Ron Briley: The Shame of a Nation

Roundup: Media's Take

[Mr. Briley is Assistant Headmaster, Sandia Preparatory School.]

Those of us who assert that consideration of race, gender, and class be at the heart of the American experience are often ridiculed by conservative critics. But the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans exposes the myth of America as a middle-class melting pot with equal opportunity for all its citizens.

The failure of the federal government to provide funding to strengthen the levee system, of course, endangered all residents of New Orleans. Yet, the handling of the city’s evacuation proved that some in the city were more expendable than others. Those with automobiles and the cash to buy expensive gasoline were able to flee the city. Left behind were the poor, elderly, and ill—those who lacked the resources or ability to make their way out of New Orleans. Instead of fleeing Katrina, they would have to wait the storm out in their homes or seek shelter at the Superdome and Convention Center.

Those left behind were disproportionately black Americans, demonstrating the intersection between race and class in American society. Overcrowded in the Superdome, those seeking refuge survived the hurricane and structural damage to the stadium. But when the levees broke, the poor were stranded without food, water, electricity, medicine, basic sanitation, and police protection. It is difficult to put out of one’s mind the vision of American citizens begging for food, water, and safety that was not forthcoming for days. The expressions of anguish and pain in the faces of mothers, children, and the elderly wondering why they were abandoned does, indeed, constitute a national disgrace.

The question which plagues many Americans is whether the governmental response to a more privileged white population, placed in similar circumstances, would have been different. Unfortunately, the history of this nation and how the poor and racial minorities have been treated suggests that New Orleans was hardly an aberration. But the pictures of human suffering beamed into our living rooms from New Orleans made it impossible this time to ignore the pain of America’s underclass.

Why was the Commander-in-Chief, so quick to dispatch troops to Iraq, reluctant to commit greater military resources to the relief of one of America’s great cities? Accusations that the President’s response was racist does not mean that he and his advisers made a conscious decision to abandon the city because it was full of black people. Rather the belated effort to aid the most vulnerable in our society reflects the institutional racism and class bias, which permeates our society and benefits the privileged. Attempts to foster greater economic opportunity for all in our society are denounced as socialistic or favoritism, denying the fact that the entire system, including government disaster relief, is established to aid the privileged, who already have such safety nets as insurance.

Accordingly, the initial narrow approach of the Bush administration seemed focused upon the protection of property and preventing looting. Despite the fact that many people were simply looking for food and medicine to take care of their families, the President stated that there should be zero tolerance for those not respecting private property. Perhaps the President has never heard his children crying for food. Or perhaps he has never read Les Miserables and understood why Jean Valjean was stealing bread. The President only seems to identify with the bureaucratic Inspector Javert. Victor Hugo might have much to teach the President about compassionate conservatism.

Indeed, the desperate situation in New Orleans did increasingly descend into violence. But is it really so shocking that small elements of a population, which has been told that it is expendable, would respond in a criminal fashion? They are already excluded from the larger society. But the real story in New Orleans is about the countless acts of individual heroism in which people at the risk of their own lives attempted to save the elderly and the children. The story of New Orleans is similar to that of New York City in the wake of 9-11. The fact that some descended into criminal behavior should not be allowed to obscure the fact that the vast majority of those left behind in New Orleans should be praised for behavior reminiscent of the courageous fire fighters and police in New York City. Except in the case of New Orleans, the authorities were not coming to rescue them, and citizens in the Crescent City had to fend for themselves.

And as we begin the recovery process, it is essential that we not forget the heroes of New Orleans. Americans have demonstrated tremendous generosity in responding to the tragedy of Katrina, but recovery is about a great deal more than restoring property and the commercial life of a city. Let us take the lessons of New Orleans and apply them to fashioning an America in which all citizens are provided with equal opportunity. The devastation in New Orleans lifted the veil regarding race and class in this nation. In an often-condescending voice, commentators observed that New Orleans looked like “a third world country.” The reality of life for all too many our citizens is governed by the cruel intersection of race and class. In the aftermath of Katrina, let us not forget the pictures of human suffering at the New Orleans Convention Center and try to make the promise of America a reality for all its people.