September 20, 2005

Katrina Illuminates Prejudices, Panelists Say

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Four speakers with close ties to New Orleans discussed the racial and social inequities in the city highlighted by Hurricane Katrina yesterday in Uris Hall Auditorium.

The panel, “Hurricane Katrina and its Aftermath: Race, Class and the Environment,” was sponsored by the Africana Studies and Research Center, the Cornell Black Professional Women’s organization and Ujamaa Residential College.

Moderated by Robert L. Harris Jr., Africana studies and vice provost for diversity and faculty development, the forum began with a news clip depicting the unwillingness of both the New Orleans and Louisiana state police and the Army to remove a corpse left for two weeks in front of a public health center in a predominately black region of the state. The clip’s somber tone illustrated the racial discrimination in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina discussed by the afternoon’s speakers.

Panelist Malik Rahim, a New Orleans community activist and former member of the Black Panther Party, appeared in the news broadcast. He emphasized the city’s abandonment of its most vulnerable citizens – the black and poor.

“New Orleans is surrounded not only by water, but also some of the most racist parishes in Louisiana,” he said.

New Orleans, a city that is 70 percent black with about half of these people below the poverty line, did next to nothing to help its residents escape the hurricane, Rahim said.

“The city told its people to evacuate, but many had no way to escape,” he said. “How was a single mother with no car supposed to leave?”

Rahim encouraged the audience to aid the hurricane victims in solidarity, but not in charity. While he praised volunteers’ attempts to help, he pointed out that many simply are not bringing what is needed for survival.

“If you give a man peanut butter and he’s dying of thirst, what does that do?” he questioned.

Although Rahim has lived in his community for 30 years, he said he will probably move. After the hurricane, many of his white neighbors bought guns, which they claimed they would use to scare off looters. But, Rahim believes, “what they constitute looters is to be young and black.”

“New Orleans was so close to a race war it really scared me, because I knew we wouldn’t win,” he added.

Rahim’s trip to Ithaca was his first time leaving New Orleans since the hurricane. To survive, he built a bunker with two friends, and had life preservers, a boat and $50 – “much more than most” he said.

Elaborating on Rahim’s discussion of the city’s inability to look after its most vulnerable residents, Kalamu ya Salaam, an award-winning New Orleans author, educator and filmmaker, said many New Orleans residents may become card carrying Communists because they have been abandoned by the government.

Salaam hopes to expose this injustice through his “Listen to the People project,” which will chronicle the stories of New Orleans residents displaced by Hurricane Katrina. Emphasizing that the social problems plaguing the city are not just racial tensions between whites and blacks, Salaam’s project will also focus on class, gender and LGBT issues.

“It’s a mistake to only talk about this as an issue of black and white,” he said. “Anytime you have men with guns in charge, you’ll have rape. The stories of gays and lesbians also need to be told-you can’t just sweep these [issues] under the rug and act like they don’t exist.”

Salaam condemned Bush administration for its handling of the hurricane’s aftermath.

“Let the people at Cornell deal with these issues to better understand them, instead of policy being made by people who don’t believe in science,” he said.

Adding to her fellow panelist’s discussion of the government’s lack of concern for New Orleans’s poorest residents following Katrina, Prof. Kishi Animashuan, Africana studies at Syracuse University and former New Orleans resident, spoke on environmental racism. Animashaun observed that whenever a city plans to build a sewage or dump it is usually in poor communities. Louisiana, in particular, has been criticized for this pattern. With heavy flooding brought on by the hurricane, Animashaun fears the water will affect the city’s poorest residents the most.

“We’re concerned about the long-term effects of chemical exposure,” she said. “The government has not come out with a strong stance on what people should do because of the chemicals in the water.”

As blacks are the least likely to evacuate and rebound after a natural disaster, Animashaun said, she worries particularly about the affect on residents of the 85 mile strip with 120 chemical complexes along the Mississippi River, which she calls, “Cancer Alley.” As most blacks live in coastal regions, they may suffer from long term implications of exposure to toxic chemicals.

Final panelist Folake Akande, a graduate student in African feminist literature at Tulane who is now studying at Cornell, gave a different view of her post-Katrina experience, as she detailed the generosity she received from members of New Orleans and Cornell community upon leaving Louisiana.

Archived article by Olivia Oran