Come Hell or High Water: Michael Eric Dyson on Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster

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As President Bush prepares to pay a visit to the Gulf Coast six months after Hurricane Katrina hit, we speak with University of Pennsylvania professor and preacher Michael Eric Dyson about his new book “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.” [includes rush transcript]

We turn now to the issue of race and the government’s response to Hurricane Katrina. President Bush is expected to pay a visit to the Gulf Coast this week. Back in Washington, meanwhile, congressional hearings on the government response to the disaster continue. The Senate appropriations committee spends two days inspecting Bush’s latest spending request for hurricane recovery. On Wednesday, the Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs examines “Hurricane Katrina: Recommendations for Reform.”

This comes following last week’s release of confidential video footage of President Bush’s final briefing before Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast. It shows the President was given dire warnings the storm could breach levees and threaten the lives of residents of New Orleans. Yet days later, President Bush said the breach of the levees hadn’t been anticipated.

The release of the video came as Bush’s approval rating is at an all time low. A new CBS News poll has found the number of Americans who approve of President Bush’s overall job performance is just 34 percent. Less than a third of Americans believe the president has adequately responded to the needs of victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the days after the storm hit, Bush made a pledge to the residents of the devastated city of New Orleans that the city “will rise again.”

President Bush speaking last September. Six months later much of New Orleans remains obliterated and the city is struggling to rebuild. In the aftermath of the Hurricane, the government’s response to the disaster came under heavy criticism. During a nationally televised telethon days after Katrina hit, hip-hop artist Kanye West broke away from his scripted comments and said “George Bush doesn’t like black people.”

For a look at the government response to Hurricane Katrina we are joined by professor, preacher Michael Eric Dyson.

  • Michael Eric Dyson, professor of humanities at the University Of Pennsylvania and an ordained Baptist minister. He is author of a number of books, his latest is “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.” Other books lnclude The New York Times bestseller “Is Bill Cosby Right?”, “Holler If You Hear Me: Searching for Tupac Shakur,” “Race Rules: Navigating the Color Line” and “Between God and Gangsta Rap.”

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

AMY GOODMAN: On the video, President Bush is seen watching the briefing via a video conference from his Texas ranch at Crawford. The President does not ask a single question throughout the briefing, yet concludes with this optimistic response.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: I want to assure the folks at the state level that we are fully prepared to not only help you during the storm, but we will move in whatever resources and assets we have at our disposal after the storm to help you deal with the loss of property, and we pray for no loss of life, of course.

AMY GOODMAN: Days later, President Bush said the breach of the levees hadn’t been anticipated. The release of the video came as Bush’s approval rating is at an all-time low. A new CBS News poll has found the number of Americans who approve of President Bush’s overall job performance is just 34%. Less than a third of Americans believe the President has adequately responded to the needs of the victims of Hurricane Katrina. In the days after the storm hit, Bush made a pledge to the residents of the devastated city of New Orleans.

PRESIDENT GEORGE W. BUSH: Tonight, so many victims of the hurricane and the flood are far from home and friends and familiar things. You need to know that our whole nation cares about you. And in the journey ahead, you are not alone. To all who carry a burden of loss, I extend the deepest sympathy of our country. To every person who has served and sacrificed in this emergency, I offer the gratitude of our country. And tonight, I also offer this pledge of the American people: throughout the area hit by the hurricane, we will do what it takes, we will stay as long as it takes to help citizens rebuild their communities and their lives. And all who question the future of the Crescent City need to know there is no way to imagine America without New Orleans. And this great city will rise again.

AMY GOODMAN: President Bush, speaking last September. Six months later, much of New Orleans remains obliterated, the city struggling to rebuild. In the aftermath of the hurricane, the government’s response to the disaster came under heavy criticism. During a nationally televised telethon days after Katrina hit, hip-hop artist Kanye West broke away from his scripted comments with comedian Mike Myers.

KANYE WEST: I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food. And you know that it’s been five days, because most of the people are black. And even for me to complain about it, I would be a hypocrite because I’ve tried to turn away from the TV, because it’s too hard to watch. We already realize a lot of people that could help are at war right now, fighting another way, and they have given them permission to go down and shoot us.

MIKE MYERS: And subtle, but in even many ways more profoundly devastating is the lasting damage to the survivors’ will to rebuild and remain in the area. The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the more tragic loss of all.

KANYE WEST: George Bush doesn’t care about black people.

AMY GOODMAN: Yes, that was Kanye West. For a look at the government response to Hurricane Katrina, we will go after break to professor/preacher, Michael Eric Dyson, who has written the book Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.


AMY GOODMAN: We are joined by professor/preacher, Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, an ordained Baptist minister, author of a number of books. His latest is Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. Welcome to Democracy Now!

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thanks for having me.

AMY GOODMAN: It’s great to have you with us, and congratulations on your new radio show.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Thank you so very kindly. I appreciate that.

AMY GOODMAN: I appreciate you coming up from Philadelphia. Talk about The Color of Disaster.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think that what we saw revealed in Hurricane Katrina was a spectacle of disaster, disaster colored by race, by class, by poverty, issues that the administration and the American people to a frightening degree have neglected, but this administration’s ineptitude, its inexperience, its ignorance, combined with its chronic cronyism, led to the sight of mostly poor black people on television — but we know it was more broad than that — being left to their own devices, and that was only a metaphor, unfortunately, of the way in which they had been left behind long ago by administrations, black and white, which had refused to combat the chronic forms of health care that they were lacking, the poverty that they endured, 134,000 people in New Orleans were without cars. They weren’t stuck — They weren’t stupid or stubborn; they were stuck. And so, I think that this hurricane washed to the fore what we all knew was there.

AMY GOODMAN: Describe for us New Orleans before Katrina.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, before Katrina, you know, Louisiana’s the second poorest state in the nation. Mississippi is first. So that Gulf Coast — and then Alabama is not too far behind. 134,000 people there without cars, transportation, a lot of people without health care, many elderly people and young people who were part of those numbers. The underemployment, unemployment was devastating. The rate of dropouts among African American people was very high. And beyond that, they were shifted mostly from schools which were holding pens for prison to Angola Prison where they — some of them would die.

AMY GOODMAN: And explain Angola Prison.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, Angola Prison is a former plantation, still a plantation, where many people are sent to serve in what we would see as Middle Ages conditions. It is really a bleak and devastating scene for those who are sent, often for non-violent drug offenses, to a prison where they are held, and many of them die there. It is one of the worst prisons in America, and certainly one of most devastating indications that we have warehoused poor people in conditions that punish them for their poverty as opposed the relieving it.

AMY GOODMAN: Those are the prisons, the economic and the health care of the people, they’re even before Katrina —


AMY GOODMAN: And then we’ll talk about after.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right, right. Well, you are absolutely right. The economic conditions of poor people there were most atrocious. These people are making minimum wage or less. Many of them are working in the service industry. They are providing relief. Remember, George Bush went down there — wink, wink, “I came down here and had a bunch of fun.” But who was changing your bed sheets? Who was providing the opportunity for the relief that you felt?

Many of those poor people were invisible, as Michael Harrington would argue a few decades ago, and they were subject to the worst forms of, you know, cronyism that was already at place in New Orleans, and Mayor Ray Nagin, though he has been remade as a working class hero, certainly was called Ray Reagan because of his conservative politics. He crossed party lines and supported Bobby Jindal, who is now a Republican congressman there, against Kathleen Babineaux Blanco for her run for the governor. So this guy is not a exactly screaming leftist, and he came out of the business entrepreneur field as Cox Cable vice president to run New Orleans, and he was a man who allowed a thousand seats on an Amtrak train to go empty to Mississippi, no one on. We saw the buses

AMY GOODMAN: Explain, remind us.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, what happened is that Amtrak called up and said, “Look, we’ve got a thousand — nearly a thousand-seat train empty” — a “dumb head” train they call it — “running from New Orleans to higher ground in Mississippi to take some equipment and we want to put people on.” His office turned them down.

AMY GOODMAN: Right at the time?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Right at the time, right before it hit so it could have gotten people out of there. He turned them down. You saw the buses drown infamously. Mayor Nagin was called at Saturday, that is, you know, the hurricane hit early Monday morning. Saturday at 6:00 by the head of the Weather Service. “This is the worst hurricane I have ever seen. I want to go to bed with a good conscience. Please get these people out.”

He thought about it overnight. He consulted with the business community, because he didn’t want to be legally liable for any suits filed by them were he to call a mandatory evacuation, and they said — Well, say, for instance, Hyatt Regency or some other company said, “You put us out of business or you tamped down on our business.” So it was that kind of ridiculous messing with the people’s future, so to speak, that is quite tragic. He cursed the Bush administration out and others later on. That was a remarkable moment of political lucidity, but for the most part, I think he fumbled along with the federal government, and the federal government — if he was bad, they were much worse.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, let’s talk about the federal government’s response. We were just playing the clip of the video conference that President Bush had —


AMY GOODMAN: —- before Hurricane Katrina hit, where he didn’t ask a question -—


AMY GOODMAN: — and then headed off Monday and Tuesday to San Diego, to Arizona, to celebrate Senator McCain’s birthday.


AMY GOODMAN: What about the administration’s response? Where were you as you were watching this?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, you know, I’m watching like everybody else, glued to the television, but it’s atrocious. President Bush literally eating cake —you know, it’s a reversal of that “let them eat cake.” I guess he and McCain ate their own, and then the San Diego Padres game was attended by, you know, Donald Rumsfeld. Condoleezza Rice buying Ferragamo shoes here, famously, in New York while her people drowned, her people. She is from Birmingham, Alabama. No incentive for her to reach out and say, “maybe we should do something about this situation,” and the pass she has been given by Black people, to me, is unforgivable, because her politics have put her at odds with the fundamental impulse toward freedom and justice and, at least, fairness that we’ve celebrated.

So, the Bush administration was awful in its response, immediately and then collectively. Michael Brown, though he has been made a scapegoat, to be sure, and I thankfully point this out in my book, but he was incompetent, the head of the International Arabian Horse Association. Yeah, it sounds like a real recommendation to head FEMA. Joseph Alba, who was his predecessor, had no experience; out of the Bush campaign in 2000, he went into that office.

They allowed 60 countries to — you know, turned them down, basically, for help. They also allowed people, 500 firemen came down looking to be helpful. What did they do? They passed out leaflets with 1-800 numbers for FEMA. They were outraged and pulled off their FEMA shirts and said, “We will not serve with them.” U.S.S. Baton, a big ship with hundreds of beds that could have given 100,000 potable gallons of water every day. Nothing was called upon except one helicopter. Blackhawk helicopters down there transferring the media to the site, but nothing else.

So we missed a great opportunity. It’s not that we didn’t have the ability to do so. It’s that they failed to do so, because they had no experience, and plus, let’s be honest, this was a government that believes that the government is the enemy of the people. I mean, George Bush is the child of Ronald Reagan. And it just amazes me, the people who hate the government the most want to run it, but they get in charge, and then they try to downsize it, but they’ve expanded it in deleterious fashion. But beyond that, they’ve failed to use the bureaucracy in defense of the people. I mean, Jim Carroll in Boston argues that if the people own the government, and the government represents the people, then the government helping the people is self-help. And this government just doesn’t understand it. This administration certainly doesn’t comprehend that.

AMY GOODMAN: You talk in the book about what was happening to people in New Orleans. You have a quote of Darnell Herrington, a Katrina survivor. Talk about what happened to him.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, this young man, and I’ve met — he’s just amazing young man, 26 years old, and a quite gifted rapper, as well, but he’s a worker down there, and he’s walking, and suddenly he feels burning in his chest and realizes he has been shot by buckshot in the front from his neck down, on his chest. He falls on the ground, rises back up to try to walk again and is shot in his back. Remarkably, he survives. His cousin runs off. He goes to several houses trying to get help. They turn him down, mostly white people. He saw a black man. He tried to go to him for help. The black man said, “Come on in,” but there was a white woman in this house that said, “You’ve got to get out of here. I can’t help you.” He had to go back out. He saw two white gentlemen in a truck. He went up to them. “Please, please, help me.” They used the N word on him and said, “We’re liable to kill you ourselves, so get out of our faces.” Then he found a white woman in a house, I think with a black family, who took him in and who lied — because the guys who had shot him came looking for him, and they lied and said he wasn’t there.

AMY GOODMAN: And who had shot him?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: These two white gentlemen, and they were trying to get the N — you know, trying to get the Negros — I don’t know if we can use that word on your show, trying get them out, and they said, “We are trying to kill these black people,” because the media had drummed up the notion that these black people were anarchic and down here doing all devastating manner of things. So the reality is, is that the media, ironically enough, celebrating its own self, patting its own self on the back for being libratory, had reinforced some of the prevailing stereotypes about black people down there. As it turns out, only ten people were dead, only one from homicide, not this 200 and 300 people we thought, not young people raping seven-year-old babies and so on. I’m sure rape, which is an underreported crime under any condition, certainly occurred there. So I’m not dismissing that, but not to the degree that was suggested and not with the kind of barbaric intensity that was prefigured in the media.

So, this white guy — these white guys were saying, “We are getting rid of the niggers, and that’s what we are doing, and we’re looking for this guy,” and they shot him. And his story is quite remarkable because there are many more stories like that that didn’t come to the fore, although I think the major racial response was not of that ilk; it was of the ilk that said, you know, the same racial framework that allows us to look for Natalie Holloway when she disappears, but when Tamika Houston disappears there’s nobody looking for her, that’s the same racial framework. It’s a collective unconsciousness, a set of racial cues that suggests what’s important, what’s not important, who should looked at, who should not be looked at.

I think if a nation of — a camera full of Barbara Bushes were down there drowning in New Orleans, it’s not that the incompetence of the government could have been in any way tamped down upon immediately, but they might have tried harder, and I think that’s the issue of race in this particular situation. The black people did not spawn an intuitive response by either the government — and this is a Southern racial narrative to me. Michael Brown from Oklahoma, George Bush, Texas-bred, black people from Mississippi, Louisiana and Alabama. It’s a southern racial narrative playing itself out on a global stage.

I think we saw the vicious politics of the collective racial imagination of the South, which has no tolerance, as one historian put it, either for black pain or black suffering on the one hand or black agency or success on the other. Both of them are obliterated in the Southern imagination, and we saw that down in Hurricane Katrina.

AMY GOODMAN: We are talking to Michael Eric Dyson, Professor of Humanities at the University of Pennsylvania, author of Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster. His book before that: Is Bill Cosby Right? Can you make a link between the two?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yeah, well, I think this book is a continuation of that. In the new book, I have another new book out called Pride: The Seven Deadly Sins, where I take up issues, but I’ll speak —

AMY GOODMAN: Are you writing a book as you are sitting here? You write so many books.

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: I should write a book on you. I mean, you are a phenomenal woman. So, the Bill Cosby book is a book that addresses Bill Cosby’s vicious and vituperative remarks about poor black people and his dis of them, and I tried to take up the cudgel he threw down at them and use it to reshape it into a defense, a hammer, on the anvil of political consciousness to say, “Wait a minute. Let’s shape this in a different way. You don’t have to beat up on poor people. You don’t have to dog them, talk about the names they give their kids, beat up on poor people on welfare.”

Really, it was an attack on women. I think about this Women’s History Month. Mr. Cosby’s assault was really basically on poor black women and how they allow their kids to buy gym shoes and sneakers and not “Hooked on Phonics” and so on, taking small snippets of anecdotal experience to fashion a political assault upon them that was ill-founded. So I tried to of prove how ill-founded it was.

AMY GOODMAN: So this was in response to Bill Cosby saying what?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Yes. Well, he said that basically black people who are poor have not held up their end of the bargain of the Civil Rights Movement, and he didn’t say it that nicely. He went on and on and on using negative — “these people,” this clinically dispassionate language for poor black people, pointing the finger at them, suggesting that they were incapable of joining the mainstream of America, precisely because they were anti-intellectual, uneducated, and disinclined to do anything serious about their lives.

And then I tried to say, “Look, it is a lot more than personal responsibility.” I think personal responsibility is critical, but it’s one wing of the plane, so to speak. The other wing, he never speaks about: social injustice, political impediments to flourishing of poor black people, the condition of their lives when they’re born. How about the perpetuation of a legacy of injustice that is economically driven that he never speaks about? How about big corporations for which he shields mercilessly, who create desire in young people to have stuff like gym shoes, that he might have come along and been a person who promoted them had he come along right now.

AMY GOODMAN: And the links to Katrina and the response to it?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I think, in many ways, the same black people who felt that Cosby was right, Shaniqua, Taliqua, as he used their names, who are — and he says they’re all in jail. Well, if you believe that, you believe the people in Katrina basically got what they deserve. Poor people who don’t work hard, who don’t get up every morning to do what they are supposed to do basically get what they deserve. It sounds vicious, but I think that’s the logical leap.

The link also is that Mr. Cosby let off any segment of conscientious white America about its own role and responsibility in what we saw down there, and again, the government, especially the Bush administration, might have taken the Cosby approach, “Look, this is the consequence of what people do. This is — had you worked harder and gotten a way out” — didn’t Bill O’Reilly say on television, “Look at this scene. And when you see this, young people, realize this. If you don’t get an education, this is what will happen to you.”

AMY GOODMAN: Professor Dyson, we only have a minute left. President Bush is headed to the Gulf Coast this week. We saw Mardi Gras kind of take place this week, a very different New Orleans, not the African American city that we are used to. What do you think has to happen?

MICHAEL ERIC DYSON: Well, I mean, the reconstruction has to pay attention to the Ninth Ward and to poor people there. The higher ground will always be rebuilt. The lower ground will always suffer. The lower ground and higher ground has always been racially segregated and class driven. What we have to do is make sure that the reconstruction of New Orleans happens with the input of the people who are there. There are some very progressive groups there who have already, before the storm, put forth arguments about how New Orleans should be — the demographics should be spread out and the resources should be given to those poorer people. Those voices need to be heard in order for New Orleans to come back anywhere near the demographic integrity it had before the storm.

AMY GOODMAN: Well, Professor Michael Eric Dyson, I want to thank you for being with us. Again, his new book is Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster.

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