One human story of race and class in the wake of Katrina

Friday, September 16, 2005

One human story of race and class in the wake of Katrina

Some of the most striking and most disturbing data to come out of the debacle in New Orleans is the discrepancy in the polls between blacks and whites. When asked if they thought that there was evidence of racial prejudice at work in the botched evacuation, several different polls showed 70 per cent (more or less) of whites saying no, 70 per cent of blacks saying yes. This ought to shock us as much as the situation itself, if not more so.

I have committed to memory a sentence in Philip Gourevitch’s major award-winning book, We Wish To Inform You That Tomorrow We Will Be Killed With Our Families (Winner National Book Critics Circle Award 1998). This is a highly praised account of the genocide in Rwanda and the abject failure of the American and European powers to do anything to stop it. Here is the sentence: “Power largely consists in the ability to make others inhabit your story of their reality.”

This strikes me as one of the most telling descriptions of oppression that I have heard. With just a moment’s reflection, anyone of any race can understand this on the individual level in situations that happen to us every day. When people reword your story of distress about something into a different story that is more palatable to them, you feel reduced, dismissed, and quite probably angry. The other person has failed to inhabit your story, but has imposed his own story on yours.

When an entire dominant group is allowed to impose a story on a subordinate group, day after day, year after year, the amount of rage that builds up is significant. If, after all the gains since the 50s, blacks feel that they are still required to listen to white people rewording their stories in ways that are not at all like what they are actually experiencing, then our racial problem is still acute. This should be particularly grievous for white American Christians. The African-American population as a whole is still overwhelmingly, and devoutly, Christian. It is a source of wonder that the tradition of redemption and forgiveness is still so strong among them. We should be humbled and grateful to them for preserving so much of what is central to Christian faith. I do not romanticize the black Church, but it should be obvious that, whatever its faults may be, it has instilled an extraordinarily forgiving disposition in the majority of its members.

Here is a vignette from the front page of The Berkshire (Massachusetts) Eagle:

The front page features a four-columns-wide colored photograph of a white woman, Nita LaGarde, age 105, being wheeled away from the now-infamous scene at the New Orleans Convention Center by a burly rescue worker. The aged but dignified silver-haired white lady is remarkably well-groomed under the circumstances in a neat black dress and a smart handbag. Alongside the wheelchair marches an equally neat and dignified little black girl, aged 5. The two of them, one hundred years apart in age and a world apart in social status, are holding hands.

Inside the newspaper we learn who these two are. The little girl, Tanisha Blevin, is the granddaughter of Ms. LaGarde’s caregiver, Ernestine Dangerfield, 60. They have spent (incredibly) two days in an attic, two days on an interstate island, and four days on the pavement in front of the convention center. Ms. Dangerfield said Ms. LaGarde had not had a clean adult diaper in more than two days. “I just want to get somewhere where I can get her nice and clean,” she told a reporter. If Ms. LaGarde looked dignified in her black dress, if she was still holding her handbag, and if Tanisha felt a kindly, protective connection to her after eight days of hell, we know that Ms. Dangerfield is the one who made that happen—by the grace of God.

This story of devotion and self-sacrifice across the lines of race and class, and many others like them that I have heard, must be told again and again. Only by paying attention to these narratives can we hope to break through the stereotypes. In the same newspaper, a man in Gulfport, Mississippi was in his flooded house, in dire need of aid, but disgusted with the scenes on TV from New Orleans. He said to a reporter, “I say burn the bridges and let ‘em all rot there. We’re suffering over here too, but we’re not killing each other. We’ve got to help each other.” Somehow we must get the message across that many blacks and whites in the nightmarish conditions in New Orleans were indeed helping each other.

The Berkshire Eagle
, Sunday, September 4

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