How do you document the suffering of a people, the deliberate ignorance of a nation, the unfeeling ineptitude of those sworn to help?
In "Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster," author Michael Eric Dyson answers that question in his usual blunt, take-no-prisoners style.
Dyson thoughtfully -- but with obvious glee -- takes the U.S. government to task for its admittedly bungled response to Hurricane Katrina, with chapter titles like "Levees and Lies," and "Does George W. Bush Care About Black People?"
But lest one get the impression that this is yet another in a long line of Bush-bashing books, Dyson points out that the number one culprit in the boondoggle that was the response to Katrina was not the government, but the American people.
Dyson lays it all out in well-considered arguments that call into question the very fabric of what makes America the so-called leader of the free world, when it so casually dismissed and ignored the needs of its own people.
Dyson blasts the populace as being like sheep, essentially saying "Well, whatever," while politicians strip funding from programs designed to aid the less fortunate and throw money at the rich in the form of tax cuts, or at other countries.
"Our being surprised, and disgusted, by the poverty that Katrina revealed is a way of remaining deliberately naive about the poor while dodging the responsibility that knowledge of their lives would entail," he writes.
Dyson writes of the images he saw on television: "The suffering on screen . . . surely couldn't be the United States of America -- and how cruelly that term seemed to mock those poor citizens who felt disunited and disconnected and just plain dissed by their government. This couldn't be the richest and most powerful nation on the globe, leaving behind some of its poorest citizens to fend for themselves."
Despite federal officials crying out that they couldn't possibly have known the storm would cause such a high magnitude of disaster, Dyson dug up government reports and newspaper articles that held the opposite view. In one chilling but prophetic report issued before Sept. 11 in 2001, the Federal Emergency Management Agency noted that a catastrophic hurricane in New Orleans was "among the three likeliest disasters facing this country" -- the other two being a terrorist attack on New York City and a major earthquake in San Francisco.
Dyson shows the White House's years-long pattern of gutting FEMA by shipping its functions to other agencies, and filling its leadership with political cronies who were ill-equipped and unqualified for their jobs, their experience being more concerned with campaigning and fund-raising for Bush than disaster management.
He also points out that the funding for maintaining the levees that could have saved New Orleans was repeatedly cut due to the cash crunch caused by the war in Iraq.
Dyson also isn't afraid to take on perhaps the most controversial accusation leveled against Bush: that he is biased against African Americans. Quoting Nancy Giles, a humorist and social commentator, he notes that: "The President has put himself at risk by visiting the troops in Iraq, but didn't venture anywhere near the Superdome or the convention center [being used as shelters], where thousands of victims, mostly black and poor, needed to see that he gave a damn."
Dyson even takes on the blistering words of Kanye West, who stunned white America when, during a telethon to raise money for Red Cross efforts, he went off script into a diatribe that ended with the shot heard 'round the country: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Dyson dissects West's comment, noting that the rapper was speaking "not about Bush's personal life, but rather his professional life." West, Dyson contends, was targeting Bush "as the face of the United States . . . When West claimed that Bush doesn't care about black people, it was a critical judgment about the failure of the government, which George Bush represents, to take care of, in a timely fashion, those citizens under his watch."
During his famous "I Have a Dream" speech, the Rev. Martin Luther King Jr. said: "No, no, we are not satisfied, and we will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like waters and righteousness like a mighty stream."
As we celebrate Black History Month, we're left to wonder, how far have we come?
In Dyson's opinion, Hurricane Katrina revealed still lingering racial injustices that rolled down like waters, with ignorance and inequity having been revealed by the mighty stream.
Trey Bankhead is a copy editor at The News.