This Is My Fault | Jackson Free Press | Jackson, MS

This Is My Fault

Since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and thrust her spotlight on the abhorrent conditions of the poorest Americans, I have been pondering poverty. First, I got angry.

It infuriates me that we have a government that wants to do nothing more than "shrink" itself—except when the interests of the people within (or their corporate backers) stand to benefit from big government; then it's groovy as all hell. I was livid that as people on the Coast drowned and clung to trees and rooftops that "leaders" were buying shoes and playing guitars and telling each other they were doing a great job, Brownie.

I was heartbroken to see the evidence of what I already suspected, and that the new U.S. Census poverty numbers, released days before Katrina, had shown: America no longer cares about its poor. I was depressed to hear that it takes something this awful to show most Americans that way too many of us are living in poverty with too few of us wanting to do a damn thing about it.

I was mortified to hear privileged folks blaming the victims for not evacuating on time—remembering the less-than-urgent calls for evacuation and then hearing about the guns being fired over black folks' heads when they tried to cross bridges to safety in New Orleans. I was horrified at the fake e-mails going around, trying to depict the "ungrateful" evacuees as a pack of animals, barely deserving of assistance.

I was enraged at the people who seemed to think we're not even supposed to have a conversation about either the problems with our disaster preparedness, or what to do to help the poor, because such a dialogue—a "blame game," they called it—might make a disconnected president, an ideologue governor, or an inept mayor look bad.

But a month after Katrina, I've put aside the anger and realized where the blame really lies: It is my fault.

I am someone who cares deeply about the plight of the poor, and I have not done my part. I may talk to people of various backgrounds, visit their homes, and try to understand their plight—but I write too little about it. I am disgusted with the direction of this country economically, with the widening gap between rich and poor, but I have been too paranoid about someone calling me a disparaging name—commie, bleeding heart, liberal—if I talk too much about poverty.

So I tiptoe through the poverty. I simply have not done everything I can do to help the least among us. Neither Jesus, nor Allah, nor Buddha, nor my Mama would be proud of me.

This tragedy should shame those of us who claim to care about the least among us the most; it is up to us, yet we do and say too little to help alleviate poverty. Even as the greatest spiritual leaders, not to mention our own hearts, have told us that there is no greater moral test than helping the needy, and without judgment, we judge, we blame, we ignore, we fear the taunts of those who don't care about the poor—or who only care about the poor of certain religions, or races, or communities.

It shouldn't have taken the Great Flood of 2005 to reveal our trespasses to us, to show us the wickedness of ignoring the growing epidemic for so long. We folk who live in Belhaven or Eastover can simply cross Gallatin to see how we've let our spiritual mentors down. Or drive a block or two west of West Street. Or go visit Lanier High School and look at the crumbling buildings around it in Georgetown.

Don't kid yourself: Each of us lives amid immense poverty. And amid mindless class-vs.-race games of semantics, the truth is that our poverty is about class, and it's about race. Our worst urban poverty came about as a direct result of racism—and it has stayed because of racism. Even as privileged white men proclaim in the Northside Sun, or in forwarded e-mails, that urban poverty is the result of the "welfare state," the truth is that it's the result of many factors: redlining by banks and mortgage companies, job and education discrimination, absentee landlords who will not repair housing, communities that call children "thugs" before they have a chance to become anything else, unequal-and-again-separate education, highways designed to split neighborhoods, devotion to mega-retailers that send needed money outside the community, and on, and on.

While we're pondering, we must face the really tragic truth, which every white Mississippian knows even if he or she won't admit it. White folks in our state rail against programs that would help the poor of their own race because they're told it will benefit those of a different race more. Mississippi has always been saddled with such race tomfoolery. Witness Gov. Haley Barbour's pandering to racists in his campaign—his quip about Delta whorehouses, his photo with white supremacists, his attacks on Medicaid and Adequate Education funding, his "attacking our flag" rhetoric. Maybe he's not racist in his heart—I pray not—but it's his actions and his words that matter in this state, and in his position.

I have decided that I am even more responsible, however, than Barbour or President Bush. So are Democrats and other progressive thinkers. Why? Because it is up to us to speak, talk back, tell people things they need to know about poverty.

If you don't know what "redlining" is, then you do not understand how the ghettos were intentionally created for black people, while white folks were getting government loans to help them into the middle class. If you don't know how many white folks survive on welfare and Medicaid in our state, you don't know that it's not just a "black" problem. If you don't know that thousands of white people fled Jackson and the public schools immediately after the Supreme Court said "integrate now," you might deny that "white flight" ever existed. You don't know what you don't know.

But you can know. And you must. All of us must talk about these issues openly and honestly from this point forward. This is not a "welfare state" we must build. And it's not communism. It's a strong community where we live in solidarity with the poor—sharing a covenant that we will never again look the other way as the flood of poverty rises right in front of our eyes.

Previous Comments

ID
70856
Comment

This article is a wonderful self examination and call to action to the only source that is likely to save us from us - and that would we the pople. I can't understand the lack of comments, althought the article is asking us to do something we've never done well as a country - be blatantly honest and truthful. Without a doubt, it's going to take all of us stop this richly enamelled, well-oiled, scheming, tricky, racist, and recklessly-driven Republican machine from continuing to lie and deceive us. And it's going to take some soul searching honesty and freedom from racism and class in order to see the truth. You can't fix a problem if you refuse to look clearly at it. I've said many time before, "We're getting too close to survial of the fittiest for my taste", as our system of fiscal government. Most of us don't realize that survial of the fittiest will ultimately exclude the majority of us, too. If not us, individually, certainly many of our love ones and friends, not to mention countless good human beings who deserve better and can't withstand this onslaught. While we were sleeping, having sex, partying, turning a deaf ear, and listening to pretty music and lies, the White House and its rich friends were locking us- the born poor and not rich common folks- further out of the American Dream. While I'm having a hard time being optimistic, I'm willing to fight to death with the team.

Author
Ray Carter
Date
2005-09-29T15:46:18-06:00
ID
70857
Comment

While I'm having a hard time being optimistic, I'm willing to fight to death with the team. That's the best thing I've heard all day. I'm with ya.

Author
Lori G
Date
2005-09-29T17:15:41-06:00
ID
70858
Comment

I didn't see this op-ed until a few hours ago (went straight to the cover story then moved through the other sections), but I have to say: YES. This op-ed basically sums up the reason, and the only reason, why I care about political ideas, why I care about political activism. If this fit on a T-shirt, I'd have to seriously consider bulk-printing 100 and wearing it every day. This is damn close to being Donna's 95 Theses, I think--here I stand, I can do no other, so help me God. Many times I've seen a few columns that hint at these being her core values. This one says it outright. It reads like a manifesto. You're right that it's strange it didn't get more attention right away, but I think we can take that as a sign that the ideas are so strong, that resonate so much, that nobody who disagrees with them has the confidence to argue. Which is not something you can say about an op-ed very often. Cheers TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2005-09-29T21:06:57-06:00
ID
70859
Comment

Asiba Tupahache wrote in her book Taking Another Look that the cycle of abusive and/or opressive behavior will end and healing will begin when the victim recognizes that he or she has been abused by the perpetrator, and realizes that, in some way, he or she was caught up in the cycle of abuse. I believe Donna's piece shows how one can evolve from being a victim to becoming a survivor in this abusive and opressive society. Peace,love and universal understanding.

Author
Stiggers
Date
2005-09-30T00:49:59-06:00
ID
70860
Comment

Amen. A friend of mine referred earlier today to the cycle of abuse--rising tensions, acute battery, then a "honeymoon" period where the abuser is trying to make amends and everything is perfect, then rising tensions...--and it made me think of the role the civil rights movement plays in the national consciousness. Was the period when people were conscious of racism just a "honeymoon" phase in the life of an abusive culture? I don't like where that logic leads, but I feel like so much of the anger over Katrina has dissipated so quickly. Now it's all politics as usual; the conservative strategy of dismissing all of this as "the blame game" worked. If we're going to transform this culture, we can't accept "Baby, I'm sorry; you know I love you." More fundamental change is going to need to take place. I saw a poll the other day where 75 percent of black pollees felt that whites would have been treated better in all this, while only about 25 percent of whites felt the same way. What does that mean? I'm not really sure, or qualified to say, but my guess is that it means we need to raise hell--now more than ever. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2005-09-30T01:07:49-06:00
ID
70861
Comment

By "...people are conscious..." I mean "...our shared national culture is conscious..." Obviously, people are always conscious of racism--especially folks who experience it and, no doubt, many of the folks who perpetrate it. Cheers, TH

Author
Tom Head
Date
2005-09-30T01:15:19-06:00

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