Not here, they say. Americans struggle to understand how a disaster of this magnitude could happen in a country where so many have so much. After all, in the national conscience, floating bodies and destroyed lives do not belong to American soil but to far-flung lands where suffering is, somehow, more acceptable.

Mara Gay

When Hurricane Katrina ripped through New Orleans, however, she revealed a city unprepared to help its most needy citizens and a federal government shamefully willing to sit by and allow thousands to die senseless, preventable deaths.

Those who wonder how such gross inaction could be tolerated in the face of such unparalleled suffering may be sincere in their disbelief. But in truth, there have always been two Americas: the land of the haves and the land of the have-nots.

Katrina shows us that we can count on nature to strip us of our facades and reveal the glaring inequities of the world in which we live. She is a painful reminder that when the going gets rough, masking those inequities becomes a nearly impossible feat, one that requires the complete disavowal of facts and an unnerving ability to stand by and do nothing while people suffer needlessly.

Before last week, few thought a hurricane would spark a national debate over the role of race and class in the distribution of aid and compassion. But 30 percent of the population of New Orleans lives below the poverty level, and the city is 70 percent black, leaving many Americans to wonder if the government’s response would have been different if the disaster had happened in a wealthier, whiter area. It is difficult, after all, to imagine scenes of hunger and lawlessness in a West Bloomfield or a Westchester.

But really, the New Orleans residents left clinging to rooftops and languishing in sports arenas were abandoned by their government and their country before hurricane Katrina struck. The poverty that characterizes so many of their lives is powerful and ever-present; it destroyed entire communities long before the news cameras found a compelling tale in its wrath.

In all of the chaos one fact has become increasingly clear: Those who could afford to pack up their SUVs and leave New Orleans did so. Those who could not were left behind and forgotten, a despicable but distinguishing mark of membership to America’s invisible poor. And their suffering has gone unacknowledged for far too long.

The blame game is not conducive for rebuilding shattered lives and communities. But if America is to move forward and deem its democracy ready to export, it must confront some uncomfortable truths. It is time to have an honest and constructive dialogue about the impact of poverty and race in America.

In the coming weeks and months every American should think long and hard about the kind of society we want to rebuild. We have been given the chance to address and root out some of our most deep-seeded injustices, to create a society where Americans are judged based on what they do with what they have, where there is equal access to resources and equal opportunity regardless of skin color or economic standing.

In the end, we will be judged on how we treat the weakest citizen, not only when his suffering is loud and marketable, but when it is present and desperate. If America fails in New Orleans, America fails.

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Gay can be reached at maracl@umich.edu.

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