Wednesday, October 24, 2007
Black and White and Red All Over
It had to be Southern California, didn't it.
It figures that the first Biblical plague-level natural disaster to descend upon this country since Hurricane Katrina would happen in a place where the contrasts between the two events could be so pronounced in every possible way.
The sunny paradise of affluent San Diego and Orange County versus the oppressively humid swamp of impoverished New Orleans.
Majestic hilltop homes versus shotgun shacks situated well below sea level.
Powerful celebrity governor Arnold Schwarzenegger versus ineffectual frump Kathleen Blanco.
Cool efficiency versus utter chaos and corruption.
Quick response versus outright neglect.
White versus black.
Fire, as opposed to water.
There quite literally couldn't be two situations more diametrically opposed, and yet we have no choice but to group them under the same banner -- the one which rightfully recognizes both as catastrophic national emergencies requiring any and all effort we as a nation can bring to bear against them. In each case, there are people suffering who need our help -- ours and the government charged with protecting and aiding us in times just like these.
But once again, such noble, academic pronouncements do little to quell the nagging questions that claw at the inside of our skulls as we watch the organized evacuation procedures, the calm and rational reaction of the victims -- as well as the care and compassion with which they're being treated -- the lightning-fast federal mobilization, and the outpouring of national support, all in response to the devastating wildfires in Southern California.
When compared with Katrina, it's simply night and day.
Anyone looking for a simple answer as to why is either painfully ignorant or likely looking to further a political or social agenda; there in fact are no easy answers.
I admit that I'm counting the seconds before an Al Sharpton or Jesse Jackson -- and who am I kidding? It would be one of those two or no one at all -- begins grumbling about the response to the Southern California wildfires and how it just proves once again that the rich and white are attended to in times of crisis while the poor and black are left to die; how those who can easily provide for themselves are still given a governmental leg-up while the underprivileged are exterminated via attrition.
Still, would this argument be valid?
And what about America's dependable cadre of blowhard bigots? It's only a matter of time before the usual suspects on the far right point out that, so far at least, Qualcomm Stadium in San Diego -- nexus of the current evacuation effort and temporary home for almost 15,000 refugees -- is the picture of efficiency and cleanliness; while it took less than twelve hours for the supposed savages bottled up inside the Superdome to turn it into a nightmare of vandalism, robbery and rape -- essentially, a ghetto.
Would there be any validity to this argument?
F. Scott Fitzgerald once famously said, "The test of a first-rate intelligence is the ability to hold two opposing ideas in mind at the same time and still retain the ability to function."
Applied in one way: the underprivileged and disenfranchised victims of Katrina -- most of whom were black -- were indeed abandoned undeservedly by a government that simply didn't care about them; while the reaction of those same victims was at times reprehensible and seemed to confirm the worst kind of preconceived notions about their penchant for victimization and lack of civilization.
Applied in another: the affluent and middle-class victims of the Southern California fires -- most of whom are not only white, but represent a powerful voting bloc -- are being cared for in the most effusive ways possible; while there's little doubt that many of those same victims had both the means and the opportunity to do for themselves all along and will likely have little trouble rebuilding what was lost, should they wish to.
Again though, at the core these two scenarios -- these two disasters -- are the same; at least they should have been.
In a perfect world, the local, state and federal response to Katrina would've been as swift as the response to the fires -- and the calm and organized reaction of those who found themselves at the center of the fires would've likewise been on display by those facing the trauma of Katrina.
But obviously, it's not a perfect world.
Which is why we're left with such a painful contrast, and more questions than answers.