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(DV) Street: The All-To American Tragedy of New Orleans -- Empire, Inequality, Race and Oil







The All-Too American Tragedy of New Orleans:
Empire, Inequality, Race and Oil

by Paul Street
September 5, 2005

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“This is not the America that I grew up in.” 

“This is not the America I know and love.” 

“I can’t believe this is happening in America; it seems more like something from the Third World, like Baghdad or Bangladesh.” 

Such is the incredulous commentary of three corporate media talking heads I’ve heard reflecting on the terrible events occurring in New Orleans in the tragic wake of tropical storm Katrina. 

The talking heads are off base. The historic events unfolding in New Orleans are very much about what the (to be a little more specific) United States of America has become.   They are the predictable outcome of steep societal disparities and related perverse political and policy priorities that reflect the interrelated and petroleum-soaked imperatives of “American” Empire and Inequality.

“Civilized” “America” consigns vast swaths of its large black populace to extreme, concentrated, and highly segregated poverty in shamefully forgotten urban ghettoes where practically Third World living conditions have long prevailed even without “natural disasters.” The residents of these all too invisible First World slums -- majority black New Orleans’ sunken Ninth Ward is one of many examples -- languish at the bottom of a militantly hierarchical socioeconomic regime where the top 1 percent owns more than 40 percent of the wealth and the top 10 percent owns two-thirds of the wealth (and probably more than 90 percent of the politicians and policymakers).  By 1999, economist Thomas Shapiro notes, the “net worth of the typical [American] white family was $81,000 compared to $8,000 for the typical black family.”  By 2002, black net worth had sunk to 7 cents on every white dollar and more than a million black children were living in what social researchers now call “deep poverty” -- at less than half of the federal government’s notoriously low poverty level. According to recent reports, unequal health care causes more than 100,000 black Americans to die earlier than whites each year and middle-aged black men die at nearly twice the rate of white men of similar age.

The victims of concentrated poverty and related racial hyper-segregation in New Orleans lacked the vehicles and financial resources to escape and purchase lodging at a safe distance from the floodwaters. As the New York Times acknowledged last Friday, “race and class are the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck.” 

“America” is structured around an atomistic, petroleum-addicted transport technology: the automobile. “American” government starves public transportation but maintains an exorbitantly expensive, taxpayer-financed public infrastructure of and for the automobile, trucking, and gasoline industries. “Asphalt Nation’s” privileging of the private auto over collective transit is part of why so many poor people were marooned in a living Hell.

It’s also part of the explanation for Katrina’s occurrence and intensity. Global warming, significantly driven by human carbon emissions (by modern petro-capitalism) generated by cars, trucks, and planes, is part of why hurricanes are becoming more frequent and intense. As richer whites fled New Orleans in gas-guzzling SUV’s, leaving behind the city’s blacker and trapped poor, they contributed to future disastrous meteorological occurrences. Meanwhile, the White House oiligarchy used Katrina’s disruption of Gulf Coast oil drilling as a pretext to call for the relaxation of environmental restrictions on domestic petroleum extraction -- something that will push nature’s furious revenge to new levels of human destruction.

Speaking of petroleum, “America” has been starving basic civil and social infrastructure while spending hundreds of billions of dollars on the immoral, bloody, and monumentally illegal occupation of Iraq. Countless “Americans” are noticing the absurdity of a federal government that can’t promptly rescue citizens in one of its own cities at the same time that state invests in a costly, deficit-feeding, and failed imperial operation half-way across the world. 

That incidentally racist overseas operation has complex and shifting aims and origins, but it has always been very much about Iraq’s possession of vast petroleum reserves and the economic and related geo-strategic significance of Middle Eastern oil. Reflecting Uncle Sam’s bipartisan determination to control Persian Gulf oil and to maintain imperial credibility, hundreds of thousands of US troops and vast federal resources are tied up in the dangerous violation of the oil-rich Arab world.

Large numbers of US citizens are wondering how much more quickly and effectively New Orleans’ marooned poor could have been helped had the federal fortune squandered on the Iraq war been free to serve the general welfare and provide for the common defense at home. As numerous mainstream journalists and commentators have been observing, moreover, there are good reasons to suspect that federal dollars diverted to that criminal war could have prevented the all-too predictable (and predicted) drowning of New Orleans.        

Meanwhile, Uncle Sam spends untold billions on the opulent maintenance of a global empire of more than 700 military bases located in nearly every nation on the planet.  Those bases are disproportionately built in proximity to global oil resources, reflecting what Michael Klare calls the conversion of the US military into “a global oil protection service.” 

They are part of an imperial “defense” budget that equals the rest of the world’s total military expenditure. This “defense” budget (mainly dedicated to what the Pentagon calls “forward global force projection”) amounts to more than $600 billion when properly calculated. United States “defense” expenditures outweigh federal domestic expenditures on education by 8 to 1; income security by 4.5 to 1; nutrition by 11 to 1; housing by 14 to 1; job training by 32 to 1. Someone else will have to find the relevant fiscal disparities between empire abroad and flood prevention at home, paying special attention to the Bush administration’s refusal to move money intended for News Orleans’ levees to war and  “homeland security.”

These right-handed fiscal priorities provide some common sense context for the remarkable occurrence of New Orleans’ Mayor issuing “a desperate S.O.S.” and New Orleans resident Daniel Edwards’ observation that Uncle Sam can “do everything for other countries, but…can’t do anything for [his] own people. You can go overseas with your military, but you can’t get them down here.” 

Along with the very American phenomenon of widespread gun availability, “America's” huge military budget provide context for the a telling scene outside the New Orleans Convention Center: crowds of poor black families chanting “we want help” as armored state vehicles cruised nearby carrying gendarmes brandishing automatic weapons. It’s called Guns over Butter. . . and Bottled Water. And it’s as American as Apple Pie.

“America” might feel less compelled to choose between guns and butter/bottled water (and flood prevention and public transit and sustainable energy policies and…fill in the blank) if federal policymakers weren’t so dedicated to piling yet more tax-cut caviar on the plates of the already super-opulent few in the “advanced” world’s most unequal and wealth-top-heavy society. By the end of last year, the total cost of the Bush administration’s tax reductions reached $297 billion, helping sink federal revenues to their lowest level as a share of the US economy since 1950 and creating “deficits as far as the eye can see.” Twenty-four percent of the great national tax giveaway went to “America’s” wealthiest 1 percent, whose households received an average tax cut of $35,000. 

This spectacular private enclosure of the fading American fiscal commons has combined with monumental military expenditures to boost the publicly financed super-profits of high-tech “defense” corporations and to drain resources away from civil-engineering and disaster-preparedness programs that might have preempted the annihilation in New Orleans.

There should be no mystery about why so many black poor people and others in New Orleans and elsewhere across the disproportionately black and poor Deep South were so terribly exposed and unprotected in the wake of a not-so “natural disaster.” Their tragic and terrifying experience is all too predictable and all-too quintessentially [United States of] “American”. It is the natural outcome of the “indispensable nation [Madeline Albright]’s” longstanding failure to acknowledge, confront, and overcome what Martin Luther King Jr. called “the triple evils that are interrelated”: militarism-imperialism, economic exploitation (capitalism), and racism. 

Truth be told, the US has been sinking in a toxic stew of Empire and Inequality for quite some time. The tragedy of New Orleans is just the latest and best example to date of the “American” peoples’ need to complete their many unfinished revolutions, including the one that drew to its final close when the last federal troops left Louisiana in 1877. 

Paul Street is the author of three books to date: Empire and Inequality: America and the World Since 9/11 (Boulder, CO: Paradigm Publishers, October 2004); Segregated Schools: Class, Race, and Educational Apartheid in the Post-Civil Rights Era (New York, NY: Routledge-Falmer, 2005); Still Separate, Unequal: Race, Place, Policy, and the State of Black Chicago (Chicago, IL: The Chicago Urban League, April 2005).  Street’s next book, Racial Apartheid in the Global Metropolis (New York, NY: Rowman-Littefield) will be published in late 2006. He can be reached at:

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