It is getting ugly. Not just in New Orleans, but in the debate over it. Take our poisonous partisan divide, add the finger-pointing that takes place after any calamity, then mix in noxious racial politics, and you have the formula for the coming Battle over New Orleans.
The victims in New Orleans are overwhelmingly poor and black, and it didn't take long for that to begin to elicit charges of a kind of racism. The head of the Congressional Black Caucus, Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., said at a press conference Friday, "We cannot allow it to be said that the difference between those who lived and those who died in this great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age and skin color."
First, this nation has been transfixed and heartbroken by the suffering of the black victims in New Orleans. It has been outraged by the acts of violence that have made their plight even more difficult. If the country is the least bit inclined to write off the misery in New Orleans as experienced by the wrong race and therefore not worth the bother, there is no evidence of it.
Sadly, poverty and age have affected who got out and who didn't, as many of the poor and elderly didn't have cars or the resources to evacuate. Many of these people are black, but, pace Elijah Cummings, their skin color as such had nothing to do with whether they escaped the city.
If the federal response has seemed flat-footed, does anyone believe that President Bush got on the phone with the head of the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Michael Brown, and said, "Hey, Michael, let's slow-walk this thing we're talking about mostly black victims here"?
Apparently some people do believe it. According to Jesse Jackson, "Many black people feel that their race, their property conditions and their voting patterns have been a factor in the response." Voting patterns! Louisiana voted for Bush and just elected a Republican U.S. senator. Is it plausible to think Bush wanted to watch the state's major city sink into chaos for political reasons? Not to mention that the chairman of the Republican National Committee, Ken Mehlman, has devoted his chairmanship to winning more black voters.
A professor at the University of Massachusetts, Martin Espada, told The New York Times: "We tend to think of natural disasters as somehow evenhanded, as somehow random. Yet it has always been thus: Poor people are in danger. It's dangerous to be poor. It's dangerous to be black. It's dangerous to be Latino."
To the extent that it has been made especially dangerous to be black in New Orleans, it is a product of a culture of governmental corruption and incompetence, including rotten policing, that goes deeper than any simplistic racial demagoguery can capture. Mayor Ray Nagin of New Orleans is black. He has been a reformer, but it would take more reform than one mayor is capable of to change New Orleans. Nagin's predecessor, Marc Morial, was black too, and a business-as-usual politician. This summer, aides, friends and an uncle of the former mayor were indicted on corruption charges.
In many senses, however, poverty is indeed dangerous. The root of it, more than anything else, is the breakdown of the family. Roughly 60 percent of births in New Orleans are out of wedlock. If people are stripped of the most basic social support the two-parent family they will be more vulnerable in countless ways, especially, one assumes, in moments of crisis like that that has befallen New Orleans. If the tableaux of suffering in the city prompts meaningful soul-searching, perhaps there can be a grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the left in exchange for the right's support for more urban spending (anything is worth addressing the problem of fatherlessness).
Unfortunately, the post-catastrophe debate will probably be toxic and unhealthy, just like the oily, fetid waters of New Orleans.