A Gentle, Angry People
Pastoral Letter from the Rev. William G. Sinkford President, Unitarian Universalist Association
A Gentle, Angry People
(Tuesday afternoon, September 6, 2005)
I am so angry. I’ve had to stop watching coverage of the disaster along our Gulf Coast. The statements from our political and military leaders that we have “turned the corner,” that we have a unified disaster command with “perfect coordination,” in response to this “natural disaster” are more than I can bear. I cannot watch one more press conference with congratulations for the “heck of a job” FEMA and the military have done.
Natural disaster? Katrina was certainly a force of nature, although there is substantial evidence that the global warming so many deny increased the fury of the storm. But we cannot lay responsibility for our response at the feet of Mother Nature.
Perfect coordination? I shudder to think that our nation’s delayed and inadequate response to the suffering left in Katrina’s wake might be proudly claimed as a plan.
I am fighting not to sink into paranoia, though as a person of color I have a lifetime of experience which would provide ample justification.
These last days have provided a picture of what racism and classism and privilege look like. Racism is not about individual prejudice. Classism is not about individual poverty. And privilege is so often allowed to be invisible.
I am so angry. Look at New Orleans.
Tens of thousands of American citizens, almost all of them poor and Black, living in unimaginable conditions with no food and water, waited for days while evacuation buses passed them by to pick up tourists from luxury hotels.
Citizens in devastated small towns on the Gulf Coast are still without evacuation or adequate supplies.
New Orleans was too “dangerous” for the small number of National Guard troops available to enter the city. How much of that perceived “danger” had to do with the color of the citizen’s skins? Why were food and water not brought in by helicopter? Did relief have to wait 5 days? How long would it have taken the people in the Superdome and the Convention Center to receive assistance if they had been middle-class White Americans?
Isn’t it deception to say that this disaster was a surprise when government reports have predicted it for decades? These reports predicted that the poor, Black neighborhoods in the lowest lying areas of the city would be the most devastated. Funds for the Iraq occupation took precedence.
Why were there so few National Guard or regular Army troops available for the relief effort? Can we believe that the deployment of Guard units to contain resistance to our occupation of Iraq had no impact on our response? Our national priorities are clear.
The media is far from blameless. Why were Blacks described as looters and Whites described as “searching for food.” Where were the images of white New Orleans police officers “searching for food” as they carried off wide-screen TV’s.
Local leaders share the blame as well. What was the meaning of “mandatory evacuation” from New Orleans when so many Black and low income citizens had no means to leave the city? At the end of the month, people living from pay-check to pay-check do not have money for gas, if they have a car, nor money to stay in a hotel for days. Where were the school buses to take these citizens to relative safety?
Racism and classism mean that the concerns, even the very lives of people of color and poor people, remain invisible.
As a member of the Congressional Black Caucus said: “God would not be pleased with our response.”
I am so angry. But we are a gentle and a generous people. In response to the disaster, Unitarian Universalists and so many American citizens have opened their wallets, and many have opened their homes and their hearts to the hundreds of thousands of now homeless New Orleaneans. Donating to the UUA/UUSC Gulf Coast Relief Fund is an excellent way to express compassion. Opportunities for hands on congregational effort will multiply as the diaspora of the evacuees from the Gulf Coast continues. Public and private support for reconstruction will need to continue for months and even years.
But even our generosity has been tinged with the racism and classism that sullies the soul of our nation. One Unitarian Universalist wrote to me of “a disturbing message from a member of our congregation speaking from the pulpit this morning, regarding social action plans to help evacuees who reached [our town]: ‘These are people who left town in their cars before the hurricane hit. They’re good families. You don’t have to be afraid of them.’ I listened in shock and horror but could not find words to respond. I know you can and will. And must.”
We are told that now is not the time for criticism of how the disaster response has been managed, that there will be time for commissions and committees to conduct investigations. We know that now is the time to provide relief and support for the citizens of the Gulf, and we are working as hard as we can to do our part.
But it is not too early to begin learning from this disaster. New Orleans will most certainly be rebuilt; the economic engine of this nation requires a thriving port at the mouth of the Mississippi. But will New Orleans be rebuilt in the image of the past, which marginalized so many of its citizens? Can we not craft a vision grounded in the search for justice, equity and compassion?
We are a gentle and generous people. But let us not forget our anger. May it fuel not only our commitment to compassion but also our commitment to make fundamental changes. Our vision of the Beloved Community must stand against a vision that would allow the privilege of the few to be accepted as just and even holy. Our religious vision must again and again ask the Gospel question “Who is my neighbor” and strive always to include more and more of us as we intone the words that gave birth to this nation, “We the people…”
We are, and we should be, both a gentle, and an angry people.
In faith, Rev. William Sinkford