best a refusal to consider: "No, we won't make a plan to move the blacks out of the Ninth Ward." Or, "Make a plan and file it under 'someday'." Or, "Put all our resources into protecting the French Quarter and the Central Business District." Or, "I'm not risking national Guard troops to protect black people from their own kind." And I'm using the word blacks when other words were probably used.
Who spoke these probable words? The business-oriented, partially black city administration of Ray Nagin? The administration of the ironically named Governor Blanco with its few black officials? The overwhelmingly white political class of the state? Or, a series of ordinary citizens with some power? Hard to say, of course, but so far no one is looking very hard, either.
Very few people are publicly denying the racial component of the New Orleans massacre, but I haven't heard anyone inquire into the racial undercurrent of Louisiana. Simply put, the state is run, controlled and widely populated by white supremacists. Not merely grousing, resentful racists, but many, many open celebrating white supremacists. Before you seek to mitigate this statement, explain to me how David Duke garnered 65 percent of the white vote in a statewide Democratic primary in 1990. David Duke, an avowed, practicing white supremacist, former Nazi and sometime Klansman.
n recent days, when residents of Baton Rouge realized that thousands of New Orleans blacks were coming to stay for a awhile, guns practically flew off the shelves with sales increasing at one gunshop from 13 a day to 1000. There's fear and there's hatred and it's reflected in how the state is run.
This does not mean that every white resident of Louisiana is motivated by and acts upon instincts of white supremacy at all times. Obviously among the nearly three million white Louisianans, many oppose the system and many more rise above it many times in their lives. In the past week, there have been thousands of acts of personal generosity and sacrifice, within and across the racial divide.
This doesn't, however, negate the adamantly segregationist character of the state. While few people publicly declare fealty to caucasian dominance, millions pledge at least an emotional allegience to the Confederate flag and thousands work to keep institutions substantially white.
But is Louisiana different from other states? In terms of incarcerations it ranks only behind the District of Columbia in percentage of residents behind bars, and of those a hugely disproportionate number are, of course, black. In executions it fits right about in the middle of the former slave states. And statewide, the rather large number of poor white people means that the economic polarization figures are not so startling. But the mutual fear, anger and mistrust are high. A poll shortly after the Duke campaign revealed that most people felt that racial tension was a growing problem. And while attention to race diminished after Duke decamped for Eastern Europe, there's no reason to think that tension did as well, although tension may be too mild a term. I suspect that a similar disaster would bring similar results to any state with a sizeable black population - including liberal Northern ones. We will have to see, of course.
In any case, whatever decisions those at the top of the state made before during and after Katrina with respect to the black population, they reflected the thoroughly segregated, mutually fearful and, on the white side, minimally reflective nature of race relations throughout the state.
Today, the Republicans are heirs to the white supremacist political mantle. But not long ago, it was the Democratic Party - which still runs the state although has little influence in national elections - that carried the banner. In other words, it goes deeper wider than any party. Moreover, it's so pervasive that, like Americans elsewhere, Louisianans would rather focus on things like corruption than deal with race. But race won't go away and indicting a slew of officials won't help very much. This is in the fabric, every woof and every warp. And it's the biggest threat we face.
I was once discussing the military challenge of China with political scientist Chalmers Johnson, author of The Sorrows of Empire: Militarism, Secrecy, and the End of the Republic. He looked skeptical and said, "There's only one threat to the security of the United States, and that's the residue of slavery."
One look at New Orleans and you'd have to argue long and, to me, unconvincingly, that the Chinese Navy, or Hugo Chavez or even swarms of Arab gunslingers take precedence. It's here and it won't go away. And worst of all, it's not them. It's us. Today in Louisiana, next time…who knows.
Alec Dubro can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org