The thing about floods is that they have a way of washing away the surface of a society and reveal what lies beneath. New Orleans will never be the same city again.

We’re talking about a city that I had been to on a few occasions and was the city that I had always said that if I wasn’t living in Indianapolis I would move there. And in the face of such disasters, we’re left to wonder why. Yesterday, I ranted on the theological implications of the question. Today I’m left to wonder about the racial implications of the questions. Partly, this could be due to the fact that whenever I am working on a racially charged project, such as my recent novella, I become especially sensitive to race-related issues. Either I see it more or I become more aware of how deeply the sin of racism runs.

Sometimes, however, it is painfully obvious that to deny it would reveal more about the denier than the evidence itself.

As reported by Jordan Flaherty, for those who have not lived in New Orleans, you have missed a incredible, glorious, vital, city. A place with a culture and energy unlike anywhere else in the world. A 70% African-American city where resistance to white supremacy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid beauty.

The saddest part, as I’ve come to learn, is that a lot of this could have been prevented. Many voices have long warned of the dangers posed by the decaying (or rather abandoned to decay) infrastructure of New Orleans. So one is left to wonder why in such a wealthy country, so many of its own citizens lived in conditions that were already tragic. Money that should have gone toward the infrastructure of the city, dried up or were directed elsewhere. Because in this culture, the poor are the expendable.

Jordan Flaherty went on to say that the city has a 40% illiteracy rate, and over 50% of black ninth graders will not graduate in four years. Louisiana spends on average $4,724 per child’s education and ranks 48th in the country for lowest teacher salaries. The equivalent of more than two classrooms of young people drop out of Louisiana schools every day and about 50,000 students are absent from school on any given day. Far too many young black men from New Orleans end up enslaved in Angola Prison, a former slave plantation where inmates still do manual farm labor, and over 90% of inmates eventually die in the prison. [Angola only takes prisoners serving sentences of 50 years or more, thus the high number. — NK] It is a city where industry has left, and most remaining jobs are low-paying, transient, insecure jobs in the service economy. Race has always been the undercurrent of Louisiana politics. This disaster is one that was constructed out of racism, neglect and incompetence.

An overwhelming majority of the ones left to sink or swim on their own were black. One in three black people didn’t have cars or didn’t have enough money for bus fare. Many of us take having a car and freedom of transportation for granted. I’ve been dumbfounded by the amount of commentary along the lines of “why didn’t they just move?” Kind of like the Sam Kinison routine where he was talking about Ethiopians. They weren’t his problem, if they wanted something to eat, why didn’t they move to where the food was.

An Associated Press analysis of Census data shows that the residents in the three dozen hardest-hit neighborhoods in Louisiana, Mississippi and Alabama also were disproportionately minority and had incomes $10,000 below the national average.

“Let them know we’re not bums. We have houses. Our houses were destroyed. We have jobs. It’s not our fault that we didn’t have cars to leave,” Shatonia Thomas, 27, said as she walked near New Orleans’ convention center five days after the storm, still trapped in the destruction with her children, ages 6 and 9.

There was the catastrophic failure on the part of the government, both local and federal. School buses could have been mobilized to help evacuate the poor. However, going further back, again according to Flaherty, since at least the mid-1800s, its been widely known the danger faced by flooding to New Orleans. The flood of 1927, which, like this week’s events, was more about politics and racism than any kind of natural disaster, illustrated exactly the danger faced. Yet government officials have consistently refused to spend the money to protect this poor, overwhelmingly black, city.

It’s not like Hurricane Katrina went out of its way to devastate poor and/or black areas. I’m afraid that sort of discriminations is strictly in the providence of people. Politics and the law, like most of the rest of our system, follow the money, and the people who lived in the areas struck hardest by Hurricane Katrina had to little of it to be of concern.

The AP analysis showed:

* Median household income in the most devastated neighborhood was $32,000, or $10,000 less than the national average.
* Two in 10 households in the disaster area had no car, compared with 1 in 10 in nationwide.
* Nearly 25 percent of those living in the hardest-hit areas were below the poverty line, about double the national average. About 4.5 percent in the disaster area received public assistance; nationwide, the number was about 3.5 percent.
* About 60 percent of the 700,000 people in the three dozen neighborhoods were minority. Nationwide, about 1 in 3 Americans is a racial minority.
* One in 200 American households doesn’t have adequate plumbing. One in 100 households in the most affected areas didn’t have decent plumbing, which, according to the Census, includes running hot and cold water, a shower or bath and an indoor toilet.
* Nationwide, about 7 percent of households with children are headed by a single mother. In the three dozen neighborhoods, 12 percent were single-mother households.

The land of equal opportunity. Don’t worry, I get that this isn’t exactly a new problem. President Lyndon Johnson, in a speech to Howard University in 1965, laid it out for us: “Negro poverty is not white poverty. Many of its causes and many of its cures are the same. But there are differences – deep, corrosive, obstinate differences, radiating painful roots into the community and into the family and the nature of the individual. These differences are not racial differences. They are solely and simply the consequence of ancient brutality, past injustice and present prejudice. They are anguishing to observe. For the Negro they are a constant reminder of oppression.”

Lastly, I’m not one to castigate the media (I can’t help but think of the classic Chris Rock routine whenever someone is about to blame the media for its portrayal of black people), but the media does have a role in this also. Don’t think that it went unnoticed that white folks walking out of grocery stores with bags of things “found” what they needed to survive, but black folks walking out of the same stores were “looting”. (By the way, the photos have since been removed due to complaints about the language.) It strikes me as quite the deflection from examining the real causes and problems represented by the devastation.

The problem is that we as a society like to sweep the poor, especially the poor of color, under the rug. Under resourced, with help who knew how long in the offing, people hustled to survive. This in no way excuses the “survive by any means necessary” mentality that often grips people, but put in context, these weren’t people caught up in a societal pathology. And continuing to label the people as “refugees” continues to allow a distance between “us” and “them.” We think of refugees as people in other countries, not our own. It’s more comfortable to believe that this happened to some “other” people, not our own.

“When a man is hanging on a tree and he cries out, should he cry out unemotionally? When a man is sitting on a hot stove and he tells you how it feels to be there, is he supposed to speak without emotion? This is what you tell black people in this country when they begin to cry out against the injustices they’re suffering. As long as they describe these injustices in a way that makes you believe you have another 100 years to rectify the situation, then you don’t call that emotion. But when a man is on a hot stove, he say, ‘I’m coming up. I’m getting up. Violently or non-violently doesn’t even enter the picture – I’m coming up you understand’.” –Malcolm X

Our social and economic policies continue to reflect our priorities. Contrary to some religious voices, Hurricane Katrina was not God’s judgment against our embrace of homosexuality and abortion. It does, however, serve as quite an indictment, revealing many unsavory truths about our country. If we’re going to be judged, it will be on how we treat, in Jesus’ words, “the least of these”. The poor.

Too bad it took a hurricane to remind us of them.