Solidarity Not Charity: Racism in Katrina Relief Work

Molly McClure
Date Published: 
January 1, 2006

Solidarity not Charity: Racism in Katrina Relief Work

By Molly McClure, December 2005


Irecently spent three weeks working at the Common Ground Relief Clinic in NewOrleans, an all-volunteer run free healthcare project that opened a week afterthe hurricane. The following are some thoughts I had about the differencebetween solidarity and charity, specifically reflecting on the role of folkslike me--- white activists from out of town--- in Katrina relief work. 


Asmany people have said, the mess of Katrina was caused by a storm of racism andpoverty more than wind and water. Katrina was about the racism of war that tookmoney away from fixing the levees and other much-needed disaster preparationsand went instead to the killing of poor people of color in Iraq and around theworld.  Katrina was about theracism of US-led capitalism that accelerates global warming, bringing biggerhurricanes and tsunamis and other “natural disasters” which always disproportionatelyaffect the poor. Katrina was about the legacy of slavery, which meant that manywhite New Orleanians had the economic resources to evacuate, such as a car orother means to escape the storm and subsequent flooding, while many Black NewOrleanians did not. Katrina was about the racism of FEMA and the Bushadministration in their murderously slow response (you know it would havelooked different in Connecticut!). And Katrina was about the racism of the police chief of Gretna, who,with the support of his predominantly white town, turned Black survivors awayat gunpoint as they tried to cross the Crescent City Bridge to safety becausehe “didn’t want Gretna to turn into the Superdome.”  


Like most of you, I’m guessing, I was outraged andheartbroken by what I saw, and I wanted to go down and see if there was someway I could support the people of the Gulf Coast in their efforts to deal withthis mess. When I got there I saw and heard devastating things, stories of lossmy ears are still full of, images of destruction that cut into the meat of myheart.  I also saw and heard many,many inspiring things--- stories of resistance and hope, of survival andvision.  I met incredible peoplewho fed me red beans and rice on Mondays and told me about their families andtheir lives, who shared with me some of what New Orleans meant to them, peoplewho through their stories helped me understand the depth and breadth of thisatrocity.  


(By the way, I’d really encourage folks to seek out thesefirst-hand stories, and prioritize reading information and analysis aboutKatrina written by survivors and long-time residents of the Gulf Coast, forexample “New Orleans and Women of Color: Connecting the Personal and Political”by Janelle L. White, which is available online). 


I was also inspired by how many folks from outside NewOrleans had gone down to volunteer, had seen what was happening and wereappalled, and found a way to go down and support in any way they could.  I met incredibly committed activists,folks with skills and energy and immense creativity and huge hearts.


And while it was moving to see how many people came down tovolunteer, with that also came one of the unexpected heartbreaks for me ofbeing in the Gulf Coast post-Katrina: the racism that white activists likemyself brought along with us, even as we came intending to stand in solidaritywith the people of New Orleans. And although there are many many stories I wantto tell, this is what I feel a really deep need to write about, and I see thisas part of an ongoing conversation. (Note: for this article, I’ll be using thePeople’s Institute definition of racism, which is race prejudice plus power,and using it interchangeably with “white supremacy,” meaning the system ofwealth, power, and privilege which keeps racism in place). 


First, I want to say that I’m not approaching thisconversation as if I’ve got it all figured out, because I have a ton of work todo and make plenty of mistakes, including the ones I’m about to discuss.  And I want to say that while I will bespeaking from my own perspective, there have been many people of color whoseanalysis and experiences have helped me develop the antiracist framework I’musing to think about this situation. I just want to put that out because I think it’s important to recognizewhose labor and experiences have helped inform what I am saying, and how I’msaying it.  


So having said all that, I want to talk a little about theways that we white folks, no matter how well-intentioned, bring our whiteprivilege and our racism with us wherever we go, and how this really hijackssolidarity projects and imperils our capacity to be true allies.  Despite the fact that what happened inNew Orleans was understood by the majority of whites even slightly left ofcenter to have its roots in racism, it does not seem that this awareness hastranslated into us wrestling any more seriously with white supremacy, even asmany of us mobilize to support the communities of the Gulf Coast. 


One example I want to give is about the looter/finderdistinction made by mainstream media outlets in describing stranded NewOrleanians carrying food.  Do folksremember seeing that?  The captionsof pictures said white people “found” stuff, and Black people “looted” stuff,though the images were identical except for race. Lots of us forwarded an emailaround about this, and were justifiably outraged at the blatant criminalizingof Black survivors in the media. People I know wrote letters to the editors of newspapers, sent scathingemails, and called in to radio shows to protest that and other racistportrayals of Katrina survivors.   


The question I want to ask is how many of us white folksmake these kind of looter/finder assumptions about people’s behavior all thetime, in our heads? How many of us make these kinds of racialized good guy/badguy distinctions when we’re walking down the street in our hometowns, standingat a bus stop late at night, interacting with new people in our activistspaces, talking to co-workers at our jobs, seeing patients in the clinic?   


While the media portrayals were egregious and telling, Ithink the insidious, often unconscious prejudice that we’ve learned by livingin a racist culture is also incredibly dangerous. The People’s Institute forSurvival and Beyond calls this “internalized racial superiority,” and that’swhat I saw playing out so dramatically among many white solidarity workers whocame to New Orleans, even though many of us were there because we felt a deepdesire to take action against what was clearly a race-based hate crime.   


So I have some questions for white folks thinking aboutgoing down, questions I am still asking myself: first of all, why you?  Why are you going? Could our resourcesand energy be better used supporting survivor organizing at home orfundraising, rather than spent traveling to the South?  Are we committed to doing support workthat may not feel as “exciting” as going down ourselves? How did it come to bethat we are able to travel to and around New Orleans, while many survivorsstill can’t go home?  What are webringing with us, what will we take back? What has been the role of white people and white institutions in thedestruction and reshaping of communities of color in the US, in the history ofNew Orleans?  When we go down, arewe expecting to be thanked, to be welcomed, what is our real motivation forgoing? What will be the long-term impact of our work on the Gulf Coastcommunities with whom we're supposedly standing in solidarity? How are we goingto be accountable to what we saw and heard and did when we come back, and towhom do we feel accountable? How are we going to make meaningful connections tothe same kind of injustices back home? Do we know about the issues facing poorcommunities and communities of color in our hometown, and are we as motivated,as committed to dealing with those issues where we live, which could bear astriking resemblance to what’s going on in New Orleans?  Are we seeing survivors of Katrina as“worthy” poor, deserving of resources and relief work, without recognizing thatthe poverty back home is equally a result of systemic racism, and equallycrucial to address? 


In the three weeks I was working in New Orleans, I spentmost of my time at the Common Ground Clinic, where most of the volunteers andhealthcare providers are white. (Though the call to create Common Ground was put out by Malik Rahim, aBlack activist and organizer who never evacuated New Orleans, the people withthe resources and time to respond first to that call were overwhelmingly white,class-privileged folks, who continue to be numerically the majority).  While I was there, I heard commentslike “this is so cool that New Orleans is going to have a free clinic now!” orother statements suggesting that we, the white saviors, had come to bringcapital a ACTIVISM to the region, which before we got there was presumably somekind of political wasteland.  Now,I definitely didn’t do my homework like I should have before I got there, but Iwas pretty sure that the city had had a vibrant history of resistance andorganizing from the time of the slave revolts on, and I had recently learnedabout the Saint Thomas Clinic and other local healthcare justice projects.  The fact that the town was so intenselydepopulated may have made it possible for an inexperienced out-of-towner tomistake the absence of people with the absence of organizing.  But I know there was more to it thanthat---  racism fosters in whitepeople an easy, unconscious arrogance, an inability to see past ourselves, thecapacity to be “blinded by the white.” Mixed up in this also, I think, is the classist assumption that poorfolks aren’t politically conscious or organized, or that they only “become” sowhen outside organizers arrive.


Another example of these racist assumptions could be seenwhen folks expressed the valid concern that the community wasn’t involvedenough in running the health center, even though flyers were put up around thesurrounding Algiers neighborhood inviting residents to volunteer and become apart of the clinic.  I’ve been partof this dynamic in the past--- wondering why “they” don’t come to “our” meetingor event, without understanding how alienating the white culture of our projector organization might be to people of color, from the language, timing, andstructure of our meetings to the way we dress (especially in places like CommonGround, which, when I was there, had a predominantly punk/hippie subculturalscene going on).  When there hasbeen a lack of community involvement in other neighborhood projects of which I’vebeen a part, it’s usually because the project began or evolved without aconcerted effort to connect in a respectful, non-tokenizing way with people inthe neighborhood to see what they were working on already, what theirpriorities were, what strategies they’d tried before, how we might supporttheir work before starting a brand spanking new project with us inleadership. 


In the case of the clinic in particular, it was animmediate disaster relief project that needed to happen, and I see it as a fantasticexample of the capacity of the left to effectively mobilize in an emergencywhen the state infrastructure failed. But now that the clinic is a more permanent fixture, there will be somereal wrestling with power and privilege in the months ahead, if it is to reachthe stated goal of transitioning to community control, and if it is to have arole that is less about service provision and more about rebuildinginfrastructure and offering resources in a way that supports communityself-determination. 


Another example I want to offer is a hand-painted sign atthe clinic that said, “Less Tears More Action!”  I never found out who painted this, but I’m guessing it wasa white person from out of town, like me. And no matter who created the sign, I wondered what the impact of thatstatement was (for the day it was up) on the people who came to the clinic, whowere mourning immeasurable losses and experiencing worlds of grief that we asoutsiders would never be able to fully comprehend.  Yet we felt entitled to offer brightly-painted suggestionsabout it being time to quit whining and move on, and presumably we were to bethe role models of what kind of “action” folks should take.


Abig slogan at the Common Ground Clinic was “Solidarity not Charity,” which iseasy to say, but what does it mean? And how do we know if what we’re doing is charity or solidarity--- is itas simple as choosing to work with Common Ground instead of the Red Cross?  This was one of the biggest lessons forme, and something I’m still thinking a lot about. 


Adefinition of solidarity I’ve heard is that it’s about providing concretesupport to an oppressed group so that they can more easily use their own powerto change the conditions of their lives. As I understand it, solidarity is about working with people who arestruggling for their own liberation in a way that means my future gets bound upwith theirs.


Onthe other hand, charity is about me feeling good, assuaging guilt, feeling likeI’m doing something about injustice but without actually threatening the statusquo.  Charity doesn’t really costme anything, especially my self-image as being someone who’s down with thestruggle and on the side of the oppressed.  With charity I don’t have to acknowledge my privilege in asituation, and in the case of work in New Orleans, I don’t have to takeresponsibility for the fact that my family and I have materially benefited,historically and presently, from the racism that bludgeoned the south longbefore the hurricane. With charity, I don’t have to connect the dots betweensudden catastrophes like Katrina, and the perhaps slower but very similareconomic devastation happening in poor communities and communities of color,every day, right here, in my city. And most importantly, with charity, I don’thave risk that what I’m doing might truly transform society in such a way thatwhite folks like me may not end up on top anymore, because charity actuallyreinforces existing relationships of power. And while the work we did at CommonGround may have been in solidarity with a liberation-oriented vision, I’m notsure that was enough. It scares and pains me to admit it, but despite the signproclaiming proudly that the clinic was about “solidarity not charity,” I thinkthe majority of what I saw us white activists doing at Common Ground wasessentially charity. 


One day at the clinic, Kimberley Richards and BridgetLehane, organizers from The People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, came tomeet with us about the possibility of doing an antiracism training forvolunteers at the clinic. Kimberley pointed out that like it or not, we--- mostly white healthcareproviders and activists in a hurricane-ravaged poor Black town--- stood toprofit off our time in New Orleans, either socially through gaining “activistpoints” or professionally by writing papers or books about our experience.  She asked us how were we going to beaccountable to that fact, how we were going to make sure that the people mostaffected by this tragedy would also stand to gain and not be profited off, asthey so often were by the organizations and institutions that were supposedlyserving them. 


The difference between charity and solidarity felt hugethat day and as we discussed whether or not we could--- more truthful to say whetheror not we would---close the clinic in order to participate in their two and a half day training,called the “Undoing Racism Workshop.”   I realized that solidarity felt easier when I thoughtabout it in terms of us simply offering a crucial resource to the community ---providing free, accessible healthcare and free medications in a place and timewhen that was a dire, dire necessity. And that’s incredibly important.


But the challenge of real solidarity is that it requires usto take a critical look at the bigger picture of Katrina, the context, and tosee how we fit in. Solidarity means looking at how power and privilege play outin our own lives, and obligates us to consider our role in relation to thestate and system that helped engineer this disaster. To be in solidarity wewould need to understand how our class and race privilege impact why we werethe ones able to offer the healthcare resources in the first place, and be realabout whether the clinic serves to challenge or reinforce that inequality.Solidarity requires us to seriously grapple with our racial prejudice, andrecognize how it affects the work we do in the clinic and how we interact withthe community. To really be in solidarity, we would need to more fully examineand drastically overhaul the assumptions and biases in how we deliverhealthcare, we would have to acknowledge and deal with the white culture of theproject and how that affected our patients and which providers felt welcome inthe clinic, and we would need to see and wrestle with the fact that ourpresence in New Orleans was profoundly changing the class and race dynamics ofthe intensely depopulated neighborhood and town.  We would have to be willing to look at and be accountable tothe ways in which we might actually stand to gain more in the long term fromour “solidarity work” in the clinic than the community who we were supposedlyserving.   


At this point I still have more questions than answersabout what being in solidarity really means.  But I know solidarity’s a hell of a lot less comfortablethan charity, and involves me not just going to someone else’s decimated townand helping out for a little while or even a long while and then going home anddoing a reportback, or writing a reflection piece, though that could be part ofit. Real solidarity means keeping up the conversation about race and class inthe US with other white folks, and working diligently to break down the racismin mainstream white communities---where institutional power currentlyresides---as well as challenging racism in the white left.  Real solidarity requires me to go on anongoing, difficult journey to reckon with my own stuff, and my family’sstuff--- to recognize and challenge our collusion in the system of whitesupremacy. My experience in New Orleans makes me ask myself what I’m doingright now, right here, to support the self-determination of communities ofcolor and of low-income people, what I’m doing right now to support arevolutionary transformation of systems of power in this country. It makes meask myself what I’m doing right now, right here, to help root out the racism inmy own heart and the heart of communities I’m a part of, so that I can strugglein true solidarity with communities most affected by injustice as they lead themovement for radical social change.


Atthe time of this writing, Molly McClure did sexual health and racial justicework in Philadelphia, and has since moved to San Francisco and organizes withCatalyst Project.  Molly is excitedto hear your comments, questions and discussion:molly [at] collectiveliberation [dot] com. This writing happened with a lot of support,feedback, and insightful conversation for which I’m incredibly grateful.