Of Katrina, Macacas, and Race

As the one-year anniversary of the Katrina disaster approaches, it’s worth taking some time to reflect on the things it hasn’t changed.

I won’t go over the reconstruction that hasn’t happened, the preparation of New Orleans to withstand future hurricanes that didn’t occur, the nonexistent new environmental consciousness, the renewed attention to problems of poverty that hasn’t been given, and the political reform of unresponsive local, state, and federal governments that has not been implemented would take too much time.

I’ll just focus on the grappling with issues of race and racial ideology that hasn’t happened.

After a great deal of noise in the first few days of widespread TV coverage of the disaster about the dark heart of American racial inequality and how our attitudes would be forever changed, things went back to a status quo so unchanged it was as if a race of telepathic superbeings had erased all memory of Katrina.

Perhaps the first indication was a September 8 poll by Pew showing that, when asked if the government’s response would have been quicker had most victims been white, only 17% of whites said “Yes,” as opposed to 66% of blacks. Only 32% of whites said the disaster shows racial inequality is still a major problem, compared with 71% of blacks.

When rapper Kanye West said that George Bush doesn’t care about black people, a patently obvious statement, liberal commentators rushed to attack him. Almost nobody even considered talking about how little white society as a whole cares about black people, even as compared with the modest high points of the late 1860’s and the 1970’s.

That lack of caring is, of course, the primary reason that there has been no advance in racial understanding since then. But there are also important secondary reasons.

One that I identified in the immediate aftermath was the lack of any lexicon to use to address the situation of race any more, a lack made painfully obvious when one by one African-American political leaders, provided a unique opportunity to address that nation on TV, found themselves unable to say anything meaningful let alone anything that might reach a predominantly white audience.

A widespread leftist understanding of structural racism as a phenomenon independent of though linked with crude attitudinal racism has not been communicated in a way that can relate to the intellectual culture of classical liberalism, let alone the extremely individualist variety of said liberalism that prevails in the United States.

Just as disturbing is the lack of understanding, even in the middle of a globe-spanning “war on terror,” of xenophobia and denigration of other nationalities as racism. At the time, it manifested in the Black Congressional Caucus’s absurd plea not to call the victims of Katrina refugees.

A more recent case in point is the flap over Senator George Allen’s use of the word “macaca” to refer to S.R. Sidarth, a young Indian-American staffer of his Democratic opponent’s campaign who had been following him around and videotaping him. The controversy over this has been almost entirely unilluminating and has deeply missed the point. I for one do not think it likely that Allen was using an obscure racial slur originally used by French settlers North Africa to refer to the natives of the area. Nor do I think Allen was calling the young man a macaque, a species not mentioned in the Bible and thus probably unknown to the Neanderthal senator.

But what he was doing was menacing, ugly, and racist. He identified Sidarth as a natural target for humor and disdain as a foreigner who had no right to be there. “Macaca” was his ignorant parody of a generic “furrin” Indian name, designed to sound funny to the ear of the ignorant American, a species much in abundance at Allen campaign rallies. His “Welcome to America” added an element of menace and a clear injunction to the man to stay in his natural place.

Though this was racist, it could not have been done to a black person; they are not identified by the average white as foreign. His use of a young person of Indian descent was anachronistic; American-born Indians are now quite common. But that wasn’t the problem; the problem was using a nonwhite foreigner as a natural target for such verbal aggression.

There is no clear way in mainstream public discourse in the United States to communicate the racism of this kind of incident, which less august figures than senators engage in every day. In the long run, we may decide that the greatest tragedy of the intellectual non-response to Katrina is that it has not enlarged our racial lexicon.



Rahul Mahajan is publisher of Empire Notes and author most recently of Full Spectrum Dominance: U.S. Power in Iraq and Beyond. He can be reached at rahul@empirenotes.org.


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