BEFORE KATRINA: THE INVISIBLE PROBLEM
RALPH ELLISON was either prescient or invisible. How did he develop a character who spoke as if he were an inhabitant of New Orleans 58 years before Katrina? The protagonist of Ellison’s famous work of fiction remarked:
I am an invisible man. No, I am not a spook like those who haunted Edgar Allan Poe; nor am I one of your Hollywoodmovie ectoplasms. 1 am a man of substance, of flesh and bone, fiber and liquids – and I might even be said to possess a mind. 1 am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me.”1
Katrina forced the world to see the poor people of Louisiana and Mississippi. It forced them to see what those attuned to America’s socio-political and economic realities already knew: economic disparities of an unacceptable nature persist in America. They afflict the Black population disproportionately.2 They also relegate too many whites, Latinos and others to a life of squalor. For these people, there is no way out. Indeed, no one sees them.
Most policy and opinion leaders refuse to acknowledge this ongoing humanitarian crisis in a meaningful way. Every now and again, a politician or media pundit will raise a hue and cry about one Black child whom the system failed or identify one depressed town. They passively assert that “more needs to be done,” and occasionally call on Congress to Act.
They fail to realize (or acknowledge) that one Black child or one Black city merely represents a larger, systemic phenomena. Case in point: the Katrina aftermath. Politicians and pundits raised the hue and cry but the government responded with an anemic form of disaster relief that hardly addressed the emergency, much less the underlying problems of the region.
The fact is that post-hoc public band-aids in the form of disaster relief do not address the greater predicament that threatens America’s social and democratic fabric. Neither do diluted measures crafted in response to the occasional public outcry. Where is the effective civil rights legislation, fair and affordable housing measures, small business incentive programs, public welfare and social security plans, educational reforms and healthcare initiatives on campaign platforms or the congressional docket? What becomes of such proposals in practice? Did the affirmative action of the past few decades level the structurally uneven playing field that slavery’s 300 years left behind? Is no child left behind? What ever happened to the national healthcare plan? What ever happened to the social security overhaul? What of implementation, oversight, accountability?
What does all this have to do with Katrina? Some view Katrina as a “natural” disaster that has nothing to do with social or policy issues. To the contrary, the response to Katrina has everything to do with race and poverty in America, everything to do with the promises of equality and democracy, everything to do with community. In short, our leaders’ approach to national crises highlights serious issues that continue to exist while at the same time creates new ones. Katrina dredges up these problems from the mud of invisibility.
After Katrina, most of those left homeless, stranded or dying on the side of the road, were Black. This is no coincidence, for their plight began with slavery and since then many remain “poor and powerless.”3 Yet, how is it that these freedmen’s children continue to live in deplorable conditions in a country whose GDP is the largest in the world? More important still, how is it that no one sees them? Right now, after Katrina, they are visible. Here, I focus on one question: How do we keep them in sight?
KATRINA & THE INSTITUTIONAL RESPONSE: DISASTERRELIEF
For starters, we can assess the response to a formerly invisible problem on an institutional level. To that end, we need not reiterate the failures of President Bush, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, Congress, the Senate, state governors and city planners. Others have highlighted their shortcomings in the wake of Katrina.
Instead, our institutional inquiry focuses on the four most important lessons that emerge from the government’s lackluster response. The first lesson is: we have a problem. The problem has been outlined above: fellow human beings, often from Black or other minority communities, live in deplorable conditions.
The second lesson is: band-aids don’t work. We pump billions of dollars into solving a problem once disasters occur, but an influx of money to relieve disaster fails to address the heart of the matter: the prior status quo. This is bad policy. Not only is it costly, but disasters like Katrina underscore the extent to which a policy of ignoring domestic problems leaves us under prepared and overwhelmed. On a human level, the disaster band-aid policy also costs residents anguish, pain and death. Monetarily, disaster relief costs the government billions of dollars, far more than pre-emptive measures; – like building adequate infrastructure for everyone and ensuring that city dwellers have at least enough resources to prepare or evacuate when their lives are threatened. Instead, the government expends our resources abroad before taking care of problems at home. Now that disaster finally forces it to face some domestic problems, the government should realize that its policies merely exacerbate existing problems. Simply put: disasterrelief band-aids do not stick. They cover the wound so long as it is visible, and fall off when the public eye turns back to its previous affairs.
This brings me to the third lesson: the injuries still exist. After applying the band-aid, we think the problem has disappeared, but we have merely made it invisible. Reconstruction efforts may strengthen the levies, but they do not give poor residents jobs; address the failing local educational system; ensure individual mobility, liberty or safety; offer healthcare; or provide opportunities for a better life. Rather, disaster relief policy aims to return the city and its residents to the status quo, with perhaps a few nominal improvements to infrastructure. Once the aid is delivered, the job is “done.” We can then return to “our” lives. For many, that will mean again being poor, disenfranchised, invisible.
So the predicament persists. And that takes us to lesson four: we still have a problem.
ARER KATRINA: IT AIN’T OVER, EVEN AFTER THE FAT LADY SINGS
After slavery, after Jim Crow, after integration, America has yet to achieve the promise of equality.
Lamenting the same situation, Cornel West recently wrote that Charlie Parker sang the blues because it was either do that or kill somebody·4 But Charlie Parker’s song is nothing like that of the fat lady who signals the end of dramatized operatic fiction. For we are dealing with reality. In reality, even if Charlie Parker sings, or if Clarence Thomas or Condoleezza Rice sing, it still ain’t over. It won’t be over until everyone lives (not has the theoretical, constitutionally-guaranteed opportunity to live, but lives) the decent life that the Bill of Rights and the Constitution, religious and humanistic mores, democratic and humanitarian norms promise. That project requires an ongoing effort to identify, concern ourselves with, and address problems – even the sort that are invisible to the public eye until disaster strikes.
If Katrina tells us nothing else, it tells us that we must constantly work to ensure justice, even in “invisible” arenas. From Katrina, we learn the outcome of attempts to address the problem of slavery. America’s elite thought they achieved justice by abolishing legal slavery. But then they noticed disparities in the ways Blacks were treated vis-à-vis whites under the Jim Crow regime of segregation. Then they thought they had achieved justice and equality with the “separate but equal” doctrine of Plessy v. Fergeson.5 But years of injustice, unequal opportunity, disparate resources, and routine exclusions of Blacks drove the Supreme Court to declare in Brown v. Board of Education that separate was “inherently unequal.”6 Then they thought they had achieved justice and equality with “integration” or at least nonsegregation. Now we’ve got it!
But it is the same old story all over again – both in terms of slavery’s legacy and also quite literally. The Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 was the most destructive river flood prior to Katrina, and it devastated Louisiana along with six other states. Then, as now, the disaster took its greatest toll on the most impoverished people: Blacks, who were sometimes forced at gunpoint to repair the levees. Then, disaster relief housing efforts came in the form of refugee camps, the conditions of which were so horrible that Herbert Hoover asked the media to overlook reports that detailed those deplorable conditions. He promised in exchange to effect reforms for Blacks after the election. He failed to make good on his promise. Historians and analysts credit these events with spurring on the voting rights movement of the time, the shift in Southern Black allegiance from the Republican to the Democratic party, and providing the spark for New Deal proposals for more government services. They also credit these events with major demographic shifts such as Blacks’ Great Migration to the North and a great deal of Black cultural output. Examples of the latter include folk songs and blues music such as those by Bessie Smith and “When the Levee Breaks,” by Memphis Minnie If it keeps on raining, levee ‘sgoin ‘ to break / And the water gonna come in, have no place to stay …I works on the levee mama both night and day / 1 ain ‘tgot nobody, keep the water away). That spoke of the days of segregation. But after segregation, not all that much has changed. Notwithstanding all the advances in race relations, the parallels of 1 927 Louisiana and 2005 Louisiana are striking. Reality on the ground says that a regime of nonsegregation does not ensure integration, and even if it did, integration does not ensure equality or justice.
For all our progress and all our success, what of the people who lack opportunity, who cannot speak of generations of entrenched wealth and Ivy League legacies, who can barely make a living, who cannot access proper education, who are caught in a cycle of poverty-fomenting violence and drugpushing, who are stuck in Louisiana when Katrina hits?
KEEPING AN EYE ON THE STORM: DOING DEMOCRACY
Katrina invokes needs that range from the immediate to the long term and that implicate Americans in general and Muslim Americans in particular. On a general plane, each American can urge the government to address America’s problems at the policy level. On a particular plane, Muslim Americans should urge each other and fellow Americans to address America’s problems at the community level.
As for policy proposals, avoiding Katrina-like situations demands a paradigm shift. For times of crisis, our government should transform its ineffective, debilitating, and costly band-aid approach into a clear-eyed, forward-looking, humanitarian, ends-based, democratic approach that recognizes problems and addresses them before they turn into disaster. In essence, they must be proactive.
Such an approach is clear-eyed and forward-looking insofar as it constantly monitors the welfare of its citizens. This will enable the government to take comparatively small and inexpensive steps now to avert expensive disaster later.
It is humanitarian because it seeks to ensure that every human enjoys a decent standard of living along with a measure of safety and security. If we truly believe in the equal value to human life, and each individual’s right to pursue liberty and happiness, we must work to reasonably ensure that those words ring true not only for those who already have access to Washington’s package of rights and entitlements, but also for the invisibles.
The approach is ends-based inasmuch as it measures success in terms of success itself, not in the empty promise of a hypothetical opportunity for success.
Finally, it is democratic because full civic participation and a sense of community can only occur once people’s basic needs are met, once they receive adequate schooling, once they live in safe communities, and once they know that they have a say in their own governance. In any community, the problem of one member is the problem of every member. Focusing on the most vulnerable members is like paying attention to the canary in the mine; its faltering lungs signal to the miners that the air has been contaminated. The community would do well to address its problems rather than live with pollutants that will take their inevitable toll on everyone.7
Advocating a paradigm shift cannot itself create one. The government is a slow-moving machine for which policy changes are difficult, and even when they occur, can take decades to transform reality. But to acknowledge the difficulty of demanding democracy is not to minimize the need for doing so. In fact, it means that much more responsibility falls on average citizens to keep Katrina’s invisibles visible to the policy world and each other. After all, “Democracy is never a thing done . . . [but] always something that a nation must be doing.” It takes conscious citizens to do democracy.
WHIRLWIND OF COMPASSION: COMMUNITY CONSCIOUSNESS
Here is where the Muslim American contribution comes in. Ramadan has passed (the month of fasting that began the first week of October, 2005), but hopefully, it leaves behind its imprint on the Muslim conscience. Ramadan is the annual reminder to Muslims to be conscious of the invisible. God says in the Qur’an that he prescribed fasting on Muslims so that they might learn consciousness (2:183). Consciousness of what? The immediate suggestion is God of the unseen world, which automatically devolves to a consciousness of the things with which God is concerned in the world in which we live, including the unseen invisibles. Like that consciousness about which W.E.B. Dubois speaks with respect to Blackamericans, this is a double-consciousness. It stems from the “twoness” of the spiritual and corporal aspects of the human, which are virtually inseparable.9
For Muslims, the first aspect partially takes the form of certain beliefs – beliefs in a compassionate God who wants justice, in an afterlife in which each will be evaluated according to their deeds and in prophets who deliver that message. The second aspect entails a heavy community component that is always concerned with justice, not for Muslims, but for human beings. The Qur’an emphasizes this imperative for justice over and over again. It calls upon Muslims to stand up for justice, in its deepest sense, even if it be against themselves and community members (4: 135, 6: 1 52).
It also promotes a form of distributive justice by repeatedly calling for Muslims to make contributions that ensure the welfare of their neighbors. For example, the Qpr’an always pairs prayer (a focus on the divine and spiritual for personal welfare) with charity (a focus on the corporeal and communal for public welfare). Particularly during Ramadan, Muslims are encouraged to be more generous. The days of fasting serve as a reminder of those who may be hungry all the time. As such, Ramadan functions as an annual reminder to be conscious of the invisibles, and to do something to improve their situation.
The Qur’an says:
It is not righteousness that you turn your faces to the East or the West, but righteousness [describes] one who believes in God and the East Day, the Angels, the Book, and the Prophets; [who] gives of their resources, for the love of God, to relatives, orphans, the indigent, travelers, to those who request it and to those in bondage; [who] stand in prayer and give in charity; those who fulfill their promises when they enter into agreements and those who are patient in adversity and disaster and in the midst of tribulation. Those are the people of truth, and those are the ones who are conscious (2:177).
Quite obviously, America is not an Islamic country, nor does it aspire to be. My point here is that Islam builds into its practice constant reminders for Muslim adherents to be conscious of the invisibles. This value coincides with fundamental American democratic and constitutional values. To the extent that it does, Muslim Americans should draw upon their own inspirations to be at the forefront of promoting positive American values.
It is worth mentioning that the Muslim Blackamerican combines attributes that render her contribution even more valuable for she possesses a /r//»/f-consciousness. S/he is Muslim, Black and American. As such, like other Blackamericans of faith, his or her makeup inspires the capacity for God-consciousness, human self-consciousness and Black consciousness. The latter constitutes the Blackamerican double-vision that comes from seeing themselves not only as they are, but through the gaze of others who look upon Blackamericans with a mixture of “amused contempt and pity.”10 Together, these multiple elements push the Black-american Muslim to have a constant regard for the invisibles and a passion for justice. Indeed often, the Blackamerican Muslim, her family and community members are themselves invisible, even as some of her Muslim brethren garner visibility by gravitating towards the white American dream and, in the process, forgetting their own doubleconsciousness. The Blackamerican Muslim does not have that luxury. He is a minority on all fronts, cannot shed his identity, cannot easily reach visibility, certainly not on a community scale. In this regard, the Blackamerican Muslim represents the passenger on the bottom deck of the boat, the Muslim canary. With one eye on the canary and the other on God, the American Muslim community has internal impetuses to constantly urge America to see its own invisibles.
What are some concrete ways in which this can take form? In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there are several projects to which Muslims can contribute and encourage contributions. Here, I do not limit these suggestions to victims of Katrina, since those in need of such services reside in every state. Nor do I limit these suggestions to the obvious form of giving: monetary donations. For this is not the scope of giv ing that Islam encourages and what society requires is much broader than that. Rather, I urge a range of measures with respect to the visibly urgent needs after Katrina that may help bring the needs of other invisible pockets to the fore.
In addition to the reminder provided by Ramadan annually and prescribed prayers daily, Muslims can join together with others peoples of faith in the mosque, church, and synagogue, to pray and work to help those in crisis situations in their local communities. This is the type of work in which The Mosque Cares’ ‘ organization in Chicago has been engaging for decades.
Community members and community organizations can contribute to efforts to address the root causes of suffering in the inner city by creating and promoting dynamic community programs as alternatives to difficulty and hopelessness. The Inner-City Muslim Action Network (IMAN)12 in Chicago takes this as its mission, as should be duplicated in every city. The Jamestown Project,’3 based in New Haven promotes such efforts on the scholarly and policy arenas.
Community members or mosques can adopt-a-family to provide lodging, shelter, food, clothing or financial and moral support to those who need it. Some have contributed to the Adopt a Katrina Family project.14 Islamic Relief has turned its generally international focus inward to address some short-term and long-term humanitarian and reconstruction needs after Katrina;’5 it also has a number of ongoing programs for feeding the homeless and providing health services to the needy.
Doctors can provide medical services to the poor for free or at reduced cost. An example of this is the University Muslim Medical Association (UMMA) Community Clinic”6 in Los Angeles, or the IM AN ‘7 Health Clinic Initiative.
Educators, college students and professionals can adopt a student in poor or mediocre schools to provide mentoring, college-counseling and to help ensure that the student receives a good education. An outstanding example of an organization dedicated to focusing on our youth is Brotherhood/Sister Sol1 in New York. Community members can join efforts like those of the Islamic Networks Group,’9 based in San Francisco, to provide educational resources to local schools and promote civic engagement of Muslims in public institutions.
Social workers can redouble their efforts to help address problems of domestic violence and children living in bad situations. Bait ul Salaam20 in Atlanta is an organization that provides homes for battered women.
Those who live or work in the cities can help address the drug problems that run rampant there through donating or helping to replicate the work of community organizations. An example of one outstanding drug-recovery program of this type is I Can’t, We Can in Baltimore.21
Entrepreneurs and businessman can contribute to the efforts of community-oriented non-profit ventures, small business start-ups and job-training initiatives aimed at economic empowerment and viability. GraceLine products aims at facilitating such economic empowerment.
Lawyers can provide legal services to the multitude of cases that have arisen after Katrina and that existed before Katrina. For example, some of the most urgent needs involve criminal defense, to addresses situations in which prisoners have been displaced, are being improperly held in prison, or suffer Abu Ghraib-type prison abuse. The Justice Center (and its Louisiana Capital Assistance Center)22 is working to address these issues, and, as I have discovered, there is plenty that can be done remotely.
Community leaders should reign in the consciousness of the community in a way that moves toward publicly articulating shared American values, demanding policy action against ignoring (or worse, discriminating against) the invisibles, and contributing to or building projects like those listed here. Community leaders and members alike should seek out the invisibles to help address their problems; they should not wait for a crisis mode or for disaster to strike to discover the plight of their neighbors.
CONCLUSION (THOUGH IT STIU AIN’T OVER)
I have tried here to examine some of the problems that Katrina brought to light. Katrina reveals that America has very ineffective and costly policies for handling its problems. America ignores or fails to see its problems until it reaches a crisis point. Rather than post-hoc efforts to address past wrongs or disasters, America would do much better to see its problems and address them in advance. This is a goal that American citizens should urge. Yet, we cannot expect overnight results. As such, Americans have a duty to act as the community members and democrats they are to ensure the values of humanity and democracy. These policy and community projects are ones in which Muslim Americans in general and Blackamerican Muslims in particular have a great role to play. They should draw upon their internal mechanisms for consciousness of the invisible to promote a better America at the local and policy levels. In this way, we might, just might finally achieve the promise of democracy and equality.
Otherwise, the specter of invisibility persists. Ralph Ellison was not prescient; he was explaining problems that were extant then; and that exist now. Will they continue to exist in the future} The answer to that question depends on what we take from Katrina. For all the havoc she wreaked, Katrina at least gave us a means to see the invisible man. We must not forget her lessons to us all.