Poor, Black and Left Behind

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Hurricane Ivan highlights US rulers' contempt for the black and poor - a contempt echoed by John Kerry's campaign

The evacuation of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Ivan saw affluent white people flee the Big Easy in their SUVs, while the old and car-less - mainly black - were left behind in their below sea level shotgun shacks and ageing tenements to face the watery wrath.

New Orleans had spent decades preparing for inevitable submersion by the storm surge of a class five hurricane. Civil defence officials conceded they had 10,000 body bags on hand to deal with the worst-case scenario. But no one seemed to have bothered to devise a plan to evacuate the city's poorest or most infirm residents. The day before the hurricane hit the Gulf Coast, New Orlean's daily, the Times-Picayune, ran an alarming story about the 'large group mostly concentrated in poorer neighbourhoods' who wanted to evacuate but couldn't. Only at the last moment, with winds churning Lake Pontchartrain, did mayor Ray Nagin reluctantly open the Louisiana Superdome and a few schools to desperate residents. He was reportedly worried that lower class refugees might damage or graffiti the Superdome.

In the event, Ivan the Terrible spared New Orleans, but official callousness towards poor black folk endures. Over the last generation City Hall and its entourage of powerful developers have relentlessly attempted to push the poorest segment of the population - blamed for the city's high crime rates - across the Mississippi river. Historic black public-housing projects have been razed to make room for upper-income townhouses and a Wal-Mart. In other housing projects, residents are routinely evicted for offences as trivial as their children's curfew violations. The ultimate goal seems to be a tourist theme park New Orleans - one big Garden District - with chronic poverty hidden away in bayous, trailer parks and prisons outside the city limits.

But New Orleans isn't the only case study in what Nixonians once called the politics of 'benign neglect.' In Los Angeles, county supervisors have just announced the closure of the trauma centre at Martin Luther King Jr Hospital near Watts. The hospital, located in the epicentre of LA's gang wars, is one of the nation's busiest centres for the treatment of gunshot wounds. The loss of its trauma centre, according to paramedics, could 'add as much as 30 minutes in transport time to other facilities'. The result, almost certainly, will be a spate of avoidable deaths. But then again the victims will be black or brown and poor.

As the fortieth anniversary of the 1965 Civil Rights Act approaches, the US seems to have returned to degree zero of moral concern for the majority of descendants of slavery and segregation. Whether the black poor live or die seems to merit only haughty disinterest and indifference. Indeed, in terms of the life and death issues that matter most to African-Americans - structural unemployment, race-based superincarceration, police brutality, disappearing affirmative action, and failing schools - the present presidential election might be taking place in the 1920s.

But not all the blame can be assigned to the current occupant of the former slaveowners' mansion at the end of Pennsylvania Avenue. The mayor of New Orleans, for example, is a black Democrat, and Los Angeles County is a famously Democratic bastion.

No, the political invisibility of people of colour is a strictly bipartisan endeavour. On the Democratic side, it is the culmination of the long crusade waged by the Democratic Leadership Council (DLC) to exorcise the spectre of the 1980s Rainbow Coalition.

The DLC, of course, has long yearned to bring white guys and fat cats back to a Nixonised Democratic Party. Arguing that race had fatally divided Democrats, the DLC has tried to bleach the party by marginalising civil rights agendas and black leadership. African-Americans, it is cynically assumed, will remain loyal to the Democrats regardless of the treasons committed against them. They are, in effect, hostages. Thus the sordid spectacle - portrayed in Fahrenheit 9/11 - of white Democratic senators refusing to raise a single hand in support of the black Congressional Caucus's courageous challenge to the stolen election of November 2000.

The Kerry campaign, meanwhile, steers a straight DLC course towards oblivion. No Democratic presidential candidate since Eugene McCarthy has shown such patrician disdain towards the Democrats' most loyal and fundamental social base. While Connie Rice hovers tight-lipped and constant at Dubya's side, the highest ranking, self-proclaimed 'African-American' in the Kerry camp is Teresa Heinz.

This crude joke has been compounded by Kerry's semi-suicidal reluctance to mobilise black voters. As Rainbow Coalition veterans like Ron Waters have bitterly pointed out, Kerry has been absolutely churlish about financing voter registration drives in African-American communities.

Ralph Nader - I fear - was cruelly accurate when he warned recently that 'the Democrats do not win when they do not have Jesse Jackson and African-Americans in the core of the campaign.' In truth, Kerry, the erstwhile war hero, is running away as hard as he can from the sound of the cannons, whether in Iraq or in America's equally ravaged inner cities.

The urgent domestic issue, of course, is unspeakable socio-economic inequality, newly deepened by fiscal plunder and catastrophic plant closures. But inequality still has a predominant colour or, rather, colours: black and brown.

Kerry's apathetic and uncharismatic attitude towards people of colour will not be repaired by last-minute speeches or campaign staff appointments. Nor will it be compensated by his super-ardent efforts to woo Reagan Democrats and white males with war stories from the ancient Mekong. A party that in every real and figurative sense refuses to shelter the poor in a hurricane will not mobilise the moral passion necessary to overthrow George Bush, the most hated man on earth.