About ten years ago, I wrote a piece - or should I say someone else wrote a piece that I proceeded to "reference" - concerning this tragic storm and what it did to New Orleans. The writer happened to be listening in to a conversation some people were having over lunch about the looting that was taking place in that city in the aftermath.
I was moved by it then and I remain moved by it now. So, once more, I am posting it in its entirety, along with the link to the original piece. I don't know if it is still up, but the message remains relevant nonetheless.
This is an open letter to the man sitting behind me at La Paz today, in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt:
You don't know me. But I know you.
I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe in New Orleans.
You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then proceeded to spend the better part of your meal – and mine, since I was too near your table to avoid hearing every word – morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck. Then you attacked them – all of them, without distinction it seemed – for the behavior of a relative handful: those who have looted items like guns, or big screen TVs.
I heard you ask, amid the din of your colleagues "Amens," why it was that instead of pitching in to help their fellow Americans, the people of New Orleans instead – again, all of them in your mind – choose to steal and shoot at relief helicopters.
I watched you wipe salsa from the corners of your mouth, as you nodded agreement to the statement of one of your friends, sitting to your right, her hair neatly coiffed, her makeup flawless, her jewelry sparkling. When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, she had offered her response, but only after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh.
"Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know, they just don't have the same regard."
She then added that police should shoot the looters, and should have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should be shot. Praise the Lord.
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.
First, it is a very fortunate thing for you, and likely for me, that my two young children were with me as I sat there, choking back fish tacos and my own seething rage, listening to you pontificate about shit you know nothing about.
Have you ever even been to New Orleans?
And no, by that I don't mean the New Orleans of your company's sales conference. I don't mean Emeril's New Orleans, or the New Orleans of Uptown Mardi Gras parties.
I mean the New Orleans that is buried as if it were Atlantis, in places like the lower 9th ward: 98 percent black, 40 percent poor, where bodies are floating down the street, flowing with the water as it seeks its own level. Have you met the people from that New Orleans? The New Orleans that is dying as I write this, and as you order another sweet tea?
I didn't think so.
Your God – the one to whom you prayed today, and likely do before every meal, because this gesture proves what a good Christian you are – is one with whom I am not familiar.
Your God is one who you sincerely believe gives a flying fuck about your lunch. Your God is one who you seem to believe watches over you and blesses you, and brings good tidings your way, while simultaneously letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed, and perhaps ten thousand or more die, many of them in the streets for lack of water or food.
Did you ever stop to think just what a rancid asshole such a God would have to be, such that he would take care of the likes of you, while letting babies die in their mother's arms, and old people in wheelchairs, at the foot of Canal Street?
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.
But no, it isn't God who's the asshole here, Skip (or Brad, or Braxton, or whatever your name is).
God doesn't feed you, and it isn't God that kept me from turning around and beating your lily white privileged ass today either.
God has nothing to do with it.
God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl.
God doesn't help anyone win an Academy Award.
God didn't get you your last raise, or your SUV.
And if God is even half as tired as I am of having to listen to self-righteous bastards like you blame the victims of this nightmare for their fate, then you had best eat slowly from this point forward.
Why didn't they evacuate like they were told?
Are you serious?
There were 100,000 people in that city without cars. Folks who are too poor to own their own vehicle, and who rely on public transportation every day. I know this might shock you. They don't have a Hummer2, or whatever gas-guzzling piece of crap you either already own or probably are saving up for.
And no, they didn't just choose not to own a car because the buses are so gosh-darned efficient and great, as Rush Limbaugh implied, and as you likely heard, since you're the kind of person who hangs on the every word of such bloviating hacks as these.
Why did they loot?
Are you serious?
People are dying, in the streets, on live television. Fathers and mothers are watching their baby's eyes bulge in their skulls from dehydration, and you are begrudging them some Goddamned candy bars, diapers and water?
If anything the poor of New Orleans have exercised restraint.
Maybe you didn't know it, but the people of that city with whom you likely identify – the wealthy white folks of Uptown – were barely touched by this storm. Yeah, I guess God was watching over them: protecting them, and rewarding them for their faith and superior morality. If the folks downtown who are waiting desperately for their government to send help – a government whose resources have been stretched thin by a war that I'm sure you support, because you love freedom and democracy – were half as crazed as you think, they'd have marched down St. Charles Avenue and burned every mansion in sight. That they didn’t suggests a decency and compassion for their fellow man and woman that sadly people like you lack.
Can you even imagine what you would do in their place?
Can you imagine what would happen if it were well-off white folks stranded without buses to get them out, without nourishment, without hope?
Putting aside the absurdity of the imagery--after all, such folks always have the means to seek safety, or the money to rebuild, or the political significance to ensure a much speedier response for their concerns – can you just imagine?
Can you imagine what would happen if the pampered, overfed corporate class, which complains about taxes taking a third of their bloated incomes, had to sit in the hot sun for four, going on five days? Without a Margarita or hotel swimming pool to comfort them I mean?
Oh, and please, I know. I'm stereotyping you. Imagine that. I've assumed, based only on your words, what kind of person you are, even though I suppose I could be wrong. How does that feel Biff? Hurt your feelings? So sorry. But hey, at least my stereotypes of you aren't deadly. They won't effect your life one bit, unlike the ones you carry around with you and display within earshot of people like me, supposing that no one could possibly disagree.
But I'm not wrong, am I Chip? I know you. I see people like you all the time, in airports, in business suits, on their lunch breaks. People who will take advantage of any opportunity to ratify and reify their pre-existing prejudices towards the poor, towards black folks. You see the same three video loops of the same dozen or so looters on Fox News and you conclude that poor black people are crazy, immoral, criminal.
You, or others quite a bit like you, are the ones posting messages on chat room boards, calling looters sub-human "vermin," "scum," or "cockroaches." I heard you use the word "animals" three times today: you and that woman across from you – what was her name? Skyler?
What was it you said as you scooped the last bite of black beans and rice into your eager mouth? Like zoo animals? Yes, I think that was it.
Well Chuck, it's a free country, and so you certainly have the right I suppose to continue lecturing the poor, in between checking your Blackberry and dropping the kids off at soccer practice. If you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this – or somehow more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make to a relief fund – so be it.
But let's leave God out of it, shall we? All of it.
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to keep it that way.
Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (2005: Soft Skull Press). He lived in New Orleans from 1986-1996. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.