Written by 7:54 am Commentary

What Hurricane Katrina, Flint, Newark, and Detroit All Have In Common

What do Hurricane Katrina, Flint, Newark, and Detroit all have in common?

It is August 29, 2019, and we are 14 years post-Katrina — that disaster of both governance and nature that yanked the curtain open to reveal just how little the United States cares for its people.

Especially poor black people.

Especially poor black people in New Orleans.

The president in charge at the time now paints portraits and giggles as he sneaks candy to our first black First Lady at state functions and museum openings. If only he had been so chummy with black people when the levees broke!

Let’s cut to the chase. Black people in the United States are still suffering because of inept, callous government over water. Flint is 61% black and can’t drink theirs. Detroit is 80% black and so many of her people can’t afford theirs.

When it comes to water in the United States, we do not have a problem with letting black people suffer. With Katrina, we did not mind letting decomposing black bodies float away in it or having entire black neighborhoods washed away by it. In Flint (and now Newark), we did not mind if black bodies, young and old, were poisoned by it. In Detroit, we do not mind if black bodies — most of them women and children — are deprived of it.

People will tell you that black people’s uniquely disastrous encounters with water in the United States are not the products of explicitly racist policy. But, they don’t have to be. Impact beats intent every time.

In Michael Eric Dyson’s “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster”, at one point he writes about “active malice” versus racial intent. He was referencing comments then Senator Obama made about the aftermath of Katrina. More specifically, he says:

…one may agree with Obama that there was no racial intent, no active malice in the response to Katrina (or similarly, water-related incidents like Flint and Detroit) and yet hold the view that there were nonetheless racial consequences that flowed from the ‘passive indifference’ of the government to poor blacks. Active malice and passive indifference are but flip sides of the same racial coin, different modalities of racial menace that flare according to the contexts and purposes at hand. (20–21)

When Dyson says “purposes at hand”, I am reminded of things like Flint poisoning a city full of black people to save money by pulling water from a cheaper (albeit polluted) source. I am reminded of Detroit shutting off the water to black senior citizens and cancer patients because the city needs to meet its financial obligations. (This is one of the reasons Detroit officials always give for the shut-offs.) Wasteful $200MM streetcar project that runs right alongside a Detroit bus line be damned.

Perhaps this has been said before, but when we find new planets, we don’t jump to ask about the air quality. We ask, “Is there water?” Water is supposed to mean life.

Fourteen years post-Katrina, why does water still not ever mean life for black people, though?

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Last modified: December 18, 2019