For weeks after the racialized poverty of New Orleans was laid bare in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, people in the United States asked, “Could this be a turning point? Is this a moment when America might wake up to the inequality and racism in our own country?”
The question itself -- posed most often by people living comfortably in the white middle class -- is an indication of just how deeply in denial the vast majority of privileged Americans are about these fundamental injustices, their role in perpetuating them, and how real change might come. We should be collectively ashamed that the question is being asked in this form, for two simple reasons.
First, it’s true that the television coverage of the people who were the most vulnerable during the flight from Katrina and the aftermath -- largely poor and disproportionately black -- did shock many. As the evacuation proceeded, it was impossible to avoid noticing that who got out fairly easily and who got stuck -- who lived and who died -- was largely a function of race and class.
But did we really need those images to know that the United States has an inequality problem? In a country in which racialized disparities in wealth and well-being are readily evident to anyone who cares to pay attention, what does it say about us as a nation that we needed dramatic images on television to force us to confront the issue?
Even a cursory scan of the data on such things as health (infant mortality is twice as high in the black as the white community) or employment (black unemployment is double that of whites, a gap that has actually widened in the past three decades) reveals that serious inequality persists despite the gains of the civil-rights movement of the 1950s and ‘60s. Even for the measures on which there has been some improvement -- for example, black-white poverty gap has narrowed somewhat in recent decades -- the underlying reality is grim; at the current rate it will take 150 years to reach parity on that poverty measure.
Anyone who wants to know these things -- any white middle class person with a computer, for example -- can figure it out quickly. The data are not state secrets.
More importantly, the cold data come to life dramatically when one listens to the experiences of virtually everyone in non-white communities, not just in New Orleans but anywhere in the United States. Perhaps no term captures this more painfully that “driving while black,” a reference to the routine harassment through traffic stops that so many black people, especially black men who are so commonly seen as inherently criminal, endure at the hands of law enforcement. In Latino communities, it’s called “driving while brown.”
The data is clear. The testimony is clear. We shouldn’t need pictures. The fact that so many seemed to be shocked by the pictures is a sign not just of the society’s inequality, but of the routine complacency in the most privileged sectors of our society.
But the question of whether the aftermath of Katrina will “change America” is perhaps most objectionable for the way it allows those with the responsibility to help change society -- that is, those who benefit from the inequality -- to escape into emotions and speculation, rather than analysis and action.
Yes, dramatic and painful images of black people packed into a sports arena-turned-shelter have tweaked the consciences of many. But tweaked consciences are notorious for lapsing back into complacency quickly when no political pressure is applied. Lots of well-off white people may have felt bad about what they saw in New Orleans, but such feelings are not morally admirable unless they lead to action that can change things. That means moving from an emotional reaction to a political analysis, and from speculation about whether things might change to a commitment to making things change.
Racism and racialized poverty in the United States are systemic and structural problems. They are not simply the result of confusion on the part of people in power; they are institutionalized. Progress comes when those systems, structures, and institutions change. That requires collective action, not individual fretting.
It’s true that the collective political project of overcoming racism is intertwined with the very personal struggle to overcome our complacency. It’s true that history can provide dramatic moments in which things can change quickly. But it is naďve -- to a degree that suggests purposeful ignorance -- to believe that a single emotionally charged experience such as viewing the images of racialized suffering in New Orleans will have a long-term effect on systems, structures, or institutions.
In the United States we have been through this before. In 1991, all of America watched the videotape of the savage beating of Rodney King, a black man, by Los Angeles police officers. We watched and emoted. We asked the question: “Could this be a turning point? Is this a moment when America wakes up to the inequality in our own country?”
Meanwhile, as we pondered that question in the 1990s, the United States intensified the racist criminal-justice practices that disproportionately target black and brown Americans. We built prisons to house the disproportionately black and brown inmates who would be casually tossed into jail to reassure the white affluent majority that things were safe. As a result, if current incarceration rates continue, one of three black males born today will be imprisoned at some point in their lifetimes.
So, it is self-indulgence to even ask the question whether an emotionally intense event such as the aftermath of Katrina will change U.S. society. The answer is painfully obvious: These events don’t create change. Progressive change comes when people commit to take the risks necessary to push change.
The hand-wringing that the white affluent segment of the United States indulged in after the hurricane was a common way middle-class people deal with their sense of guilt when they are confronted by what they have largely chosen to ignore. But this problem is hardly unique to the United States. It happens in virtually every country in which some segment of the elite has convinced itself that the grotesque levels of inequality are acceptable.
Robert Jensen is a journalism professor at the University of Texas at Austin and a member of the board of the Third Coast Activist Resource Center He is the author of The Heart of Whiteness: Race, Racism, and White Privilege and Citizens of the Empire: The Struggle to Claim Our Humanity (both from City Lights Books).