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2005-09-02

Race in New Orleans: Shaping the Response to Katrina?

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Race and class loom large in the critical discussion of the federal response to the impact of hurricane Katrina. We speak with two African-American activists about the poor communities that have been hit hardest by the hurricane. [includes rush transcript]

The frustration and anger over the slow federal response to hurricane Katrina’s destruction and aftermath continues to mount. The disturbing images are revealing: bodies floating through floodwaters, thousands of desperate survivors clamoring for food and distraught families with stricken children. Throughout all this, one thing is starkly evident: the vast majority of victims are black. African American leaders and activists are saying better planning and response by federal authorities could have lessened the severity of the hurricane’s impact. Race and class are becoming central to the discussion about what happened in the cities torn apart in the last few days.

  • Damu Smith, Executive Director of National Black Environmental Justice Network and founder of Black Voices for Peace.
  • Dr. Beverly Wright, founder and Director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans.

Transcript

This is a rush transcript. Copy may not be in its final form.

AMY GOODMAN: We’re joined now by two members of the National Black Environmental Justice Network. Damu Smith is executive director and founder of Black Voices for Peace, he joins us from our Washington studio. And Dr. Beverly Smith, the founder and director of The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice joins us as well, based at Dillard University in New Orleans on the phone with us from Atlanta, Georgia, where she is currently taking refuge. Damu, you can talk about the image we are seeing out of New Orleans, and how it is colored by race and class?

DAMU SMITH: Well, Amy, as I mentioned earlier this week, the majority of the people that we are seeing who have been victimized by this catastrophic event and disaster are poor— acutely poor African-Americans who are trying to escape this tragedy. And I have to say, Amy, this morning I am absolutely appalled. I would like to use other words right now, but I won’t. The federal government has bungled this entire operation to bring relief and urgent assistance to the people who are under siege by this disaster. I just wanted to say this— you know, on Sunday, when I spoke to Doctor — by the way, her name is Dr. Beverly Wright, not Smith, when I spoke to Dr. Wright, she was hurrying to get out the door with her family members. When I spoke to Lydia Blanco, they were trying to get out the door. It was Sunday that they should have been — there should have been a massive mobilization of the military assets, the coast guard assets, to get people out. This was Sunday. Public transportation in New Orleans is atrocious. But this is Sunday. When public transportation is particularly bad. So, for people who don’t have cars, especially those people in places like Fogway, east New Orleans, they weren’t able to get out of New Orleans at the pace they were being urged to get out. Clearly, the planning in this situation, and I want to focus on the federal assets, because that’s what needs to be brought to bear in this situation. And it was not brought to bear. And so, the mostly poor and black poverty-stricken people of New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi are paying the price for our government’s neglect. We’re talking about the fact that they have not been enough people on the ground from the National Guard. It is indeed because thousands of them are serving in Iraq. Because the first responders have to be where they are. That’s the point of the National Guard. They have to be in state where they have. They have to be in Louisiana. They have to be in Mississippi. Thousands were not in Mississippi and not in Louisiana and therefore, they have not been available from the outset to be there, to assist with the emergency operations. This is a disaster not just because of the hurricane, but the blame for this, much of it, lies at the doorsteps of the White House. president Bush and all of his — all of the federal agencies involved had to be blamed. This is a time for finger pointing. At the same time, it’s the time to bring relief to the people of Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama.

JUAN GONZALEZ: Dr. Beverly Wright, while it is indeed true that federal officials had some major responsibility in this, there’s also, I have been seeing reports statements from the governors of Mississippi and Louisiana that have shocked me in the way that they seem to be out of touch with even the reality going on in their own state.

DR. BEVERLY WRIGHT: I would say that this is true but I really believe that part of that is because communication is just not working. Nobody can communicate with anyone. My voice at this time, however, is, I’m of two minds. First there is the academic side of this voice, because I work at an historically black college and university. And I also worked as director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice. We have been working with people for the last 15 years dealing with what we call environmental injustice. So, I see it in two ways as a person who was born and raised in New Orleans and loves the city very much, and on the other hand looking at what the response has been, not only to the tragedy of Katrina, but what the response has been now for years, the toxic exposure for people living in the Mississippi river chemical corridor. We have no emergency response for that. So, it’s not surprising that the emergency response for this catastrophic situation seems to be non-existing. But what I really see happening is that people are not taking into consideration — when I say people, I’m talking about the government. The pre-hurricane conditions of the city. Then we have to deal with what the post-hurricane conditions are, which are intrinsically tied to the pre-hurricane conditions. And then moving on to what we call the rebuilding stage, there are so many factors directly related to class and race, for those of us who live in New Orleans, it’s mostly race and class follows race. It’s because of our race that our class is what it is. People forget that New Orleans is 67% black. That’s of the ones that are being counted. More than 50% of that 67% live below poverty. This is mostly driven by the economic base of the city, which is tourism. That means that low-paying jobs as waiters, dishwashers and cooks. Literally I would say that there’s been a huge resistance to raising the minimum wage that would raise the quality of life for most of the people in New Orleans. A second part of that is that the poverty in New Orleans for the most part has been hidden. Because the people in New Orleans have a very long history they have been there since it was under control bit French and Spanish. So the history is long. That’s why the culture in New Orleans is such — is just so enticing, people want to come from all over the world for the music and the food. It has to do specifically with that history. But I am very concerned about what is happening since the hurricane. I don’t need to go back into what we have been seeing on television. All of that is true. I have an uncle that is missing. My house is completely destroyed. The houses of all of my friends — houses are underwater. My friends are all over. They’re in Houston, they’re in Atlanta, for the most part, but they’re also in Birmingham and San Antonio, and Jackson, Mississippi. So we are completely ripped apart, and what we are asking is why in that we have been knowing that the levees needed to be shored up for a very, very long time. I mean, worst case scenarios have been presented at national meetings all over the world about what would happen to New Orleans, but yet we have not gotten the kind of response, I would say, pre-hurricane, from the White House that we should have gotten. I remember our legislators and our congress people fighting to get monies for our wetlands, fighting to get monies to shore up our levees. So, the army corps of engineers needed another $208 million to finish the levee projects which they did not get. President Bush sent $10 million. So, now we are going to have to spend $26 billion on a project that could have cost us $208 million. I hear people say, you know, well, people shouldn’t live there. People have been living here for more years than the United States has been in existence. This is the first time we are having something this catastrophic. This is after learning how to build dams and sending people to the moon. You know, so, as a citizen of New Orleans, I am very angry, and I really, really believe that it’s driven by race. People can say what they want, but when you look at who is left behind, it is very — it is very disturbing to me, not to mention the fact of what’s going to happen afterwards. Who will be involved in the rebuilding, and the redesigning of New Orleans? Just before the hurricane, African-Americans, middle class African-Americans, our grassroots people were basically fighting for their life. We were fighting gentrification at a rate we have never seen before. We were fighting the takeover of our public schools. We were fighting the dropping of the residency requirement. Hope Six wiped out a housing project that had 7,000 African-Americans. They were displaced the same way that we have been displaced. Crime and violence was rampant because of the displacement of about 7,000 people, poor people who had no place to go. All of this discussion about what’s going on, crime and violence in the city, well, that was going on before the hurricane and we didn’t get the attention or help we needed to deal with a looming drug addiction problem, and a small number of people who are thugs and murderers and drug dealers. Well, they’re there now. What you are seeing now is no more than what we saw then, and these people were also preying on our communities before the hurricane. Now, we have to deal with the rebuilding. Who will be involved in the rebuilding of New Orleans, in the clean-up, you know, in the construction, and what I am experiencing, trying to find housing, the discrimination is rampant.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Beverly Wright —

DR. BEVERLY WRIGHT: Dealing with middle class black people as well as poor black people.

AMY GOODMAN: Dr. Beverly Wright, director of The Deep South Center for Environmental Justice University at — is it Dillard University?

DR. BEVERLY WRIGHT: Dillard.

AMY GOODMAN: Speaking to us from Atlanta, her home destroyed in New Orleans. I wanted to end with Damu Smith. President Bush was asked by Diane Sawyer in a White House interview about the issue of zero tolerance. Diane Sawyer said what about those who are desperately trying to get food and water?

DAMU SMITH: Well, I want zero tolerance for that kind of language being used by leaders of our government to discuss poor people, poor black people, who are trying to survive in the — under the most desperate, insane circumstances. I want zero tolerance for thousands of our troops being sent to Iraq when we need them here. I want zero tolerance for public officials going before the airwaves talking about all of the wonderful things that they’re doing when the head of FEMA yesterday said that he didn’t even know that there were thousands of black people, thousands of people at the New Orleans convention center between 15,000 and 20,000 people are there with no food and no water and last night, he said he didn’t know this. How is that possible? I want zero tolerance for the kind of behavior being exhibited by our national government. Under the leadership of president Bush, which has neglected our people in New Orleans. That’s what we need zero tolerance for.

AMY GOODMAN: I want to thank you very much for joining us, Damu Smith, founder of Black Voices for Peace. Lived in Louisiana, for ten years.

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