Race Matters

Judith Browne
Date Published: 
January 28, 2006
The lurid images of the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina have taught us many lessons about this country. While many of us wrung our hands in despair as we watched, feeling helpless and distraught by the suffering of the people of New Orleans, nearby parishes, Mississippi and Alabama, we had to stop and think: about where this moment stood in the history of this great so-called Super Power. In the days following the storm, as a country, we needed to beĀ· introspective. And, in the weeks and years to come during the rebuilding of lives that have been uprooted and in some cases destroyed, we must come to telms with the elephant in the flood. We all want relief efforts to continue but at the same time, we cannot ignore that race still matters.
This wake up call has been elucidated through images and reports from the areas victimized by Hurricane Katrina. Media coverage over the past two weeks has shown clearly that the majority of people stranded in New Orleans were African American. But not only were they left behind, they were ignored, treated like animals and left to live in lmspeakable, unsafe, squalid conditions. They were left to die with no water, no food and no medication. Many were left to die in attics and on roofs. Photos of Black bodies floating in the flood waters and lying on the pavement, Black babies limp and lifeless, and elderly African Americans gasping for air, are forever ingrained into our psyche and our history. The underbelly of American society has been exposed.
As the stories pour out in the aftermath of Katrina the covers are being pulled back on our dirty little secret of racism. Of course, this is compounded by the other odious skeleton in our national closet, the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow that has left many African Americans living in extreme poverty. Last week, a story on reported on media outlets revealed how deep these problems truly are. With total disregard for life and safety of Americans trying to escape to higher, drier ground, officers of the Gretna Sheriffs office used gunfIre and intimidation to prevent attempts of many African Americans to cross the bridge out of New Orleans. Reportedly, an officer told a group of mostly Black evacuees that they could not cross the bridge because Gretna was not going to become another New Orleans and there would be no Superdomes in their city. The group and others who approached later, retreated. The traumatic experience did not end there, at gunpoint a Gretna officer subsequently forced the group from a camp they set up on a highway and took their food and water. The Sheriff admitted that Gretna, "a bedroom community," had security concerns. These concerns trumped the value of the lives of the African Americans who sought refuge.
This devaluation was further demonstrated by law enforcement efforts within New Orleans. Instead of making provisions of the bare necessities for survival available to desperate families stuck in New Orleans, a "shoot to kill" order was issued to stop persons appropriating such necessities. Again, there was total disregard for the lives of people merely seeking to survive. Evacuees also complained that outside law enforcement officers were disrespectful and unresponsive to pleas for help. Many
African Americans staying in large shelters have been humiliated by being hosed down in a "detoxification" effort, sniffing dogs, metal detectors, and curfews.
We cannot deny that racism has reared its ugly head. We also must acknowledge that individuals of all races have taken extraordinary steps to help Black evacuees. This has been a true testament to a country pulling together in a time of need. Yet, there is another silver lining. Although it is hard to stomach, the suffering of African Americans in the Gulf region is making us come to grips with the problem of racism in this country. This is not the first time that the suffering of African Americans has been a catalyst for change and it probably will not be the last. However, one can only hope that African American lives do not have to continue to be lost in the struggle to capture the conscience of America.