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02 September 2005

Replace "they" with "we" with "I"

We all believe in equality, as long as it is equality with our superiors.

What is the tipping point?

IntersectionI’ve long been fascinated by the fact that our Social Contract works—that people stop at four-way stop signs and allow the person to their right to move first, creating a sweet dance of understanding and civility. By the fact that social anarchy doesn’t occur more often at Labor Day Sales, by the fact that people generally queue in straight lines and take turns to buy their Big Macs, that we muster the wherewithal to tell people when they have spinach stuck between their teeth, and that we are a nation of givers and volunteers.

But after my house was broken into recently (while my older daughter and a friend slept in the next room), prompting this life-long pacifist and Quaker to want a gun, only then did I realize that social niceness is only possible when our basic needs are met—when we are not in fear of our lives, when our children are not in danger, when we are hydrated and our kids have clothes, when we are not shuffling around a devastated city in shoes made of rubber bands and pieces of a box that sadly says “keep moving”, when we are not starving and dirty and wet and have no place to urinate or defecate, when we have not just lost every single thing we have, including our family. No, four-way traffic stops fall far short in those situations. I’m reminded of Yeats’ famous line: “Things fall apart; the center cannot hold.”

The social contract is tenuous. And it has broken. The fear and the fury that has been below the surface in this country for many years has emerged from the cracks in New Orleans. The poverty we try so hard to ignore and make nice and keep in tidy pockets of space has risen to the surface, literally floating in the streets of this fine city.

Ours is a nation of profound social divisions. As professor Mark Naison from Fordham University said recently, "black people are as trapped and isolated by their poverty as they were by segregation laws. Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation." That's what we are seeing up close and personal in New Orleans this week.

When do people become less than human? When are there too many people in one place for the individual humanity of any one of them to be considered? When does it become okay to leave our corpses floating in canals or in a wheelchair outside the New Orleans Convention Center? What’s that tipping point?

We think they are, but natural disasters are not equal opportunity disasters. The invisible poor in New Orleans were told, like everyone else, to evacuate--but had no means to do so--no cars, no credit cards, no money, no nothing. Those of us in the dominant culture in this country were blind to that reality. White privilege and socio-economic privilege is called "privilege" because it means that I don't see and don't have to see the realities of people who are less-than me (less fortunate, less wealthy, less educated, less cultured, less articulate, less white). I simply don't know what I don't know—and, importantly, I don’t need to know it to survive.

Racism and classism aren’t always proactive and blunt and violent acts. I don't have to wake up in the morning determined to do racist things in order to be racist. It isn’t wearing white sheets and burning crosses. No, it is more often a subtle ignorance of the realities of another group of people, an unknowing disregard, a not knowing, a not considering. It's white flight and red-lining by financial institutions. It is de facto segregation in New Orleans and many most U.S.cities. It is what made it possible for an evacuation announcement to be made without adequate provisions to actually take people out of that city. It is both a willful and an unconscious disregard.

Jane Elliott, well-known for her work on racism, responds to people who argue that racism no longer exists or that white people are now being discriminated against, in the following way:

“So I say, ‘Fine. OK. Will every white person in this room who would like to spend the rest of his or her life being treated, discussed, and looked upon as we treat, discuss, and look upon people of color, generally speaking, in this society, please stand?’ And I watch. And wait. And the only sounds in the room are those made by people of color as they turn in their seats to see how many white folks are standing. Not one white person stands. And I just let them sit there. Then I say, ‘Do you know what you just admitted? You just admitted that you know that it's happening, you know that it's ugly, and you know that you don't want it for you. So why are you so willing to accept it for others? The ultimate obscenity is that you deny that it's happening.’

New_orleans_shoesI know in my heart of hearts that if 20,000 of the nation's most influential and richest people were in that Superdome, they would not have been left to live like animals. We would not be calling them refugees, and they would not have been sitting in feces and beside corpses. No, they would have made things happen for themselves because they have the socio-economic privilege and resources to do so. It is only possible for this sub-human horror to have occurred because the people in there are nameless and interchangeable and without the resources to challenge and help themselves (except through violence), like many poor, black people in this country. They are, for the most part, not considered as individual human beings, but as a mob, a mass, a problem.

While there are many material victims of this disaster, losing homes and things they cherished and worked hard for, the human victims of Hurricane Katrina are largely poor and black. They are the ones who could not escape. They are the ones who should have been provided for first, but weren’t. They are the invisible people who clean our toilets when we go to New Orleans to eat beignets, listen to jazz, eat garlic-mashed potatoes, and hold conferences about new ways to do our jobs. They are the faceless bellhops and waitresses who have for years provided the infrastructure for New Orleans to thrive as a tourist Mecca, the steel beams on which the happy debauchery of Mardi Gras could stand. They are the poor, voiceless people of this nation, not the rich ones.

Many of them are the poor ones from whom we avert our eyes, the ones we avoid and hide in appropriate sections of town, and the ones we hide from, embarrassed by our own standing on their shoulders. There are no wealthy people in the Superdome; there are no wealthy people dead in wheelchairs outside the Convention Center, skin popping in the heat and water, no. They simply are not there. The storm wasn’t racist and classist, but we are (in addition, in the face of this situation, to being quite desperately inept). This situation points to a reality far wider than what is happening now in New Orleans; it is this larger and more complex issue that our nation must address after we have taken care of those displaced and dead and distraught people in the Gulf Coast.

Each human being asked to suffer the conditions of the Superdome and the Convention Center is a person with a mother and a father, children, likes and dislikes, hopes and dreams that aren’t different from my own, not really. They have a history, however, that is nothing like mine, and their history—like mine—figures into their reaction to this tragedy, these broken promises, this horror. They all deserve dignity and respect, even when they don’t behave in the way we would like for them to behave, even when they resort to looting and violence. It is easy to love and care for lovable people; it is harder to love and care for those who are unlovable. That is our challenge in times like these.

And, to be honest, I wonder what the difference is between wealthy oil companies jacking up gas prices immediately after a tragedy like this and those “looters,” poverty level people now homeless and with no hope who are finally finding a crack in the wall and reaching in for once in their life.

Somehow, we must learn to grant specificity and humanity to the Other even when our only connection to them is that we are both human, even when we cannot fathom living their lives, even when we believe that they get what they deserve, as I’ve heard some suggest. I felt connected to the Tsunami catastrophe because I used to live in Sri Lanka. I’m connected to the Superdome because the 92-year-old aunt of a good friend is in there, somewhere, lost. But I cannot turn “whats” into “whos” only among those people I know or to whom I have some connection: I must extend that humanity to everyone. I must stretch that feeling of connection, not just to those I know, but to those I’ll never know.

Responding well in situations that are not desperate is not much of a skill. It doesn’t take a lot to be civil when all of our basic needs are met, when we are having the equivalent of a nice tea party with white gloves and glossy pink lipstick expertly applied and eating cucumber sandwiches on white bread while giggling about Johnny Depp. No, that’s not the test of who we are. Instead, responding well in a situation of this gravity and magnitude is where we begin to separate the wheat from the chaff. And I realize after a day of blaming people that I’m not even passing my own test. I’ve spent the last day like one of those old ladies that Faulkner writes about, the ones he describes that sit on chairs too tall for their feet to reach the floor, my impotent little legs furiously kicking below me in the dust motes.

So here is my vow: I am not going to spend mental or physical energy blaming people for this unconscionable and undeniably incompetent response to this tragedy. No, not yet. No, to do that now does not honor those men and women and children who have yet to eat or drink, it does not honor those dead human beings with real lives and families who loved them and had to leave them floating in the floodwaters, a desperate and incomplete goodbye to the real and true and precious loves of their life. I cannot sit here with my cup of coffee and tasty scone and place blame on people who are desperately trying to help in the best way they can. No, I will save all that fury and helplessness and second-guessing for later. I will only offer constructive suggestions now until the last person is buried and the last person has been fed and showered and found. The more I ask authorities to respond to my allegations of blame, the less focused they are on the families still drowning by inches in their attics, and the more distance I can create between my own self and this tragedy.

We are all accountable for this.

~*~ 37 Days: Do it Now Challenge ~*~

When you look at the TV coverage of this, count the people you see by ones, not by the thousands. Every single one of them has a story, whether they are the little boy who cried until he vomited when his dog, Snowball, was taken from him because pets weren’t allowed on the bus to the Astrodome, or my friend’s 92-year-old aunt somewhere, somewhere in this painful reality. We must see ourselves in their stories. What keeps us from doing that? What makes it possible to disassociate so radically that we cannot demand the change that must occur for people to live and die in dignity, not squalor?

Where I find myself saying “they,” I must say “we” instead. And instead of just saying “we,” I must say “I.” Instead of asking “why aren’t they doing more?”, I must ask, “why aren’t we doing more?” and, finally, “why am I not doing more?” How have I left these people living below the poverty level in substandard housing for all these many years? It’s not their fault, or our fault, but my fault.

How many lessons do we have to learn and forget and learn again? Let’s all prepare for future disasters, yes. More importantly, after the waters recede and we bury the poor deserted dead and feed and comfort the living and get them proper shoes, let’s have a dialogue about poverty in this, the wealthiest nation on earth. Let’s create a disaster plan for that, you and I.

Let’s begin with boldness—I hear it has genius, power, and magic in it.




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I had this conversation with a colleague yesterday after hearing a radio talk show host go off about all the "animals" in NOLA. We agreed that neither of us could possibly predict how we would react under similar circumstances, because we just don't know. We've never lived under similar circumstances, even before the hurricane struck. I can empathize, but it's hard to sympathize when there is so little I understand about other people's everyday lives.

But when I read about the little boy and Snowball in the paper this morning, I cried and hugged my dogs tight. For a minute, I was that little boy, even though I'm sitting comfortably clothed and fed in my comfortable house.

We all can connect--we just need to find those connection points that turn us from a us vs. them to a we. Thank you for the reminder, which we all need most especially right now.

I am here in Paris recovering from a debilitating illness, but wanted to share an excerpt from a personal journal entry I made last night (1 Sept).

I spent last September after Hurricane Frances and during/ after Hurricane Jeanne as a Shelter Manager and case worker both in West Palm Beach and in the outlying migrant worker communities with the American Red Cross as well as doing numerous international humanitarian projects walking side by side with the poor, sick, and oppressed over the last several years.

In this most recent disaster, I have had to really look myself in the mirror and be honest with what I see... as I shed tears for children who have become instant orphans, for the mother who gave her 2 month old baby away in desperation to someone who managed to make it onto a bus headed for the shelter in Houston, for the disgrace and lack of dignity or human decency that each and every
person, each and every face I see (on the CNN, BBC, MSNBC internet sites) has been forced to live with, not even counting all of the faceless who are suffering...the ones I don't see.

Here is an excerpt of my late night scribbles:

1 September 2005 Paris, France
I am so angry. Over the past 4 days I've been following the disaster of Hurricane Katrina. The hurricane itself was a monster... but what has me so angry is what has happened afterwards, particularly in New Orleans...that was 3 days ago. There are still people stranded in buildings which is horrible, but understandable. What is not understandable or acceptable is the fact that people who sought shelter at the Superdome or those who were directed to go to the convention center are without food, water - which is critical especially in 90 degree heat - no sanitation facilities -- nothing.

No information. No one is there to coordinate, assess, or offer assistance. There are buses lined up just blocks away, but they stand in mockery of these people's suffering.

Now they are evacuating people to Houston from the Superdome - if ever so slowly- but for those people who walk the freeway, hitch rides, or do whatever to get to Houston - they are turned away. Where are they supposed to go?

Their city is completely uninhabitable, they have no money, little more than the shirts on their backs.

Just incredible that in one of the richest countries in the world these things are taking place and it is getting worse by the minute as people are now dying in the streets -- babies are dying in the streets.

Someone has blood on their hands. Someone is responsible for holding up supplies, for directing people into this dead end. And in the end, even I feel I have blood on my hands - as an American who has allowed my country's policies to steadily undermine the social fabric - the gap increasing between the have's and have not's - the people who get left behind-- the invisible people. The sick, the aged, the poor, the ethnic minorities. God forgive us. God forgive me. I pray I will have health restored and that I can
be used for good in this situation and others...that I can be used to make the world a better place - to love and share light to all.

I spent 13 years in the US, moved back to NL 3 years ago. Been to New Orleans in 1982.

Watching CNN, I was getting more and more edgy where almost every politicians were slapping each other s back on what a good job done. I applauded the reported who (I think his name is Anderson) who finally broke and told one of the senators to stop doing that.

I also applauded Nagin for speaking what was on his mind.

The problems in the US is there are just too many politics: nobody dare to speak out, always looking at the glass ceiling how to climb higher forgetting the value what is right and wrong ... always walk gingerly and not stepping on the bosses' toes.

If not because of all these unnecessary human tragedy and lost, the nice thing about Katrina is, it finally shown how badly behaves politicians are, and none worse than George Bush. I have been trying to remember, how quickly (meaning within how many days), he would pop to Florida to support his brother Jeff after the last two hurricanes? And with this magnitude of Katrina, he only appeared when public opinion no longer looked good??

Why American kept him for two terms is just a mystry to us non-Americans.

Speak up Americans. Louder ... if not as loud as Nagin.


A very thoughtful and inspirational letter. Similar ideas were espressed by Jim Wallis of Soujourner magazine. I enjoy reading your letters in the morning because it wakes me up and gets me going for the day.

Well said, Patricia. Thank you for being able to articulate what is in many of our heads and hearts.

thanks so much to everyone who has responded - I believe that the lessons of Katrina are only beginning to emerge..and I hope we have the presence of mind and spirit to learn from them. Thanks - I always appreciate the feedback...

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