The Disconnect between Andrew and Katrina (for Black History Month)
If you think this, please explain something to me. Miami, a city even more famously violent and corrupt than New Orleans, was hit even harder by Hurricane Andrew than New Orleans was by Hurricane Katrina. In both cities, incompetent and/or corrupt government engineers signing off on things they shouldn't have signed off on were responsible for most of the damage. And yet the simple fact that remains is this: by this time after Andrew, the debris was entirely cleared, city services were fully restored, and most of the destroyed housing had been rebuilt or replaced. Contrast that with the condition of the now-famous Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans, and then offer me any explanation for the disparity other than the one that is obvious to me, and that is that while the rest of Miami held no grudge against their white and Cuban neighbors who'd lost their houses, a substantial number of people in New Orleans are seriously hoping that the majority of the black population won't come back, and that's why they're putting every possible obstacle into letting them have any place to live in New Orleans. And the rest of America, sympathizing with this quiet but ugly racism, are not intervening to make them honor the promise that we all, as a nation, made to New Orleans, to rebuild.
And it is absolutely critical that we rebuild, and I'll tell you why. At least once per generation, every generation since the Civil War has been offered a chance to do the right thing. And every generation since the Civil War has done the wrong thing, instead, and then blamed the victims. If this generation, my generation, wants to be thought of as anything but yet more bigots, if we want to prove that we're as race-tolerant and color-blind as we claim to be, then we absolutely have to prove it by acting better than our elder siblings, our parents, our grandparents, and their parents and grandparents did. This is Secret History, Forbidden Lore in white America; you weren't told this in school. You have to have either been black and lived it, or to have studied as much economics as I have, to know the following cycle:
1866-1875ish: Blacks freed from slavery. Some of them managed to scrape together enough earnings to buy small farms; others to rent tiny store fronts in small towns and open grocery stores or clothing stores. Many black families invested their hope, and their sweat, into the American Dream. They worked hard, for long hours, spent little or nothing, saved for the future, and educated their children the best they could. And as soon as some of them started to make it, they became targets of actually organized campaigns of lynching. Studies of the lynching phenomenon in the 1870s have turned up a disquieting and disgusting fact: the "criminal" charges were all trumped up, and the mobs knew this. The targets were chosen for economic reasons, targeted almost only those black Americans who'd worked the hardest and saved their money the most carefully, killed those families' wage earners and chased their dependents far away. And in every single one of those lynchings, a poor white neighbor bought the deceased's store or farm for a few cents on the dollar in a rigged auction. As soon as the American Dream started to work for black people, it was taken away from them by force by white people.
1875ish-1899ish: In American history, the general "boom" in industrial employment following the expansion of the railroads. Factories desperate for workers went into majority-black counties in the South and offered the survivors of the lynching campaigns the American Dream: come up to St. Louis, Chicago, Detroit, Pittsburgh, and so on and work in our factories. We'll start you out in slums, but if you work hard, save every penny, and educate your children, you can live the American Dream. But as the 1890s ground along, it turned out that the railroad stocks were fraudulently propped up bubbles, desperately out of new suckers to sell the now-worthless shares to. So an organized campaign began to convince black Americans that they were poorer than whites because whites had had the good sense to invest in the railroads. When the few black families not to fall for this trick turned out to have their money in banks, instead, this did them no good. White people, having lost less per capita, were better able to take care of each other. Black America, having lost so much, depleted their savings trying to keep their friends and family members from starving. By the end of that collapse, whites owned everything once again and black America was destitute. As soon as the American Dream started to work for black people, it was taken away from them by fraud by white people.
1900-1940: Nothing more need be said; the pattern pretty nearly exactly repeats. When the banks collapse and trigger the Great Depression, not only were black Americans who'd worked hard and saved their money more likely to lose everything than white families were, it turns out to be black workers who are thrown out of jobs in such higher percentage than white workers, too. So once again, just as after the last stock market bubble and collapse, just to feed their families they had to completely deplete their savings. After another 30 years of effort, the American Dream had just started working again for black people, and it was taken away from them by fraud by white people.
1940-1945: Most American military units didn't want black men, so proportionately more of them stayed home. In a sense, this looked like good news for them: the factories were desperate for workers to build the famous Arsenal of Democracy, and there were some jobs for which women lacked the strength and illegal Mexican immigrants lacked the language skills. For the fourth time since slavery, and even more than in previous times, black men prospered and began to save money up for their families. But the exact second that World War II was over, every woman and every black man was fired to make jobs for the white men who "needed those jobs more." Just at the point where the American Dream was starting to work for black people, it was taken away from them by force by white people.
1945-1965: Starting all over from nothing, some black families tried to work any job they could get, save every penny, and try desperately to invest in a house and to educate their children. 20 years later, the Draft began for the Vietnam War. And one of the under-reported facts about the Vietnam War draft is that almost any white person who tried to get a draft deferment (not everybody tried) could, except for the poorest of the poor, but almost no black men received draft deferments. As a result, a nation that was 10% black sent a military into the jungles of Vietnam to kill and die that was almost half black, including a substantial percentage of the black community's hardest workers. When they came back, they found out that their Vietnam service had, through disability or through public perception, rendered many of them completely unemployable, and far too many of them froze to death and starved to death in our alleys. Now, some of you will call attention to the fact that this is, with the exception of the GIs after WWII, the general fate of American veterans after every conflict. But remember, unlike every conflict before (or in no small part after), Vietnam was a war that American fought disproportionately with black people. Nor should it escape your attention that around 1965 the Italian and Jewish mafias made a conscious decision to flood black American neighborhoods with heroin. Nor should it escape your attention that, for the second time in a hundred years, there was an organized campaign to lynch and/or assassinate almost any articulate black American in the South. As a net result of all of these 1965ish crises, despite 20 years of saving and investing, just at the point where the American Dream was starting to work for some black people, it was taken away from them by force, and politically, by white people.
1965-1981: But the Civil Rights Acts did pass, and slowly employers were forced to make room at their jobs for at least some black Americans. And black American families took those jobs, and many of them did exactly what the American dream asked them to do: work hard at any job you can get, save every penny you can, buy a house, invest in your kids' education. But when the bills came due over Vietnam, and when OPEC imposed an embargo, and the economy started to spiral down out of control, rather than fix those problems or just wait for them to be over, America elected a President who decided to solve the problem by forcing wages down, and to do that by doubling the unemployment rate. And guess what? Last hired, first fired. Unemployment rates, calculated by traditional as opposed to politicized means, reached 20% in white America ... but over half in black America, and over 70% in some places. And once again, the few who kept their jobs ended up emptying their savings accounts to keep their out of work relatives from starving. Why? Because just at the point where the American Dream was starting to work for many black people, it was taken away from them by force by white politicians.
1981-2001: The OPEC embargo ended, and Vietnam receded into the past, and the American economy slowly recovered. It recovered for both blacks, and whites, but much more slowly for blacks because once again they were starting with a lot less to invest, a lot less saved. Then for freakish technological and economic reasons, we had a run-away stock market bubble from about 1990 to 2000. But like all stock market bubbles, by 2000 this one was running out of suckers to sell the increasingly over-valued, increasingly worthless stocks to. And it was right at this time that, for the second time in just over a century, the public began a dedicated campaign to convince black Americans that the reason white Americans were richer wasn't because they'd started with more, but because they'd had the good sense to invest in computer company stocks. By 2001, most black families with any savings had been persuaded to invest in these worthless companies right at the point when many white people, like myself, were getting out. So while many white people were wiped out of their savings, nearly all black families with any savings were completely wiped out right at the point where another Republican set out to intentionally raise the unemployment rate for the good of the economy, even before 9/11. By the end of 2001, there was a lot of economic hardship, but once again it was disproportionately the black Americans who hadn't lost everything, and who still had jobs, who had to completely deplete their savings to keep their families and friends fed. Because just as kept happening over and over again, just when the American Dream started to work for black Americans, it was taken away from them by fraud by white investors and by government action by white politicians.
The Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans matters because an awful lot of that neighborhood consisted of middle class and working class black families who had, despite everything that I just told you, chosen to invest their energy one more time in the American Dream. They worked hard, they saved every penny, they bought the nicest homes they could afford and fixed them up. And once again, those houses and everything they had saved were taken away from them by fraud by white claims adjusters in the insurance companies, many of whom are now thankfully be found liable, and by white politicians in Washington, who unfortunately aren't.
There's this awful stereotype in America that black people are lazy and stupid and don't want to work. That's disgusting. Let me tell you something. I know white people. I am one. I was raised around them. And I know for an absolute fact that if white Americans had lived that history, if they had grown up knowing that every 20 or so years another group of people were going to come along and steal everything they had saved up, I guarantee you that white people would have given up long before now. There wouldn't be any white people who were still trying to work back-breaking, family-wrecking hours at any miserable wage they can get, living in absolute penurious squalor to save that money so that they can some day buy a house where they can educate their children, and leave that money, that house, and that education to their children in hopes that their children can live better. That there are any black Americans who are still trying, who keep trying after every time the total wealth of their neighborhoods and their families are stolen from them, who are willing to do this imposes on us an obligation to stop that theft. Those people lost their homes due to white incompetence and white fraud, and they lost their savings through even more white incompetence and white fraud. We would not tolerate this if it happened to anybody but black people, if it were anybody but black people we would have long ago by now raised the money among us, by taxes and by public borrowing, to give them back the houses and the savings that they lost. We do this, for everybody but black people, so that they don't lose faith, so that we don't lose faith, in the American Dream.
Are we, the generation that prides itself on having gotten "over" race, going to demand that our government provide black Americans in a wrecked city the same assistance they have given white Americans over and over again, to protect those black Americans' American Dream? Or are we going to be no better than every other racist generation that came before us, and make up intolerable excuses to blame the victims, excuses we would never pin on anybody but a black American? You tell me.