by Audra Himes
(Swans - October 10, 2005) I'm an English professor at a small branch campus of a state university. I spend my days around working-class 18-year-old white kids from rural areas and working-class 18-year-old black kids from inner cities. My campus is 30% black / 70% white. All of my students are at-risk. "At-risk" means that, academically, economically, socially, these students could be lost to the world of education, lost to the influence of critical thinking and the type of questioning, active civic engagement that we try to promote.
When I look at my students from my side of the desk, I don't see many differences among them. They all have the same needs and desires, across the board. The biggest difference I see is the one that underpins the debate about race in this country: the African-American experience of United States history.
In New Orleans, we see that not much has changed since 1860. That's a sweeping generalization, but look at the faces of the refugees and tell me: Has much changed? The historical wealth of this country, just like the wealth of New Orleans, was built on the backs of the black underclass who served the needs of the more well-off. Four hundred years of slavery isn't far behind working as a dishwasher in a New Orleans bar.
What's even more frightening is that what happened to individual human beings in New Orleans is a microcosm of what's happening to us all: our government has absconded responsibility for our rights and needs, paving the way for gigantic companies to make money while telling us citizens that we have to individually shoulder the fiscal responsibility of supporting its policies. Our so-called "government" has the philosophy of Third World political cultures: it lets destitution thrive as long as the biggest sharks in the food chain are well fed.
What breaks my heart is my rural, somewhat-poor white students who back the administration because "we should support our troops." What cynical maneuvering by the Republicans, to pillage the meager stores of the poor and lower-middle-class while offering them patriotic hoo-haw in exchange for their blood and money. One of my students (working-class white) backs the flag-waving, but says that when his brother served in Iraq, his family had to pool together the "necessities" to send overseas to him.
This all brings me to a question that I asked my students: What is the federal government's role?
It's not one of providing for our citizens in extreme need. The images from New Orleans showed the government abandoning us, the common people, when we're down as down could be.
It's not even one of making a well-run war, even a war it declared unilaterally, by providing for the needs of soldiers that it sent into life-threatening situations. See my student's experience, echoed by others in class, of men who were sent to Iraq without a rag to blow their noses.
I ask you, in the wake of two huge events -- invading another country without provocation and the biggest national disaster this country has ever faced -- I ask you, because I want to know: What is the US federal government's role?
The U.S. is without a philosophy that includes all citizens, from all walks of life. This goes against our recent history. Throughout the last half of the twentieth century, the federal government's philosophy was one of pushing down boundaries and opening definitions of "US citizen" and even "human" to include everyone between our oceans.
Now, we lack a vision. We have no sense of fair play. The current administration, and the party behind it, built its authority on a distaste for anyone who's not straight and white. Never mind "moneyed." Through emotional blackmail, the Republicans have got the majority white underclass to buy into the flag-waving, pro-life, homophobic nonsense that it offers as a political platform while our own government absconds responsibility for the health of our infrastructure and citizens.
All we have left is a void, an absence of values that mean, taken together, "United States of America."
Katrina, with the dumb force of nature, has forced our divided and schizophrenic self to the wall. After her reciprocating our actions by invading this country unilaterally, what will we stand for? When we're all encouraged to disregard the needs of our fellow citizens because they are not exactly like we are, who will be left to be "American"?