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Workers Vanguard No. 942

11 September 2009

Remember Hurricane Katrina, Racist Atrocity

Hurricane Katrina in August/September 2005 was a natural disaster. But the government’s response was a man-made disaster, leaving in its wake a catastrophic human toll. Who can forget the television images of desperate survivors on the roofs of their homes; of hungry, thirsty and frightened people pleading for help at the squalid, sweltering Superdome; of the armed forces of the state mobilized to terrorize the population; of the criminal actions (and inaction) by all levels of government, by both parties of capitalism—the Republicans in the White House, the Democrats at the state and local levels.

Four years on, Panglossian reportage in the bourgeois press abounds, with headlines like that of the New York Times (14 July): “A Sustainable New Orleans Slowly Rises in Katrina’s Wake.” For some privileged layers of that city, this rings true; for the black, poor and working-class victims reality is something else altogether. To take one example, public housing projects, which served a largely black population, have been closed. A recent letter by a longtime Workers Vanguard reader in New Orleans reports:

“There is still a repopulation curve of the richest and the whitest returning first, the poorest and blackest last. The housing project residents never made it back at all. After the storm, all the projects were barricaded and barred at great expense to keep the residents from returning, even projects that never flooded. HANO [Housing Authority of New Orleans], HUD, and a unanimous City Council colluded to demolish 4,500 units…. ‘Urban renewal is Negro removal,’ an aphorism from the ’60s, is writ large in New Orleans today….

“Beyond the Industrial Canal stretches the vast expanse of the mostly black New Orleans East and the entirely black Ninth Ward. Repopulation there is small and is discouraged by official neglect. There are virtually no hospitals, police or fire stations, post offices, grocery stores, schools, libraries, playgrounds, and none are planned….

“The national press has painted a cheerful picture about New Orleans’ recovery. One reason is the current demolition-and-construction boomlet, which is due to federal disaster dollars finally coming through the pipeline—four years down the road. The big construction companies subcontract out to many small-company bosses who in turn pick up mostly Hispanic day laborers at Home Depot or Lowe’s. The laborers have no union, no benefits, no health insurance, often no place to stay, and no protection from rampant wage theft. The New Orleans City Council recently defeated a proposal to make wage theft by contractors a crime. A north shore cop was arrested for repeatedly stopping Hispanic laborers on the Interstate and robbing them of their cash at gunpoint and in uniform. He was fired but received no jail time and made no restitution to the victims. A New Orleans cop was busted for the same thing.

“Another reason for the cheery accounts in the national press about the city’s recovery is that New Orleans now ‘leads the nation in charter schools’...which means leading the nation in union-busting. After the longshoremen, the majority black teachers union was the largest local labor union. The first thing black Democratic mayor Ray Nagin did when the flood waters were drained was to fire all 8,000 school employees and declare the public schools closed for two academic years. Charter schools soon filled the void as families returned. The charters cherry-picked the healthiest, highest performing children, turning away those with poor test scores, ‘behavior problems’ or disabilities. They hired the whitest, youngest teachers who would work for the least money, and ‘Teach for America’ was right there with a ready supply. The charter schools are now mainly staffed by 22-year-olds who stay for exactly two years and leave. They make so little that is full of housing-wanted ads from them saying they can’t pay over $400 per person in rent. They also have pitiful benefits. One young teacher was shot attempting to stop a carjacking. After reaching the $100,000 limit to his health insurance—that’s a few days in the hospital today—his fellow teachers held a benefit to raise money for his hospital bill.”

This is but a snapshot of the devastation wrought against the working people of this city. And it continues under the Democratic Party administration of Barack Obama. In keeping with his myth of a “post-racial” America, Obama declared about Hurricane Katrina that the government’s “incompetence was color-blind.” After Obama came into office, FEMA threatened to evict the thousands of Katrina victims who are still holed up in stultifying trailers with dangerously high levels of formaldehyde, which poses an increased risk of cancer. This summer, the administration announced a “turn-around,” offering to sell the trailers for $5. Far from being an act of magnanimity, this allows the government to wash its hands of any responsibility for the desperately poor residents, leaving them to foot the bill for all upkeep and repairs, including even the removal of the trailers if they are ever able to move back into their original homes.

Justice for the victims of Katrina will come only with the destruction of this racist capitalist system and the establishment of the rule of the working class. The workers movement should never forget this racist atrocity. Toward this end, we print below excerpts from “New Orleans: Racist Atrocity,” published in WV No. 854, 16 September 2005.

* * *

New Orleans, one of the oldest, most cultured, most complex of American cities, remains devastated, its residents dispersed, its dead still uncounted and unburied. Whole communities along the Gulf Coast have simply disappeared. Hurricane Katrina has ripped away the tattered facade of the U.S. government as “of the people, by the people, for the people,” exposing the racism, venality, ruling-class arrogance and utter ineptitude of the White House gang. A wave of revulsion has swept the country at the government’s response to the disaster, undercutting the post-September 11 “national unity” hysteria that had already taken a beating over the debacle in Iraq. Sections of the ruling class itself are hammering at Bush, not least for damaging the image of the “world’s only superpower” internationally.

Now they are even trying to forbid news media from showing the dead, who are still shamefully left to lie in the open while troops patrol the streets….

They want to hide the evidence of their crimes against the people of New Orleans. But what is starkly exposed is the raw reality of race and class in capitalist America….

But it’s not just Bush and the Republicans. The other capitalist party, the Democrats, is also directly responsible for deaths that likely number in the thousands. The black Democratic Party New Orleans mayor, Ray Nagin, ordered an evacuation but provided no resources for anyone without a car to get out. Former president Bill Clinton publicly solidarized with Bush Junior and also Senior, seeking to restore the spirit of “national unity.” Nationally, Democratic politicians are clamoring that the administration’s inaction over New Orleans shows its incapacity to respond to “terrorist” threats. They aim to present themselves as the party best able to wage the “war on terror,” a code word for ripping up the rights of immigrants, black people, the labor movement and most everyone else.

Despite differences over particular policies, the Republicans and Democrats are united in defending capitalism—an anarchic, irrational profit-driven system that cannot even provide for the safety and welfare of the population. The situation cries out for a socialist planned economy, in which natural resources and the technological and productive forces of society would be marshaled on behalf of human needs, not profit. What is urgently required is to build a workers party that can lead a workers revolution to rip power from the hands of the capitalist class and its political agents, right-wing Republican and liberal Democrat alike….

The fatal undermining of the flood control system around New Orleans did not begin the day that George W. Bush entered the White House in January 2001. Far from it! Over two decades of neglect include the eight years of the Democratic Clinton administration in the 1990s, during which the U.S. experienced an economic boom and the federal government managed to run a sizable budget surplus.

But the pork barrel triumphed as usual, as politicians of both parties diverted the Army Corps of Engineers’ money to far less important projects, as right-wing New York Times columnist John Tierney pointed out in “The Case for a Cover-Up” (10 September). Thus the Louisiana Congressional delegation and Democratic Senator Mary Landrieu, who now attacks Bush for not anticipating the breach of the levees, “have been shortchanging the levees themselves” and have “directed large sums to dubious Corps projects aimed at increasing barge traffic, not preventing floods.”…

Some 40 years after the passage of the Civil Rights and Voting Rights acts, the Gulf Coast disaster demonstrates that the basic condition of blacks as an oppressed color-caste forcibly segregated at the bottom of American society has not changed. Black and white liberals have long hailed the civil rights movement of the late 1950s-early 1960s as a historic triumph in the struggle for racial equality. Certainly, the end of legalized segregation in the South was a genuine and important democratic gain. But black oppression is rooted in the very structure of American capitalism, as the catastrophe in New Orleans has so graphically demonstrated. As we wrote in an early, basic document of the Spartacist League:

“The vast majority of Black people—both North and South—are today workers who, along with the rest of the American working class, must sell their labor power in order to secure the necessities of life to those who buy labor power in order to make profit. The buyers of labor power, the capitalists, are a small minority whose rule is maintained only by keeping the majority who labor for them divided and misled. The fundamental division created deliberately along racial lines has kept the Negro workers who entered American capitalism at the bottom, still at the bottom. Ultimately their road to freedom lies only through the struggle with the rest of the working class to abolish capitalism and establish in its place an egalitarian, socialist society.

“Yet the struggle of the Black people of this country for freedom, while part of the struggle of the working class as a whole, is more than that struggle. The Negro people are an oppressed race-color caste, in the main comprising the most exploited layer of the American working class.... Because of their position as both the most oppressed and also the most conscious and experienced section, revolutionary black workers are slated to play an exceptional role in the coming American revolution.”

— “Black and Red—Class Struggle Road to Negro Freedom,” Spartacist special supplement, May-June 1967

...Black people are not just victims of American capitalism. Despite the destruction of industrial jobs and erosion of union strength, black workers, whose rate of union membership is 32 percent higher than that of white workers, continue to be integrated into strategic sectors of the industrial proletariat—in urban transit, longshore, steel and auto. The proletariat alone has the power to shatter this racist, capitalist system. Won to a revolutionary program, black workers will be the living link fusing the anger of the dispossessed ghetto masses with the social power of the multiracial proletariat under the leadership of a Leninist vanguard party.


Workers Vanguard No. 942

WV 942

11 September 2009


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