Who Was Left Behind?

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Many Americans were shocked that thousands of people trapped in New Orleans weren’t able to leave the city during the “mandatory evacuation� because they did not have cars, credit cards, or the money to find another way out of the city. Who exactly was left behind? The television cameras have already shown us the plain truth: most of the residents left behind were Black, many were poor, and many were families with children. Let’s look at the facts: One out of every three children in New Orleans lived in a household that didn’t own a vehicle, and nearly all of those children were Black.

The Children’s Defense Fund’s logo illustrated by seven-year-old Maria Coté is a  drawing of a bright sun shining on a small boat with a tiny sail adrift on a very wide sea.  Above the drawing, in Maria’s handwriting, is the ancient traditional fisherman’s prayer:  “Dear Lord, be good to me.  The sea is so wide and my boat is so small.â€?

These words have a poignant and tragic resonance today with so many American children, adults, and families adrift and in need.  Across the Gulf Coast region, Hurricane Katrina left waves of devastation so wide and deep it is hard for any of us to bear but especially already fragile children and families. So many questions have risen about what should have been done differently in the days leading up to the hurricane and just after the storm struck.  In New Orleans particularly, where so much of the most dramatic suffering happened after the hurricane, there is no question about two of the major causes behind the city’s tragedy.  The chronic quiet twin tsunamis of poverty and race that have been snuffing out the lives and hopes of millions of American children were laid bare there. 

Many Americans were shocked that thousands of people trapped in New Orleans weren’t able to leave the city during the “mandatory evacuationâ€? because they did not have cars, credit cards, or the money to find another way out of the city.  Who exactly was left behind?  The television cameras have already shown us the plain truth:  most of the residents left behind were Black, many were poor, and many were families with children.  Let’s look at the facts:  One out of every three children in New Orleans lived in a household that didn’t own a vehicle, and nearly all of those children were Black.  More than 98 percent of children in car-less households lived in minority households and 96 percent of them lived in Black households.  Almost two out of five Black children in New Orleans lived in a household without a car compared to fewer than 4 percent of White children. 

Not surprisingly, families who didn’t own vehicles were also more likely to be poor.  Over half of all poor households and nearly 60 percent of poor Black households in New Orleans didn’t own a car.  Without transportation of their own, these families had few choices to get out of New Orleans safely before the hurricane.  In a city where almost two in five children lives in poverty, bus or train tickets would have been just as unaffordable for many families as a car note or gas money.  So many of these children and families were forced to stay and try to ride out the storm as best they could. These were the people stranded on the roofs of their homes, on the exit ramps of highways, or in the unspeakable conditions at the city’s “shelters of last resort.â€?  And as we know, there wasn’t just one child left behind in New Orleans during the “mandatory evacuation,â€? or just a few, but thousands and thousands.

The whole world was horrified by the images of all of the desperate people left behind in the hurricane.  But they are the same poor children and adults America has left behind for decades to weather social and economic storms – faceless and voiceless – without help and just treatment in our rich nation. Now that the veil of neglect and inequality has been torn off showing that the American empire and emperor have no clothes, it is time to act.  Not to know is bad.  To know and to do nothing is inexcusable. It is time to reset our nation’s moral and political compass. We must work together not only in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, but throughout the country to help working families hanging on the precarious razor’s edge poverty creates.

Crumbling schools, lack of health care, and loss of food stamps, after-school programs, and child care are daily hardships for millions of children across the nation.  We don’t want to send the thousands of dislocated people who deal with extreme hardships every day back to the same life that they had before the hurricane.  They need decent paying jobs and job training.  They need a safe, stable place to live.  They need good schools to send their children to.  They need quality child care and after-school programs when they work.  They need safe and healthy communities. This time when God has troubled the waters, as our slave forebears sung, can and must become a time of hope and action to ensure access to opportunity for the 37 million poor Americans including 13 million children.

We must keep this story alive after the water recedes until the needs of our children and families are met. We must not forget the anguished faces when they no longer occupy the front pages of the newspapers.  And we must say over and over again now to our political leaders in Congress: stop the tax cuts for the rich and budget cuts for poor children and families.

Marian Wright Edelman is CEO and Founder of the Children's Defense Fund. For more reports please click on “subscribe� or call (212) 481-7745 to order the newsstand edition of The Black Star News the world’s favorite Pan African news weekly.

Jobs For Katrina Victims: The Black Documentary Collective would like to offer our help in finding a job and other assistance to the victims of the Gulf Coast natural disaster and resulting hardship due to the delayed rescue effort. If you are in need of employment, please list what type of job you are seeking and your qualifications for the position you seek. Please include your name and contact information. We would like to make this offer to as many people as possible. If you are able to put another friend or colleague in touch with us, please do so. Our newsletter goes out four times a year, but special e-mail blasts will be made more frequently in order to get the word out to as many as possible around the globe about your circumstance. Our thoughts are with you.  We look forward to hearing from you. The BLACK DOCUMENTARY COLLECTIVE.
www.bdcny.net E-mail: blkdoccol@bdcny.net

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