Was Hurricane Katrina Racist?

[A response to a sermon given at Mt. Zion Temple in St. Paul, MN by a visiting Rabbi September 9, 2005]

Growing up, my family was poor. My parents continued to pay off their creditors even after filing bankruptcy not because they had to, but because they realized that it was their debt that they incurred by themselves. To them, not doing so was tantamount to stealing. Because of the financial hardships that they had encountered, there was very little in the way of luxury in the house. At one point, the only furniture was the beds that my sister and I slept upon. We considered ourselves lucky because we had a roof over our heads.

But my parents did not look at their impoverished position as being the fault of society or a class of people. Their situation was partially their own creation and partially the misfortunes that they had encountered so early in their lives. They learned to grow from the experience.

We are not given adversities so much as a punishment but as an opportunity to learn and to grow. My father learned that to provide for his family, he would need to take whatever job came his direction. I recall him working four separate jobs during one period. Nothing was beneath him. Since they could not afford a car, he rode his bicycle or walked between them. He used his pride in himself and his family to pull himself out of the ashes of despair and to make a better life for his family by any means necessary without so much as drawing unemployment or welfare.

Today, we have a generation of people who consider unemployment as an acceptable alternative to working at McDonald's. To them, working for less than $10 per hour is beneath them. People no longer feel a responsibility to better themselves. It has become incumbent upon society that we are to give them whatever they need to compensate. We hinder commerce by dictating wages for jobs. We make it look appealing to live off the government doles with no requirement that we strive to improve our situation in the process. There is no longer any motivation to pursue self-interest and better ones position in life because there will always be someone out there providing a helping hand even when you refuse to put forth any effort to do so yourself. By continuing to provide that hand in perpetuity without requiring the individual to invest themselves in their betterment, we deny individuals of the incentive to do for themselves.

I do not dispute the fact that the poor of New Orleans were disproportionately affected by hurricane Katrina. But we must realize that they were never forced to live in an area twenty feet below sea level where it had been known for decades that the levies were a ticking time bomb just waiting for a hurricane larger than a category three to set them off.

The community was not built to become a cesspool of poverty. No one builds a home or business in an area in hopes that they will become destitute. That comes about by the actions and inactions of the community. The only reason that any one area is more affluent than another is by virtue of civic pride in one's community. Lack of such pride fosters the laissez faire attitude that brings about despair on such grand a scale.

The failure of government to act in a timely manner was held as an example of America's persistent racism. Is it only blacks that were affected on the gulf coast? Did the government send the hurricane? Is God racist because he made the hurricane hit where it did?

Forty eight hours before the hurricane hit, the mayor of New Orleans and the governor of Louisiana held a press conference broadcast nationwide telling everyone to "get out." Now we are being told that there was no warning given because our racist government was unconcerned about the livelihood of minorities in the area.

To attribute racism as a cause of the current situation in New Orleans is in itself racist. Suddenly, all caucasians are responsible for the suffering as though we caused it. We are repeatedly told about the poor black people that have been left homeless, robbed, raped and afraid. We are led to believe that this is at the hands of the white people of America. Never is any evidence given that it is a white person that raped, pillaged, plundered. Race is never ascribed to the perpetrators directly. We are left to infer from the charges of racism and the fact that the overwhelming number of victims are black that white men are to blame.

In the modern era, the news is no longer that which informs us objectively from an unbiased perspective. As has often been stated, "if it bleeds, it leads." Today's media earns its living by being biased and sensationalistic. The more discontent they can show, the higher their ratings and their standing in public opinion.

To believe the reports is to believe that the hurricane only dispossessed black americans and that white americans were the cause for the destruction. White people continue to sit in their fancy mansions on the hill drinking martinis while watching the suffering of black people below. It brings to mind visions of the roman games where the affluent watched as people below on the floor of the arena were massacred for sport. Is this truly what the populace believes? And pay no attention to the man behind the curtain offering support and relief. They don't count. They are just more of the same trying to mask their culpability with charity.

If a person in need came to your door demanding that you help them because you are responsible for their condition by virtue of the color of your skin, your nationality or your religion, and that you are evil at your very nature because of your (mis)fortunate genetics, how eager will you be to help them?

The current situation is not proof of the racism of America's federal government. It is rather proof of its ineptness. FEMA is no longer the independent power that it once was. It is no longer headed by individuals with experience in disaster relief. Instead, the top positions are filled with individuals who only have their position by virtue of political favoritism. It no longer reports to the White House, but to the Department of Homeland Security - arguably the least effective department of government. It is our elected officials that re-organized this department at our behest. It was not done unilaterally. The representatives and senators of each state had a say in the matter. Bureaucracy breeds ineffectiveness.

Under the Posse Comitatus Act, the federal government cannot step in with the military to provide civilian police powers. They must be requested by the state during a national crisis. The federal government was specifically asked by the governor of Louisiana to not get involved because she wanted to maintain control of forces in the area. She could not retain this power over federal forces, but only over her own national guard.

The national guard was provided for in the constitution to serve a state mission of protecting the sovereignty of the state and providing for its defense in situations just like the current crisis. It was not constitutionally intended to have a federal mission of fighting a foreign war. Because of the topsy-turvy use of military powers by the Bush administration, many if not most of those national guardsmen are unable to fulfill their constitutionally proscribed duties.

Not only the media is responsible for the current perception that racism is to blame. For a rabbi to stand before the congregation in a synagogue and spew such hateful words only shows their ignorant and narrow-minded view of the situation. To imply that an act of God only negatively impacted a certain portion of society by virtue of the color of their skin is abhorrent. To hold the misery of others as an example to justify their cause is at best opportunistic.

Of all people, one would expect that a jew would realize the dangers of labeling any ethnicity with a stereotype. "Jewish crooks have driven thousands of German businessmen to bankruptcy with the glittering trash in their department store palaces." http://www.calvin.edu/academic/cas/gpa/responses.htm) This is just one of thousands of stereotypes that jews were labeled with leading up to the holocaust. Have we already forgotten one of the most fundamental lessons of the issues leading up to the attempted extermination of an entire race of people?

"There's an old religious teaching that compares the tongue to an arrow: 'Why not another weapon, a sword, for example?' a wise man asks. 'Because,' he is told, 'if a man unsheathes his sword to kill his friend, and his friend pleads with him and begs for mercy, he may return the sword to its scabbard. But an arrow, once it is shot, cannot be returned, no matter how much one wants to.'" (Telushkin, Rabbi Joseph. Words That Hurt, Words That Heal. HarperCollins. 1996.)

A quaker philosophy that echos one of Jewish origin states that "there is that of God in every man." A Jew may perhaps be more familiar with the phraseology "to murder one person is as if you murdered a world." Conversely, "to save the the life of one human being is as though you saved the life of all humanity." Though on the surface this demonstrates that all human beings are created equal, the underlying message is that we are to respect all individuals and treat them with the utmost respect rather than deride them and chastise them for fitting a social stereotype.

This is not a new philosophy. We are often taught on Tish'a B'Av of the animosity between Kamza and Bar Kamza and how words between the two eventually led to the destruction of the Second Temple in Jerusalem (Talmud Bavli, Tractate Gittin folio 55b). What better example that words have repercussions?

If one wishes to be known as a Shofer Shalom (Keeper of Peace), perhaps they would do better by not using words of hatred to incite and inflame. Contrary to popular beliefs, wars and animosity cannot bring about peace. Positive cannot be created from negative, but can only be created in the absence of the negative. Keep peace with kindness, compassion and charity. Learn to use these tools of peace to help others to improve themselves. Use them to teach that there is hope. All is not lost. There is better on the horizon. It will not be handed to you but we can help lead you toward it. You will have to work for it. But the labor spent in attaining it is a reward unto itself regardless of the color of your skin. We appreciate more fully those things in which we are invested than those which are handed to us.