The Thin Brown Line

Sorry, but it is about race. The New Orleans neighborhoods in which black people live were always more likely to be flooded; those who “refused” to leave town were the ones who had no cars or money to get out; those doing the looting were – originally – those told to gather in spots like the Convention Center but left with no food or water; people used to depending on authorities for direction and care begged for someone to show up with a bullhorn and tell them what to do; those doing the shooting are mostly drug addicts in the insantiy of withdrawal, for whom rehab has been replaced by a prison industry.

What most whites don’t want to admit is that their distress at watching the CNN footage is twofold. Sure, we’re all upset at seeing people treated like animals, dying in the streets, getting raped, and being ignored by those with the power to do something. (“Why don’t rich people just use their private planes and copters to drop food and water?” my wife asks.)

But the greater torment is the fear of how quickly civil society can descend into utter chaos. It’s Thomas Jefferson time, again, and America once again feels it has, in its black population, “a wolf by the ears.” Listen to the ranting of right-wing radio for a couple of minutes, and you’ll hear what I mean. Blaming the victims for their stupidity; graphic descriptions of what one black person will do to another, or to those offering to help. How could “these people” shoot at helicopters trying to bring aid?

(Take any swim safety class and the first thing they’ll teach you is that to rescue a drowning person, you have to immobilize the victim. Instinctually, the panicked drowning person will try to push you down under the water. And this is true of black and white drowning victims, alike.)

What those who are afraid of civil society breaking down don’t realize is that civil society has already broken down! This is not a civil society we live in, but a profiteering, every-man-for-himself, oligarchy. The democratic process is broken if not rigged; the largest-ever redistribution of wealth from the poor to the rich occurred over the last six years under the guise of economic stimulus; fear and disinformation were used to put the poorest of Americans onto a battlefield under false pretenses; those who seek to engage the current administration in meaningful dialogue are terminated.

It is in the midst of a crisis that you learn the most about someone or something. During the blackout of a couple of years ago, all of us New Yorkers learned which merchants were really parts of the community, and which ones simply shuttered their doors in the face of human need.

We’re learning a lot about our government, and ourselves, this week. Those black faces seem just a little bit closer to home when they’re in Louisiana than when they’re in Darfur. Should they? Maybe not. But they should remind us of just how real the inequity and opportunity divide in this country really are, and how readily so many of us are to blame those being flooded and starved for our crimes against them.

The reinstatement of civil society in the United States will be a long, slow climb. We will probably see its beginnings in our lifetime. Civil society will emerge not because we fear what will happen without it, but because we long for the opportunity to live together within it.