some are more equal than others

On the scale of things, it may be extremely petty, or worse, to be irked at the Red Cross’ “Katrina: An Equal Opportunity Destroyer” campaign – something I’ve been feeling since the ads first appeared several months ago. But in fact, the slogan is dubious in several ways.

Obviously Katrina, the storm itself, certainly didn’t “care” who its victims were: no one would claim otherwise (except perhaps for Pat Robertson and his ilk). But as with most disasters, collateral damage from flooding, fire, lack of services, and disease ultimately kills, injures, or displaces more people than the initial disaster – and it is at that level that Katrina is anything but an equal-opportunity destroyer. Wealthy people, presented with an onrushing hurricane, have many different options, including getting out of town – and probably have excellent insurance, and certainly have more resources to use in recovering from whatever destruction they might suffer from (such as W. talking about his good ol’ friend Trent Lott’s sparkling newly to-be-rebuilt hacienda). The point isn’t to minimize such suffering, but to compare it with that felt by the poor, who have far fewer options: they may not own a vehicle, are likely to lack insurance, may live in structurally less sound dwellings (which are not their own but rentals), and once displaced from their job (if they have one) are far more likely to find themselves replaced, or the job itself eliminated. The federal government can, when it wants to, mobilize many thousands, send them halfway across the world, and overthrow another nation’s government. But take care of its own citizens? Its competence to do so, under this administration, seems extremely limited. (See Mike Davis’s article on the situation.) I will make the bright-side assumption that it is a question of competence.

Even if you argue that I’m wrong, that the destruction was evenly distributed among different types of population, there’s still the question of what’s implied by the Red Cross slogan, what sort of appeal it’s making, as an advertisement. “Equal opportunity destroyer” is, of course, a pun on “equal opportunity employer.” That phrase is normally used to reassure non-whites, non-males, etc., that an employer will not discriminate against them. Yet New Orleans, as nearly all the media coverage of Katrina points out, is a majority-black city. While some surrounding suburbs are majority-white (and interestingly enough, googling “katrina ‘equal opportunity destroyer'” brings up a lot of what look like Republican talking-points pages using this very point to establish Katrina’s equal-opportunity-destroyer bona fides), they have smaller populations than New Orleans proper, and in any event generally suffered less (for the reasons I describe above, as well as geography, in most cases). So “equal opportunity destroyer” is certainly not an appeal to, say, African-Americans to recognize (as if they didn’t know) that blacks were harmed by Katrina, too (an appeal that would be offensive in its assumptions that blacks don’t care about non-blacks.) No, in fact, the clear implication (and what those Republican pages inadvertently point out) is that white people should remember that not only black people were harmed by Katrina.

And that is rather grotesque. I mean, what difference should it make who was harmed? If one-hundred percent of the people harmed by Katrina were black, should that make a damned bit of difference whether people make charitable donations? Of course it shouldn’t – yet the Red Cross apparently feels compelled to remind people of the racial makeup (or the diversity of racial makeup) of the victims of Katrina.

Given the overwhelming media coverage emphasizing the blackness of New Orleans, I can only conclude that these ads tacitly acknowledge its audience’s racism – in hopes to remind them that their donations will also be supporting nice friendly white people as well, not just those glowering black looters and alleged rapists portrayed in early, and dubiously accurate, news reports.

It’s also quite interesting to contrast the frequency and volume of victim-blaming surrounding Katrina – why didn’t these people leave town; why didn’t New Orleans do more, Louisiana do more, etc. – with the usual free pass given a rather different kind of disaster victim: the folks who keep building and rebuilding multi-million dollar homes in landslide areas on the Pacific coast. Unlike residents of an entire city whose site cannot be moved (see this article contrasting New Orleans’ “site” with its “situation”), these homeowners knowingly chose a disaster-prone setting for their entirely optional (and in many cases, uninsurable) location of their homes. I’ll leave you to fill in the distinguishing variables that led to the rash of victim-blaming in New Orleans but far less of the same in California.

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