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From the Ground Up: Race and the Left Response to Katrina

Walidah Imarisha
Date Published: 
March 01, 2006
    In the wake of Hurricanes Katrina and Rita, thousands of progressives, radicals, anarchists, activists, hippies and college students — the majority of them white — have gone down south to aid in relief and rebuilding efforts, and white organizations across the country have dedicated time and resources. But in their rush to help, are they recreating the racist dynamics we have seen from the government?

Is the white left racist? Sakura Koné would answer this question, for the most part with a "no." "I've been impressed with the response of the white left, liberals, progressive and radicals who have joined us out here." Kone' works as the media coordinator for Common Ground Collective, Common Ground Relief and Rebuild Green, three different arms of a New Orleans grassroots organization started after the hurricanes to provide relief and focus on alternative energy/sustainable rebuilding. "They are not just coming down here and telling us what to do, but they are listening to what we have to say. They do it our way. They are not coming like missionaries. We welcome the white left to our communities here."

"Our church is full of white volunteers right now," Victoria Cintra of Mississippi Immigrant Rights Alliance (MIRA) says. "We have hundreds of volunteers from the North Carolina Baptist Men Disaster Relief. They were here before FEMA, before Red Cross, when no one was helping out, and they've committed to being here for two years."

Others, however, have had serious problems with white volunteers' behavior and attitude throughout the south. Curtis Muhammad, of Community Labor United and the People's Hurricane Relief Fund, would answer the question of whether the white left is racist with a qualified "yes." "Every white person who shows up has the disease called white supremacy, and if they don't confront it and work on it, they are going to continue to have it. That's just the reality of racism."

Tamika Middleton, southern regional coordinator for Critical Resistance — a national prison abolitionist organization with an office in New Orleans — applauds people's willingness to come down and do work, but wants white people coming to acknowledge the privilege inherent in that. "For a lot of people, people of color from New Orleans and the south, we're all trying to put our lives together. If we had the means, if we had the same privilege, we would be here too, we would be organizing and fighting for our community. It's important for people to realize the privilege they have and others don't have."

Au Hyunh, who is working in Vietnamese communities throughout the south, says that there are different cultural standards people are not aware of. "When I was at Common Ground, the volunteers would be really disrespectful. They are serving a historically disadvantaged community, but they're not bathing or showering and they're serving people food, and they don't see that. A lot of white activists are appropriating poor culture when they have a lot of class privilege."

White supremacy

Muhammad says that PHRF is working to counter that disease of white supremacy. "We are talking about doing trainings, we are asking some groups down here who specialize in this to help train volunteers about their white supremacy. Some of them are taking it and some are not. Some are running around acting like slave masters."

Kone' says Common Ground provides that kind of orientation. "We tell them, 'Look, you're not from here, listen up, this is what's happening. This is what the community is about, this is the history of the community, this is what's been going on since Katrina. You've got a good heart, because you're here. You have to take the leadership from the community.'"

"White people are going to have to learn to obey and follow directions. They are not runaway slaves. They aren't now and they weren't during the Underground Railroad days. They can help us, feed us, house us, but they are not the slaves. They can't lead us," Muhammad finishes.

It's not just individuals who are having race issues. Organizations are also bringing their own assumptions and agenda to the table. "Some white organizations are trying. But white folks don't like to chastise themselves. The left does that too, it will not punish white people for their white supremacy, they won't hold white folks accountable and as long as they can do this stuff without punishment, they're going to keep doing it."

Tamika Middleton says the white left has wasted a lot of time and energy focusing on debating whether the issues in the gulf are the result of class or race. "It's impossible to separate race from class, especially in the south, because historically, culturally, it is one and the same."

Untold stories

Many populations are just being ignored both by the mainstream and the white left. John Zippert is the director of program operations for the Federation of Southern Cooperatives in Alabama, and works primarily with poor black farmers, a population he says has been greatly overlooked by government, media and nonprofits alike. "Our experience is that the Department of Agriculture takes care of the largest farmers first, rather than the smallest and poorest, which is generally where black farmers are… So the government isn't there for people. We have gotten some assistance from organizations, but it's been limited."

Big corporations are getting huge contracts to do construction, and many of them are using immigrant labor to do so. MIRA says many people they work with — the majority of whom are Latino — are either not being paid the wages they were promised or not being paid at all, are working under unsafe conditions, and are not given any accommodations and forced to sleep in tents in the cold.

Workers are being recruited to the south to do this rebuilding work. When the job is done, they are fired and then arrested by the INS, often by the prompting of their former employers, according to Cintra. "That's sad and sick. They are rebuilding our coast and we are treating them like animals," she says.

In New Orleans East, the Mary Queen of Vietnam Roman Catholic Church is seeing first hand that the city's rebuilding plan is quite literally built on top of people of color. The church, which is in the heart of a thriving Vietnamese community and has served as a distribution center and gathering place for people coming back to the community, is serving 1500 people a week. It is also right in the middle of an area that the city wants to build an airport and business industrial complex on. "They are going to take our community away; they are going to dismiss us," says Father Luke, one of the priests at the church. "We come back here as an action to say to them that we are here, we are back here to rebuild the community, to rebuild New Orleans."

History class

New Orleans and the south are what they are because of the input of people of color, and people have to be aware of the culture they are coming into. "Why do people aspire to come to New Orleans? The music, the culture, the food, and what is the origin of those? Black people!" Kone' intones.

All of the people interviewed for this article spoke of the history of slavery, immigration issues, labor rights, gentrification, police brutality, governmental misconduct, a history of neglect and racism, and the need for white organizations and individuals to understand that. It's vital that people understand the roots of the poverty and deprivation. "The problems that are happening now are not happening because of Katrina. They didn't just arrive; they didn't come out of smoke. These things are historical," says Middleton.

"You have the compounded issue of race and poverty together, a concentration of people who are poor and black and have been that way since slavery, even in the urban areas," Zippert explains.

"You can see the intersection of race, class and gender by who was left behind in New Orleans. Most of the images you saw of people who were left behind, who were stranded, are poor single black mothers. That's the fall out in a culture that is racist and patriarchal," Malcolm Woodland of the Malcolm X Grassroots Movement says.

Salvation army

While this is the largest fundraising effort in the history of the US, with hundreds of millions of dollars pouring into groups like the Red Cross and Salvation Army, people on the ground are skeptical as to how effective those organizations are.

Cintra summed up the sentiment when she said, "I wouldn't give a penny to Red Cross, and I would encourage others not to."

The problem is the way major non-profits have operated in communities of color globally, says Woodland. "The fact that people continue to give to organizations that have historically not operated in the best issues of people of African descent suggests that people aren't fully aware of the history of these organizations, and what they are doing now, and not aware of alternative methods of being able to give directly to the people affected."

Several people interviewed for this article talked of the ways in which the Red Cross gives preferential treatment to areas that are predominately white and was much slower to react in communities of color. Middleton says her biggest problem is the criminal background checks that keep out people who were formerly incarcerated, and that this is a race issue as well.

Hyunh spoke of the language and access barriers that aren't being addressed. Hyunh, an activist who moved just outside of New Orleans after Katrina, offered her services as a professionally licensed Vietnamese translator to both Red Cross and FEMA. "They both turned me down, they said they didn't need any interpreters." Hyunh went down to the south to see for herself, and found a complete lack of translation.

"The police were trying to evict a single Vietnamese mother living in a housing project in Biloxi. The entire projects were flooded. The police tried to arrest her for remaining there, but there was nowhere for her to go, and she didn't speak English. She couldn't even find out where the Red Cross shelter was," Hyunh explains.

Cintra said it is even worse than ignorance or benign neglect on Red Cross' part. "Red Cross is evicting people from shelters because of the color of their skin. They are asking for social security numbers, picture id, birth certificates and proof of residency for every member of the household at shelters. That's alienating a large group of people."

Middleton says the issue is really about giving funds to organizations that can build for the future. "Red Cross and other big non-profits create a different kind of problem. It's like, 'I'm going to deliver all this food to you, but not create sustainable options for you to grow food.' There is no long term plan; there are no ways for people to be part of rebuilding their communities."

The People's Hurricane Relief Fund (PHRF) was started to provide an apparatus for survivors, local grassroots organizations and displaced people to have control over funds coming in. "We demand resources to rebuild our community under our control," Muhammad says.

Leadership position

That's why it's important, organizers say, for people of color to have a leadership position in the relief and rebuilding efforts.

James Rucker, who helped found Color of Change ( after Katrina as an online mobilization tool to enhance black people's political voice, says black people have to mobilize to lobby politicians and hold them accountable. Color of Change grew to over 10,000 members in the first month and had thousands of people sign different petitions.

Rucker says it's so important for organizations of color to speak up because it can push white organizations. "Race is just not a focal point for liberal white America… When groups like ours are out there, we can embolden other white organizations to talk about race more. They will do better than if there weren't any organizations of folks of color speaking in terms of race."

While Color of Change is working to build up political pressure, others feel the way to change lies in grassroots organizing.

Malcolm X Grassroots Movement (, a national black human rights organization, put out a call on Sept. 13, 2005 that framed the issue again in terms of race and class. It was a framing of the issue around race that had historical memory and was not often being articulated. The demands included a right of return, the right to organize, the right to an income, the right to living wages, the right to access, the right to education and health care, and the right to self-determination.

Woodland, one of the coordinators for MXGM's Katrina Relief program, says it's really about the black community relying on itself. "My inclination is not to worry about what white folks are doing, because they're going to do what they have done historically. Every once in a while they will surprise you and I'll take it as a surprise, but my concern has been with how folks in our community have really stepped up, and I'm particularly proud of the response of black organizations."

Long term

It is not enough, though for organizations of color to lead the rebuilding efforts, but for those organizations to be made up of people most directly affected by the disaster. "Many of our black leadership, non-profits and all, are from the middle class. Our coalition said upfront, we are listening to the voices of the poor," Muhammad says.

MXGM says they are working to provide resources and training to displaced people. "Here in New York we're already seeing this develop so that people who have been displaced are beginning to say, 'Hold on, we don't need people to speak for us, we can speak for ourselves,'" Woodland explains.

Woodland hopes that other organizations will support those affected, as well to take the lead. "I think you will see MXGM move to the periphery in terms of being visible and really be a back up and provide support for those individuals as needed and requested," he finishes.

Most of the organizations interviewed are working on long term plans and goals that would empower the communities affected while furthering the rebuilding efforts.

Zippert says the Federation of Southern Cooperatives is encouraging people to use cooperatives and credit unions as tools poor people can use to rebuild. "We want to help people create worker owned cooperatives to do certain jobs created by the storm that went to Halliburton and these other companies. We can help poor people get the training and assistance to best deal with this post Katrina situation."

Common Ground wants to rehabilitate the 9th ward, which was the most heavily damaged section of New Orleans, "to show people and the powers that be that contrary to their observations, the 9th ward is salvageable," Koné asserts.

Everyone I spoke with agreed that if changes are going to happen, it will happen only by people on the ground pushing for those changes, and that as we move forward, race will continue to play an intricate part in the south, as it has since this country's inception.

"We all have to get on ground, roll up our sleeves and go to work. I do not believe FEMA or the American capable of rebuilding our city; they have no intention of helping poor black people return. We are going to have to demand it," Muhammad declares.


Walidah Imarisha is a poet and an independent journalist who works with the Philly-based prisoner family organizing group The Human Rights Coalition, AWOL Magazine and is part of the poetry duo Good Sista/Bad Sista ( She can be reached at walidahi (at) Walidah went down to New Orleans for a week in October as a volunteer and journalist, and is working on the documentary Finding Common Ground that she shot while down there.