Yasmin Alibhai-Brown

This is a ruthlessly capitalistic system which rejects social democratic interventions
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The Independent Online

So this then is the proud nation of the United States of America which binds all citizens, enthuses, dazzles, entices and instructs them to commit to the greatest country in the world, land of the free and endless opportunity and all that jazz. Since the July bombs in London, pro-American groupies have proclaimed the US as a model for us to follow in Britain. Get immigrants and their offspring to wave the flag with feeling, they said; indoctrinate them with patriotism and ambition and we too can have what they have. No thanks.

Nature and the gods have just revealed the friability of those super myths of the super nation. Many of us knew already that while the US does have extraordinarily powerful people of colour, the nation is irreversibly divided, ghettoised and infused with racial and class mistrust.

Images of New Orleans refugees exposed the ugliest side of America, and one hopes that decent Americans feel both shame and rage that their country has sunk so low and few appeared to have noticed. While the Washington elites and the leaders of the southern states fiddled, mostly black victims of the black waters were left unheard and neglected, many to die, others to find reasons and means to live on when the little they had was swept away.

Of course it is about race. And class. Do you really think there would have been this torpor and indifference if a natural calamity had hit, say, the white middle class residents of Texas? This is a ruthlessly capitalistic system which rejects social democratic interventions and it is also a country of white privilege which feels entitled to use weaponry in order to keep the status quo.

And it has been ever thus. Way back in 1944, the Nobel prize winning economist Gunner Myrdal wrote a tome The American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. He proved that the founding principles of the state were meaningless and a mockery for blacks systemically locked out of equal participation. The old slave states were the worst. He wrote: "The observer is frequently told by white Southerners that whatever blacks get is a charitable gift for which they should be grateful. There can be no sense in talking about discrimination, it is held, as Negroes have no right to anything but to get something out of the white's benevolence."

Now in a disturbing new book by Professor Ira Katznelson, When Affirmative Action was White, we learn that the average black family in the US still holds only one tenth of the assets of an average white family and that deliberately exclusionary policies have widened this gap ever since the end of slavery. Roosevelt's New Deal in the 1930's, which came out of pressure to make a fairer America for all, and the many and various federal and state initiatives since have had no real impact on the mass of African Americans. Lyndon Johnson's civil rights measures and the determination and mobilisation of African-Americans have been no match for this history of institutional racism and the iron will of self-serving whites to keep the descendants of slaves down and out.

Under Reagan it got shockingly worse; under Bush Jnr more so. Poor African-Americans and whites are sent to die in Iraq by a leader who pays no attention to crisis management in the very localities that produce new army recruits. And we see the results, the human flotsam and jetsam in the floods, forever damned.

It was grotesque to witness the early coverage of the disaster when the focus was almost entirely on "looters", all black, all carrying stuff, some in order to survive, others because they had never had it so good. Can you imagine a life where 12 bottles of beer snatched from a store in these conditions feels like a victory over circumstance? Goods were sacred; the looters were, we were told, the "lowest of the low". The state intervened by bringing in a shoot-to-kill looters policy before it bothered to consider the plight of the thirsty, hungry, frightened and injured.

I feel particularly moved by these pictures and stories because I have twice been to this city and found it both exhilarating (I love blues music) and yet disheartening, appalling even.

The first time was in the early 1990s, when I was in the US researching the legacy of Martin Luther King for a booklet I was writing. I went into the dreadful project housing - one was named "Desire". There I saw black teenage mothers with dead eyes sitting on damp steps with babies and flies crawling over them. They noticed neither.

Drugs, poverty, crime, Aids, the usual pathologies, prevailed and sunk all possibilities for those who lived there. Most of the people I tried to talk to didn't respond at all to the evocative name of Martin Luther King.

Across the railway tracks was a man-made lake surrounded by showy new houses owned by affluent black lawyers, doctors and other professionals, who said they had to set up their own enclaves. In poorer areas they would have been envied and attacked by disenfranchised African-Americans and no money would allow them into old, rich, white areas. These men and women were once part of the civil rights movement. Their children were given names like "Afra" and "Nyerere".

Frank Powell was a heart specialist who refused to move away from his people, he said. He took me round. We passed the pink mansion owned by Fats Domino. Fats waved and said, "Hi." Both had vicious growling Alsatian guard dogs outside their homes. Frank said the police and the local politicians were corrupt and racist.

Parts of New Orleans were all white. Where are those whites today, I wonder? Why were they not on the screens? Pittsburgh has similar race/class apartheid, New York too, and San Francisco, LA, St Louis, and Atlanta, all places I have been to with my eyes wide open. Disregard for poor blacks is a way of life in a country which, rightly, in other ways is proud of the civic engagement of its citizens.

There are kind souls in neighbouring towns and cities who have risen to the present challenge. Their responses only emphasise the overwhelming national disgrace. Bush belatedly hugs a couple of victims and flies in his trophy black insider Condoleezza Rice. Big deal.

On BBC Radio 4 yesterday, one white resident of New Orleans, a man with property and economic security and a gun, despondently asked his country an appropriate question: "Is this what we are?"

And I ask, is this what we in Britain want to be?

y.alibhai-brown@independent.co.uk

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