Monday, September 05, 2005

Something I typed this morning as part of a group-email discussion on Katrina Gary

Katrina has momentarily lifted the veil on America's dirty little public secret: most poor people in the States are black. The race problem in America has in fact worsened since the civil-rights movement. At least then, the black poor had representation (Black Panthers, MLK, Martin X, Angela Davis etc). Now, there is no one giving them a voice - Jesse Jackson looks well fed and fit only for the golf course these days. Everytime I've been to the States - Boston, San Francisco, Washington, New York, Penn State, Chicago etc, I've always walked off from Main Street to see how most people live. In 2000 I was shocked by how many people right next to the CBD in SF were pushing their belongings in front of them on shopping trolleys. In 2002 I walked for block after block on Chicago's South Side, walking past prostitutes strung out on crack and gangs of unemployed youth in hooded tops. Then I came to Chicago University in all its leafy opulence: what a contradiction of space - a bastion of liberal glory surrounded by urban squalour. The same went for my trips to Boston, contrasting the bourgouise elegance of Copley Place with Roxbury Crossing. You cant even get to Roxbury using the subway system (its not on the map).

In the States, the lack of a social safety net means that once you fail, you keep on falling. Its interesting that in the first few hours, CNN (the American version) were telling us that the general per-capita income in New Orleans is USD31,000, whereas for blacks it is USD11,000. Then all of a sudden this tidbit of data was dropped the next time the stats rolled around. The reason for the embarrasment (and the cover up) is that America's secular theology: the religion of being-American (and therefore a superior species) - is a faith based on the myth of progress. The Congressional Black Congress people refused to call the newly destitute of New Orleans 'refugees' - saying that as American Citizens, they belong to the best country on the planet. How difficult it must therefore be for citizens of a nation who have been brainwashed into a collective superiority complex (and a lie about the history of America) to adjust to a China without and an Africa within.

It sounds a bit strange/callous to say, but as someone who's spent the past two years in Nigeria and has acquired in the process an African perspective on life, it is odd to see from the TV coverage of the past week how fat the wretched of the earth in America are. I've often thought in the past week how difficult it must be for those who, no matter how poor, are used to being able to put something in their mouth the moment the slightest urge arises to be able to cope the moment the system shuts down. Here in Africa, the poor are thin and used to not eating properly. Having no water or electricity for a week is no big deal (even we didnt have water for a week three months ago). Indeed, Nigeria produces about 500MW of electricity per day, when the estimated need is around 10,000. Only a small number of privileged beings out of the 150million population have access to running water. The largest city, Lagos, has mostly open drains at the side of the road. Although everyone talks about HIV-Aids in Africa, the main dangers are malaria and HIV-TB. Malaria in most parts of the world could be cured by introducing a decent underground sewage system - but no one in the West wants to talk about solutions as simple and effective as this.

But we all know Africa has uber-problems. What is incredible to believe is that the various authorities on the Gulf Coast didnt scenario-plan for anything above a Category 3 storm - maybe they did and the Fed Gov didnt source the funds? Even now, at the start of the storm season, we have heard little of the plans to build Cat 5-resistant levees.

I think there'll be two short-term fall-outs from Katrina: 1) Bush' foray into Iraq will come under increasing US-domestic pressure (and therefore the proposed attack on Iran will be shelved). The Democrats will do well in the mid-terms. 2) There'll be increased international pressure on the US Govt to finally sign up to Kyoto and other climate control measures. Both are positives that we can take some solace in after such a event.

Its blindingly obvious to the rest of the world, if not to most Americans, that the American SUV gas-guzzling, supersize-me way of life is the underlying and untenable cause behind Katrina: in that respect, Katrina is only partially a 'natural' disaster. Will the American media allow this into the debate?

Whether the Democrats can mobilise themselves to win the next election and start the transformation of the American Way of Life into a more earth-friendly, sustainable form of life is another question. Hiliary?

See Gary Younge's piece in today's Guardian for more on Katrina and race.


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