San Diego-New Orleans: A Modern ‘Tale of Two Cities’

“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us…”

When Victorian-age, British author Charles Dickens wrote those words in his epic 1859 novel A Tale of Two Cities, no one could have foreseen that they would so accurately describe the state of suffering and relief endured by Black people and White people in 21st Century America.

But in comparing the response of the U.S. government and state governments to the suffering of mostly middle-class and wealthy White victims of the recent Southern California fires housed for less than a week in the Qualcom Arena football stadium in San Diego, with that of the mostly poor Black victims of Hurricane Katrina huddled for week after week in the New Orleans Superdome football arena, then we should be able to agree, Mr. Dickens was correct: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times…”

And while we know that catastrophic natural disaster and devastation can and does inflict pain without consideration of race or class, we can easily see that the response of governments of men and women certainly do make such distinctions, and when they do it is the non-White, the poor, who are disproportionately afflicted by the decisions made by discerning government bureaucrats.

It would be unbecoming to play the “victim game,” as though the suffering of one group of people who lost everything through no fault of their own, is more painful to them than that of another group which has lost everything. Personally, I would offer comfort for all innocent victims in time of need, but I am haunted when I remember the unanswered moans and cries of Black victims, trapped, without supplies in New Orleans. Some, who might have gotten out, were even stopped from escaping that watery hell-hole by armed law enforcers blocking the bridges!

And I can’t help but notice the heartfelt sympathy which was quickly extended by the public and by government officials in Southern California, compared to the indifference, even hostility heaped on the Black poor and working class in New Orleans.

In San Diego, we saw some evacuees camped out in the parking lot in their cars and recreational vehicles–almost as if they were at a football game tailgate party. Tables were piled high with food. There were pallets of apples and bananas, and semi-trailers filled with ice. Victims could make their own sandwiches, or volunteers would prepare food for them. There were stacks of cookies, coolers brimming with cold soft drinks, volunteers even offered coloring books and crayons to the children.

But in New Orleans, Blacks were quickly stereotyped in familiar roles as criminals and slackers. Most media accounts suggested at the time, that the Blacks had hardly anything to lose except the clothes on their backs. The wife of a former President even suggested that they would be “better off” thanks to the unspeakable tragedy which destroyed everything they owned and the only life most of them had ever known. The Hurricane Katrina story quickly became one, not about human tragedy, but a question of public safety. The fate of those tens of thousands of suffering human beings was less important to government policy makers and in the early news media reports than how stores like Wal-Mart would protect their merchandise from looters–looters who had no place to go with their booty.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

The San Diego calamity was such a public relations gold mine for the federal government, until they even staged a phony press conference with Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) employees, and not reporters, asking their bosses pure “softball” questions about the quick and efficient response this time.

There’s more irony and contradiction.

“The relief efforts in the Southern California fires have been praised as effective,” Amanda Martinez reported in the Spanish-language publication Enlace, a product of the San Diego Union-Tribune, according to a report from California’s New American Media collective, “but they’ve missed a population that has long been in the shadows: undocumented workers living along San Diego’s hillsides and canyons. These men, who represent some of the most essential workers in one of the biggest local industries, have slipped through the cracks in the county’s relief and evacuation efforts – so much so that Mexican government officials are filling in the gaps.”

Even in the largely successful San Diego relief effort, the non-White Mexican and Mexican-American workers–the braceros–slipped through the cracks, and in some cases were intentionally ignored. Relief messages and instructions were rarely in Spanish. Some of the undocumented workers were afraid to come forward because of their precarious legal status and fear of deportation. There are even reports that some land-owners threatened their workers not to evacuate their ramshackle residences, even when they were in the direct path of the fire.

It was the best of times. It was the worst of times.

But it is not the end of time. And if the hymns our parents and grandparents sang down South have any basis in truth we are also reminded: “God gave Noah a rainbow sign. No more water, there will be fire next time.”

Next time… The best of times. The worst of times.

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