How could some say 'race had nothing to do with it?'
Written by Bernice Powell Jackson
October - November 2005
October 1, 2005
It was right there for all to see — on television, in newspapers, on the internet. Pictures of old people dying in wheelchairs, while their children watched helplessly. Infants screaming from hunger or dirty diapers, unable to be fed or changed, while their mothers watched helplessly.
Day after day, the pictures got worse, while the promised help failed to appear. The most vulnerable — the sickest, oldest, youngest, poorest — left to fend for themselves while bureaucrats promised that help was on the way.
This was the United States of America — the wealthiest, most powerful nation in the world — unable, unwilling to help the least of these before the eyes of the world and the eyes of God.
U.S. Rep. Elijah Cummings (D-Md.) was right; God could not have been pleased. And neither should millions of Americans. For exposed before us were not only the ravages of nature, but also the ravages of centuries of racism and classism.
How could some say that race had nothing to do with it? No, there was no decision in Washington not to help New Orleans because most of the residents were poor and black. But there were decisions in Washington — over decades of both Democratic and Republican Administrations — not to provide health care for every single American and there were decisions to only provide minimal job training and only very minimal low-income housing. There were decisions not to fully fund requests for levee upgrades and wetlands upkeep. There were decisions to give tax cuts to the wealthiest and to conduct a war which is costing billions of tax dollars every single month. And there certainly was not an urgency to get to New Orleans to save these American citizens, who just happened to be mostly black and mostly poor. Our troops got to Baghdad quicker than they got to New Orleans.
How could some say that race had nothing to do with it? Did they see the nearly-identical photos with captions about a young white couple, chest deep in water, "finding" food, while a young black man, also chest deep in water, dubbed as "looting" food?
How could some say that race had nothing to do with it? Do they have any idea what it feels like to be confronted with such images and to know once again that your people are expendable, that your lives are deemed to be worth less than those who are rich and white? Because for many of us who are African-American, that is exactly what we feel right now and the evidence is found in the thousands of bodies of our elders and our babies lying on the streets, sidewalks and homes of New Orleans.
Now that the seam of our racism and classism has been exposed, will our nation just pretend again that we don’t see it, that it does not exist? Will we demand — and continue to demand — of our public officials, at all levels, accountability and new direction? Will this be a transformational moment for our country or a confirmation that we are unwilling to deal with race and class issues in America?
More than 100 years ago, the great African-American philosopher and writer, W.E.B. DuBois wrote of the sense of "twoness," of apartness that African Americans felt in this nation. More than a century later, will I, and my African American brothers and sisters, children of God, ever really feel welcomed and at home in America? Will our lives ever be deemed equal to those of our white brothers and sisters?
The truth, the whole truth, is what will set us free. Are we willing to deal with it?
For 11 years, the Rev. Bernice Powell Jackson, the now-former executive minister of Justice and Witness Ministries, has written a weekly column that has appeared in dozens of community newspapers. This was her column for the week following Hurricane Katrina.