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Waking Up to the Tragedy of New Orleans

This article originally appeared on the Buddhist Peace Fellowship website and was later published in Common Ground magazine.

September 2, 2005

Let me begin with a statement about my position in this society, because it is absolutely relevant here – I am a white woman, with sufficient economic resources. I have been to New Orleans several times in my life. When I heard news last Sunday that Hurricane Katrina had the Big Easy in its path, the first things I thought of were the good times I had in the city, the beautiful architecture that I admired, and the mix of grit, grace, and soul that delighted me there. More than any other U.S. city I have visited, it was the one that most resiliently withstood the mind and soul-numbing effect of corporate culture. Life in New Orleans, it seemed to me, was raw, vital, and on the edge, for better or for worse. I was sad for myself at the thought of losing all this.

Sure, I had noticed the poverty in New Orleans. I had noticed the thousands of Black people living in squalid conditions in the city. It’s hard to miss. But they weren’t my first thought when the storm hit. I had the privilege of visiting there as a tourist, one with means, and then coming back out again to my comfortable life in the Bay Area. I have the luxury of having a self-centered relationship to New Orleans and her citizens.

Then Hurricane Katrina hits. Within a few days, it becomes clear that so much more is at stake than this, my nostalgic vacation associations. People are dying by the thousands, and they are overwhelmingly Black, poor, and/or disenfranchised. How could I have initially overlooked that?

Apparently, that same ignorance was shared and magnified thousands of times by our federal government, by the Bush administration. Or perhaps some of it wasn’t so unconscious. This combination of ignorance plus privilege and power is called racism. It’s a word that we white people don’t like to think about applying to ourselves, especially when we think of ourselves as good, liberal people. But racism is not like a hat that we choose to put on or take off at will. It’s much more like the air that we breathe every day—invisible, and we have no choice but to take it in, often unaware of the effect it has on us.

To witness the travesty that has been New Orleans over these past five days is heartbreaking beyond belief. And outrageous.

Phrases comes to my mind, and at first I thought them too inflammatory to write here. But I will anyway, because I want to wake us up. I want to wake myself up. Genocide. Ethnic Cleansing. Economic Cleansing. What else to call it when thousands of poor, Black people are allowed to die in front of our eyes? And not just any death – excruciating deaths, brought about by lack of food, water… drowning deaths because people have waited for rooftop rescues which never came, and while they watched other corpses float by… children dying, old people dying, disabled people dying.

This is the United States. The richest country in the world. The country that is, supposedly, equipped to handle all kinds of terrorists attacks. As horrible a day as September 11, 2001 was, the loss of lives, homes, and livelihoods that we are now witnessing in New Orleans will be far more extensive and long-lasting. And yet, unlike in New York City after 9/11, the people of New Orleans have been left to fend for themselves. In some cases, they are even being blamed for their fate. Michael Brown, director of FEMA, said, “Unfortunately, [the death toll is] going to be attributable a lot to people who did not heed the advance warnings. I don’t make judgments about why people chose not to leave but, you know, there was a mandatory evacuation of New Orleans.”

Really? One clear description of the situation comes from a Sept. 2 New York Times article by reporter David Gonzalez:

The victims…were largely black and poor, those who toiled in the background of the tourist havens, living in tumbledown 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 ahead of time, they found themselves left behind by a failure to plan for their rescue should the dreaded day ever arrive.

The decimation of New Orleans is the great tragedy and shame of the American people, and particularly, the Bush administration. We don’t need terrorists to take us down. The empire is crumbling from within.

How did this come to happen? Right in line with the dharma truth of interconnection, there are dozens of threads that lead to this horrible conclusion. You’ve probably already read about some of them. But in the interest of waking up, again, I will list them here:

  • The distribution of resources in our country which has prioritized military spending on the war in Iraq over critical domestic tasks. Budgets for flood control, strengthening the levees, evacuation, and relief have been inadequate and have actually been reduced. Last year, President Bush’s budget cut $71 million for flood control in New Orleans alone. Meanwhile more than $200 billion has been spent in Iraq.
  • The diversion and deployment of the U.S. National Guard troops to Iraq rather than within their own states. 35-40% of the Louisiana and Mississippi National Guards are in Iraq, on missions of death, instead of back home where they are so desperately needed.
  • The intersection of institutionalized poverty and racism that has resulted in so many people living in such desperate conditions to begin with.
  • Global warming and other environmental issues, which may well have contributed to the severity of the hurricane through having warmed up the waters of the Gulf of Mexico.

And, I am not the first to note that the media has been playing into all the racial stereotypes. “Looting” is a code way/short hand for saying that poor/black is bad and privileged/white is good. Those who are Black and pictured with goods from a store are labeled “looters.” Those who are white in the same situation are portrayed as “finding food.” It goes on and on.

My practice as a socially engaged Buddhist asks me to not exclude myself from this circle of accountability. I too am part of this karma. All of us in U.S. dharma communities are, and those of us who are white and/or middle/upper class or who hold other positions of privilege in this society are particularly called on to examine our role in this system. How can I pay tax money into a government that feeds a vast and deadly war machine but refuses to provide support to the infrastructure of our cities? At this moment, I don’t have an answer. I only know that I, too, am part of this circle of accountability.

I search for ways that I personally can respond, and that BPF as an organization can respond. Here are some:

We can offer emergency assistance to the survivors, in whatever form we have available – financial donations, offers of housing and jobs, transportation, emotional support.

Prior to the hurricane, New Orleans was a city that, even though scarce on economic resources, was full of people with progressive and community-minded ideals. After the emergency needs subside, we can offer support to some of the innovative organizations based in the area to help them reinvigorate the city and ensure that rebuilding efforts don’t turn New Orleans into a corporate-sponsored shell of its former self. See the list at the end of this essay.

We can call for accountability from all government officials, including FEMA and up to President Bush. We can do this by calling our Congresspeople and Senators, writing letters, sitting in vigils, and making our voices heard in countless other ways. We see what is happening, and we do not accept it. Just as Cindy Sheehan’s courageous actions ignited a massive grassroots movement, we can find ways to rally many people around the significance and symbolism of this tragedy.

We can address issues of classism and racism as they are expressed within our own organizations and sanghas, by doing councils, trainings, workshops, reading, etc. around how these issues separate us and cause harm.

The deep wounds of class, race, and environmental degradation to name just a few, will not be healed by quick actions. We are bearing witness to yet another sad, unjust, and deplorable chapter in American history. All of us who are alive in this place and time are being called to respond. Whether we choose to do so or go back to sleep will be the legacy we leave for our world.

Organizations in New Orleans and Louisiana

Juvenile Justice Project of Louisiana

The Douglas Community Coalition

Enterprise Corporation of the Delta and Hope Community Credit Union

Baton Rouge Area Foundation

The Peoples’s Institute for Surival and Beyond

Critical Resistance New Orleans

For an excellent list of grassroots, low-income, people-of-color led organizations doing relief work, see the list at the Sparkplug Foundation’s website.

Postscript: Sunday, September 4, 2005

I began writing this essay on Friday, September 2. My emotions were very raw—anger and heartbreak. I still feel those things, but over the past few days, they are tempered as I see thousands of people opening their hearts and homes to the refugees of Hurricane Katrina. Certainly, there is much still good about the American people, and my heart is warmed as I see the generosity pouring forth and connections being made between people across color and class lines. The thing about racism, though, is that it works throughout a whole system, not through any individual “good” or “bad” person. As I wrote earlier, racism (and classism) is the cultural air we all breathe. Seeing this way allows us to go beyond blame and guilt and move into acknowledging suffering and taking responsibility.

We need to ask for and demand a full report and accountability for how conditions in New Orleans got so desperate–both before the hurricane and in the aftermath of the recovery efforts (or lack of them). My hope is that all of us, no matter what race, ethnicity, or social class we belong to, can be brave enough to look at this question, without turning away.

With thanks to Diana Lion and Mushim Ikeda-Nash.

The list of New Orleans/Louisiana organizations comes from Yes! magazine and from Jordan Flaherty of Left Turn magazine. Statistics regarding the National Guard come from United for Peace and Justice.

3 responses »

  1. Pingback: Articles on Mt. Kailash and Hurricane Katrina/New Orleans « The Jizo Chronicles

  2. Pingback: Remembering 2005: Hurricane Katrina and New Orleans « The Jizo Chronicles

  3. Pingback: Jizo Celebrates His/Her First Birthday « The Jizo Chronicles

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