Katrina and race

There’s a difference between something being racial and it being racist, according to Michael Eric Dyson, Penn’s Avalon Professor of Humanities. The government’s sluggish and inadequate response to the stranded, hungry and scared flood victims of Hurricane Katrina, he says, was racial, but not overtly racist. “There is a difference between active malaise and passive indifference,” he told a crowd at the Penn Bookstore on Jan. 20. “This government believes that government is the enemy of the people.”

Dyson, who was on hand to discuss his latest book, “Come Hell or High Water,” attempted to explain exactly what rapper Kanye West meant when he stated on live television, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” West wasn’t talking about George W. Bush the person, Dyson argued, but instead about the political identity of the president. “And if he didn’t, that’s what I mean by what he said,” joked Dyson.

The dynamic Baptist preacher and prolific author underscored that even before the storm hit and the levees broke, there was a crisis in that region: Mississippi is the poorest state in the country, he said, and Louisiana comes in a close second. Most people don’t want to deal with issues of race or class in this country, Dyson said, adding that those stranded at the Convention Center and Superdome were “folk who are not really on the radar of American culture,” cut off economically from mainstream society. To underscore his point, he pointed out that in areas hit by Katrina, more than 100,000 people made less than $8,000 a year.

And now, more than five months after the storm, the struggle in the Gulf region is already off our radar, Dyson said. Turning Kanye West’s question another way, Dyson asked, “Do rich black people care about poor black people? … It’s all of us who turn away and pretend it doesn’t exist.”

The author—who drew as much criticism as praise for his recent book lambasting comedian and philanthropist Bill Cosby (“Is Bill Cosby Right? Or Has the Black Middle Class Lost Its Mind?”)—also had some harsh words for New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. According to Dyson, the mayor turned down Amtrak’s offer to shuttle some people out of the city before the storm and contacted members of the business community—not public safety—after receiving information from the National Weather Service on the seriousness of Katrina. For this, Dyson said, Nagin must be held accountable.

Recently, Nagin referred to the future demographics of New Orleans as a “chocolate city”—a remark that landed him in hot water. “That’s a P-Funk moment of articulation in our culture,” said Dyson, referring to Parliament’s 1975 album of the same name.

Dyson also criticized organizations that claimed that the hurricane was an “act of God” that destroyed a “wicked” city. “As a Baptist preacher, that just breaks my heart,” he said. “Politics and theology make strange bedfellows.”

Originally published on February 9, 2006