The post-apocalyptic montage of floating corpses, scavengers fighting for food and desperate throngs seeking a way out of New Orleans is tragic enough. But for many African-American leaders, there is growing outrage that many stuck at the center of this tragedy were those who for generations had been pushed to the margins of society.
The victims, they note, were largely black and poor, those who toiled in the background of the tourist havens, living in tumble-down neighborhoods that were long known to be vulnerable to disaster if the levees failed. Without so much as a car or bus fare to escape before Hurricane Katrina hit, they found themselves once again left behind by a failure to plan for their rescue should the dreaded day ever arrive.
"If you know that terror is approaching in terms of hurricanes, and you've already seen the damage they've done in Florida and elsewhere, what in God's name were you thinking?" said the Reverend Calvin Butts III, a pastor in Harlem, New York. "I think a lot of it has to do with race and class. The people affected were largely poor people. Poor, black people."
In the days since neighborhoods and towns around the Gulf Coast were wiped out, there has been a growing sense that race and class are the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck. Just as in Third World countries where the failures of rural development policies become clear during natural disasters like floods or drought, some of the poorest cities in the US have been left vulnerable by federal policies.
"No one would have checked on a lot of the black people in these parishes while the sun shined," said Wistonville Mayor Milton Tutwiler in Mississippi. "So am I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No."
The subject is roiling black-oriented Web sites and message boards, and many black officials say it is a prime subject of conversation around the country. Some have described the devastation wrought by Katrina as "the black tsunami," while noting that there has yet to be a response equal to that following the Asian tragedy last year.
Roosevelt Dorn, the mayor of Englewood, California, and the president of the National Association of Black Mayors, said relief and rescue officials needed to act faster.
"I have a list of black mayors in Mississippi and Alabama who are crying out for help," he said. "Their cities are gone and they are in despair. And no one has answered their cries."
The Reverend Jesse Jackson said cities had been dismissed by the Bush administration because the president received few urban votes.
"Many black people feel that their race, their property conditions and their voting patterns have been a factor in the response," Jackson said after meeting with Louisiana officials. "I'm not saying that myself, but what's self-evident is that you have many poor people without a way out."
In New Orleans, the disaster's impact underscores the intersection of race and class in a city where two-thirds of residents are black and more than one-quarter live in poverty. In the Lower Ninth Ward neighborhood, which was inundated by the floodwaters, more than 98 percent of residents are black and more than one-third live in poverty.
Spencer Crew, president and the chief executive officer of the national Underground Railroad Freedom Center in Cincinnati, Ohio, said the tragedy would force people to confront inequality.
"Most cities have a hidden or not-always-talked-about poor population, black and white, and most of the time we look past them," he said.
That disparity has been criticized as a "disgrace" by Charles Rangel, the senior Democratic congressman from New York City, who said it was made all the worse by the failure of government officials to plan ahead.
"I assume the president's going to say he got bad intelligence," he said, adding that the danger to the levees was clear.
"I think that wherever you see poverty, whether it's in the white rural community or the black urban community, you see that the resources have been sucked up into the war and tax cuts for the rich," he said.
Among the messages and essays circulating in cyberspace that lament the lost lives and missed opportunities is one by Mark Naison, a white professor of African American Studies at Fordham University in the Bronx.
"Is this what the pioneers of the civil rights movement fought to achieve, a society where many black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws?" he wrote. "If September 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack, Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation, rent by profound social divisions."
That sentiment was shared by members of other minority groups who understand the bizarre equality of poverty.
"We tend to think of natural disasters as somehow even-handed, as somehow random," said Martin Espada, an English professor at the University of Massachusetts and a leftist poet, who is Puerto Rican. "Yet it has always been thus: Poor people are in danger. That is what it means to be poor. It's dangerous to be poor. It's dangerous to be black. It's dangerous to be Latino."
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