It was the infamous catchphrase of UK comedian Ali G – “Is it coz i iz black?” – that perversely came to mind as I watched the desperate scenes unfolding in the US in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
It was not the most politically correct thought to have, since Sasha Cohen, the Cambridge-educated white man who plays Ali G, a misogynistic black man, has been criticised for his strange brand of humour by some black comics – but in Katrina's aftermath his little adage is worth considering.
To put it another way; was the slow response by the US federal government because those mainly affected were indeed black and poor?
Some feel convinced about this. Well-known Rapper Kanye West stated at a recent benefit concert that “George Bush doesn't care about black people”.
Jesse Jackson weighed in with his usual emotive language, comparing the situation of many of the evacuees to “Africans in the hull of a slave ship”. The reply from the US administration has been to fob these criticisms off. Bush supporters brand such views Leftie hatred for Bush and nothing more. But let's face it, the initial response was pitiful. If the areas most affected were upmarket Boston or even George W Bush's beloved Texas would there have been such a lacklustre attitude? I doubt it.
But I do not want to get too deep into the blame game. Although one can blame Bush for many things, one cannot hold him responsible for the weather. We also have to be careful, whether initial responses were fuelled by racism or not, that all the finger pointing distracts us from what Katrina really exposed – the reality of hidden America: black and on the breadline.
As I watched the television reports I wanted journalists to ask one question of the officials they interviewed: why were almost all the television images of African Americans?
The evasive response would be that 67% of New Orleans residents are black, and much of the coverage focused on New Orleans. But anyone watching the television coverage could see that it was not only race that was an issue, but class, too. Nearly 30% of New Orleans residents live below the poverty line, and these seemed to be the people left behind. Some were too poor to get the money or transport together to evacuate. They, unlike their affluent counterparts who also lost their homes, will more than likely have no insurance to help them rebuild and certainly no job to ease the burden when the waters subside.
So this is the great US; a place where race and class do intersect, after all, despite the decades of official silence on the issue. This raises the question: why are we so scared of talking about the intersection of race and class, whether in South Africa, the UK and Ireland or the US? Perhaps those with power and wealth, who are mainly white, are too terrified to face the prospect that Ali G's jesting plea might just be true.
But the US administration batters on regardless, turning the disaster into yet another call for patriotic action without a moment of reflection or analysis. We, the American people, will get through this, assures Bush. Fox News, the bastion of conservative America, responds with telethons and its new TV logo, "America's Challenge”. What is the challenge, I find myself asking? To get things back to the way they were? I think the challenge facing the US is bigger than that.
This article by Brandon Hamber was published on Polity and in the Engineering News on 16 September 2005 as part of the column "Look South". Copyright Brandon Hamber.