Before Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, nearly 70 percent of the city's population was black. Immediately after the hurricane that figure must have been in the high 90s. Indeed, if a person walked out of the wilderness today and was shown the images coming out of New Orleans last week—pictures of the dead, the raped, the stranded, the refugees—that person would immediately think that the disaster was unfolding in Lagos (Nigeria), or Monrovia (Liberia), or Nairobi (Kenya). But these images do not come from the darkest Africa, but an American city; and not just some little old sleepy town in the South, but a major and world-famous metropolis.
After learning the facts, this person who has just walked out of the wilderness would ask himself the question that's perplexing every thinking person on this planet: How is it possible that a city in the richest country in the world can be transformed, in a matter of days, into a Third World city?
No one is more astonished than the mayor of New Orleans, Ray Nagin.
"You mean to tell me that a place where most of your oil is coming through," Nagin said in a radio interview, "a place that is so unique, when you mention New Orleans anywhere around the world, everybody's eyes light up—you mean to tell me that a place where you probably have thousands of people that have died and thousands more that are dying every day, that we can't figure out a way to authorize the resources that we need? Come on, man."
All it took was just one storm—a hurricane that didn't even score a direct hit!—to expose not only how unprepared New Orleans and the nation were, but to expose America's class and racial realties. Now we know what New Orleans was really about. The jazz, the spicy foods, the sensual bars, the famous streets were all a thin cover for a class system that had no middle ground. As in any Third World country, there exists in much of America an extreme division between those who are rich and those who are poor. And those who are poor in New Orleans are predominantly black. And they are the ones who couldn't afford to get out.
New Orleans's economic base is—or was—tourism, and those who have the worst jobs in the hospitality industry are—or were—African Americans.
"While the vast majority of those cleaning and servicing hotels are black, not a single major hotel in New Orleans is black-owned," reports the Hospitality, Hotels, and Restaurants Organizing Council, a group representing three hotel unions in New Orleans. The same report estimates that 42 percent of blacks in New Orleans live below the poverty line; the national average for African Americans is 22 percent. And judging from recent economic reports, the situation is getting worse for all poor Americans. Under the present administration, the gains that were made in the '90s are steadily eroding, and more and more cities are heading in the disastrous direction of New Orleans, which had one of every three people living below the poverty line.
"I feel very sad about the situation in New Orleans at this time. It looks like a conflict in Africa. The U.S. as a superpower should have done more to solve the situation," said a Liberian in a recent Reuter's report. "What I see on TV, people carrying their most important belongings and fleeing, it's the same as anywhere in Africa," said a Tanzanian in the same report. What's shocking those inside and outside of America is not so much the primary color of American poverty, but its depth and size. To have so many poor people in just one city leads one to wonder about the rest of the United States: Is it as bad elsewhere as it is there?
It is, it is.