Excerpt from: Exiles from a city and from a nation
By Cornel West
Sunday September 11, 2005
It takes something as big as Hurricane Katrina and the
misery we saw among the poor black people of New
Orleans to get America to focus on race and poverty.
It happens about once every 30 or 40 years.
What we saw unfold in the days after the hurricane was
the most naked manifestation of conservative social
policy towards the poor, where the message for decades
has been: 'You are on your own'. Well, they really
were on their own for five days in that Superdome, and
it was Darwinism in action - the survival of the
fittest. People said: 'It looks like something out of
the Third World.' Well, New Orleans was Third World
long before the hurricane.
It's not just Katrina, it's povertina. People were
quick to call them refugees because they looked as if
they were from another country. They are. Exiles in
America. Their humanity had been rendered invisible so
they were never given high priority when the well-to-do
got out and the helicopters came for the few.
Almost everyone stuck on rooftops, in the shelters, and
dying by the side of the road was poor black.
In the end George Bush has to take responsibility.
When [the rapper] Kanye West said the President does not
care about black people, he was right, although the effects
of his policies are different from what goes on in his soul.
You have to distinguish between a racist intent and the
racist consequences of his policies. Bush is still a 'frat
boy', making jokes and trying to please everyone while the
Neanderthals behind him push him more to the right.
Poverty has increased for the last four or five years. A
million more Americans became poor last year, even
as the super-wealthy became much richer. So where
is the trickle-down, the equality of opportunity?
Healthcare and education and the social safety net
being ripped away - and that flawed structure was
nowhere more evident than in a place such as New
Orleans, 68 per cent black. The average adult income
in some parishes of the city is under $8,000 (£4,350)
a year. The average national income is $33,000, though
for African-Americans it is about $24,000. It has one
of the highest city murder rates in the US. From slave
ships to the Superdome was not that big
a journey. . .
They shot brother Martin [Luther King Jr.]dead like a dog
in 1968 when the mobilisation of the black poor was just
getting started. At least one of his surviving legacies was
the quadrupling in the size of the black middle class. But
Oprah [Winfrey] the billionaire and the black judges and
chief executives and movie stars do not mean equality, or
even equality of opportunity yet. Black faces in high places
does not mean racism is over. Condoleezza Rice has
sold her soul.
Now the black bourgeoisie have an even heavier obligation
to fight for the 33 per cent of black children living in poverty -
and to alleviate the spiritual crisis of hopelessness among
young black men.
Bush talks about God, but he has forgotten the point of
prophetic Christianity is compassion and justice for those
who have least.
(Most christians long ago forgot that Jesus opposed war,
opposed wealth, spent his time among the poor and
disenfrachised, preached a doctrine of turn-the-other-cheek
and universal, unconditional love and compassion, while
also preaching that one should throw away the Old Testament
with its angry, vengeful, warlike God--Stefan; I couldn't help
myself but to add some words here. . .),
Hip-hop has the anger that comes out of post-industrial,
free-market America, but it lacks the progressiveness that
produces organisations that will threaten the status quo. There
has not been a giant since King, someone prepared to die and
create an insurgency where many are prepared to die to upset
the corporate elite. The Democrats are spineless.
There is the danger of nihilism and in the Superdome around
the fourth day, there it was - husbands held at gunpoint while their
wives were raped, someone stomped to death, people throwing
themselves off the mezzanine floor, dozens of bodies.
(These are crimes of poverty, not just "crimes" alone; and crimes of
poverty bare a collective responsibility, while a crime is individual
It was a war of all against all - 'you're on your own'- in the centre
of the American empire. But now that the aid is pouring in, vital as it
is, do not confuse charity with justice. I'm not asking for a revolution,
I am asking for reform. A Marshall Plan for the South could be
the first step.
· Dr Cornel West is professor of African American studies and religion at
Princeton University. His great grandfather was a slave. He is a rap artist
and appeared as Counsellor West in Matrix Reloaded and Matrix Revolutions.