At the moment, it’s hard to pick up any section of any newspaper and read any story without thinking about what is happening on the Gulf Coast. And, for me, it’s impossible to think about New Orleans without thinking about Daniel Patrick Moynihan and then the following reality, as described in the classic five-part New Orleans Times-Picayune series titled “Washing Away.” (To see the whole package from 2002, click here.)
The risk of dying is so high that trying to ride out a storm is foolish, emergency managers say. Yet for various reasons, many people do not leave. In New Orleans, many residents don’t own cars. Some are unaware of the danger. Some think they can judge it for themselves. About 44 percent of Orleans residents and 52 percent of Jefferson residents evacuated during Georges, according to a University of New Orleans survey. A separate Jefferson Parish study estimated that 60 percent of residents left the parish.
“I don’t have a question about the fact that a lot of people are not going to leave, not just the 100,000 who don’t have private transportation,” said Terry Tullier, acting director of New Orleans’ Office of Emergency Preparedness. “We think we’re going to do our people a terrible disservice if we don’t tell them the truth. And the truth is that when it happens, a lot of people are going to die.”
So who was left behind and why? What are the factors — human, political, moral, economic, educational — that helped produce the anarchy that the nation is watching unfold in our media? As Jack Shafer noted at Slate, this leads to the topics that everyone has been afraid to talk about up until the past day or so — race and class.
But the minute journalists open up that topic, they will be led right into another hurricane — the “culture wars”-related clashes about what did or did not happen to urban America in the 1960s and who is and who is not to blame for it. And it is impossible to sink into that riptide without being distracted from the real and urgent issues of justice and peace — yes, literally peace — that must be addressed right now by government officials at the local, state and national levels.
Do you arrest and/or shoot people seeking bread and water?
Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to hijack a boat to escape?
Do you arrest and/or shoot people trying to steal guns and alcohol? Looting the homes of their innocent neighbors or of those in richer parts of town? Looting historic sites? Art collections? Churches?
What if all of the people you have to arrest and/or shoot are just as poor and distressed as the people who are simply seeking food and water?
And what happens when some different form of disaster takes place in some other American city that is built on top of the same fault line between rich and poor, black and white?
With that in mind, let’s jump back to Baltimore, another historic city with elite water views and poor neighborhoods nearby. I was thinking about all of this as I read a column in my local newspaper, which is the Baltimore Sun. I live in a largely blue-collar part of town in which one cannot purchase the local sign of prestige and power — a daily subscription to The Washington Post. The headline on Michael Olesker’s column was blunt: “As Baltimore builds itself up, the poor sink lower down.” I imagine that journalists wrote similar columns in New Orleans during the past few decades.
The themes are familiar. Parts of town are in fine shape and other parts are on the rise, while one out of four city residents live in poverty. In the city, the population is about 65 percent African-American. Down on the water, the prices of townhouses are soaring (you can catch the train to Washington, D.C.). Elsewhere, you can get abandoned townhouses for a song or much less. Olesker writes:
In Baltimore’s waterfront neighborhoods, the sound of rehabbing fills the air. Downtown construction — including residential units — is booming. With so much money coming in, it points out ever more starkly the dismal overall poverty figures. It says poor people are losing ground. It also points out the changes, in the last several decades, in the exodus to suburbia. Middle-class blacks joined fleeing whites, leaving behind an economic underclass that now wonders: With city housing prices rising so sharply, where will poor people find a place to live?
But something is missing. There is some other X-factor in this scene, one that that late, great Democrat named Moynihan wrote about so long ago in a Department of Labor report that could have been called “It Takes A Family.” (Click here for a City Journal refresher on this hot-button topic.)
Here is the end of Olesker’s haunting column. Read this and then ask if he should not have asked one more question and then included one more statistic: What is the difference in income between intact African-American families in the Baltimore area, families that include a father and a mother, and families in which there is no father living in the home? Is race the only issue?
“Children raising children,” says Lonnie Woodland. “I’m in the supermarket the other day, and a young lady’s carrying a baby. The baby was a few days old. I said, ‘My, you sure got your figure back in a hurry.’ She said, ‘This isn’t my child, it’s my grandchild.’
“I said, ‘How old are you?’ She said, 31. I said, ‘Thirty-one?’ She said, yeah, her daughter was 13 when she had her baby. She said, ‘The last thing I wanted my daughter to do was make the same mistake I did.’”
The new government reports tell the continuing mathematical story of poverty. But such stories illustrate the ongoing human distress behind the numbers.
If newspapers dig into the stories behind the images on our screens, they will have to ask questions that political and religious leaders have been afraid to ask for generations. These questions will need to be asked, because lives are at stake.
But right now, it is time to protect the innocent. It is a time for justice and for peace. Send in the National Guard. Send in the church groups, when it is safe to do so. Send in whoever has the heart and the courage to try to help. Save those who can be saved, even if that means judging those who must be judged.