This is an open letter to the man sitting behind me at La Paz today,
in Nashville, at lunchtime, with the Brooks Brothers shirt:
You don't know me. But I know you.
I watched you as you held hands with your tablemates at the restaurant
where we both ate this afternoon. I listened as you prayed, and
thanked God for the food you were about to eat, and for your own
safety, several hundred miles away from the unfolding catastrophe
in New Orleans.
You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus Christ, and then
proceeded to spend the better part of your meal – and mine,
since I was too near your table to avoid hearing every word –
morally scolding the people of that devastated city, heaping scorn
on them for not heeding the warnings to leave before disaster struck.
Then you attacked them – all of them, without distinction
it seemed – for the behavior of a relative handful: those
who have looted items like guns, or big screen TVs.
I heard you ask, amid the din of your colleagues "Amens,"
why it was that instead of pitching in to help their fellow Americans,
the people of New Orleans instead – again, all of them in
your mind – choose to steal and shoot at relief helicopters.
I watched you wipe salsa from the corners of your mouth, as you
nodded agreement to the statement of one of your friends, sitting
to your right, her hair neatly coiffed, her makeup flawless, her
jewelry sparkling. When you asked, rhetorically, why it was that
people were so much more decent amid the tragedy of 9-11, as compared
to the aftermath of Katrina, she had offered her response, but only
after apologizing for what she admitted was going to sound harsh.
"Well," Buffy explained. "It's probably because
in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people, and you know,
they just don't have the same regard."
She then added that police should shoot the looters, and should
have done so from the beginning, so as to send a message to the
rest that theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked
Jesus for your chips and guacamole, said you agreed. They should
be shot. Praise the Lord.
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.
First, it is a very fortunate thing for you, and likely for me,
that my two young children were with me as I sat there, choking
back fish tacos and my own seething rage, listening to you pontificate
about shit you know nothing about.
Have you ever even been to New Orleans?
And no, by that I don't mean the New Orleans of your company's
sales conference. I don't mean Emeril's New Orleans, or the New
Orleans of Uptown Mardi Gras parties.
I mean the New Orleans that is buried as if it were Atlantis, in
places like the lower 9th ward: 98 percent black, 40 percent poor,
where bodies are floating down the street, flowing with the water
as it seeks its own level. Have you met the people from that New
Orleans? The New Orleans that is dying as I write this, and as you
order another sweet tea?
I didn't think so.
Your God – the one to whom you prayed today, and likely do
before every meal, because this gesture proves what a good Christian
you are – is one with whom I am not familiar.
Your God is one who you sincerely believe gives a flying fuck about
your lunch. Your God is one who you seem to believe watches over
you and blesses you, and brings good tidings your way, while simultaneously
letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed, and
perhaps ten thousand or more die, many of them in the streets for
lack of water or food.
Did you ever stop to think just what a rancid asshole such a God
would have to be, such that he would take care of the likes of you,
while letting babies die in their mother's arms, and old people
in wheelchairs, at the foot of Canal Street?
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar.
But no, it isn't God who's the asshole here, Skip (or Brad, or
Braxton, or whatever your name is).
God doesn't feed you, and it isn't God that kept me from turning
around and beating your lily white privileged ass today either.
God has nothing to do with it.
God doesn't care who wins the Super Bowl.
God doesn't help anyone win an Academy Award.
God didn't get you your last raise, or your SUV.
And if God is even half as tired as I am of having to listen to
self-righteous bastards like you blame the victims of this nightmare
for their fate, then you had best eat slowly from this point forward.
Why didn't they evacuate like they were told?
Are you serious?
There were 100,000 people in that city without cars. Folks who
are too poor to own their own vehicle, and who rely on public transportation
every day. I know this might shock you. They don't have a Hummer2,
or whatever gas-guzzling piece of crap you either already own or
probably are saving up for.
And no, they didn't just choose not to own a car because the buses
are so gosh-darned efficient and great, as Rush Limbaugh implied,
and as you likely heard, since you're the kind of person who hangs
on the every word of such bloviating hacks as these.
Why did they loot?
Are you serious?
People are dying, in the streets, on live television. Fathers and
mothers are watching their baby's eyes bulge in their skulls from
dehydration, and you are begrudging them some Goddamned candy bars,
diapers and water?
If anything the poor of New Orleans have exercised restraint.
Maybe you didn't know it, but the people of that city with whom
you likely identify – the wealthy white folks of Uptown –
were barely touched by this storm. Yeah, I guess God was watching
over them: protecting them, and rewarding them for their faith and
superior morality. If the folks downtown who are waiting desperately
for their government to send help – a government whose resources
have been stretched thin by a war that I'm sure you support, because
you love freedom and democracy – were half as crazed as you
think, they'd have marched down St. Charles Avenue and burned every
mansion in sight. That they didn’t suggests a decency and
compassion for their fellow man and woman that sadly people like
Can you even imagine what you would do in their place?
Can you imagine what would happen if it were well-off white folks
stranded without buses to get them out, without nourishment, without
Putting aside the absurdity of the imagery--after all, such folks
always have the means to seek safety, or the money to rebuild, or
the political significance to ensure a much speedier response for
their concerns – can you just imagine?
Can you imagine what would happen if the pampered, overfed corporate
class, which complains about taxes taking a third of their bloated
incomes, had to sit in the hot sun for four, going on five days?
Without a Margarita or hotel swimming pool to comfort them I mean?
Oh, and please, I know. I'm stereotyping you. Imagine that. I've
assumed, based only on your words, what kind of person you are,
even though I suppose I could be wrong. How does that feel Biff?
Hurt your feelings? So sorry. But hey, at least my stereotypes of
you aren't deadly. They won't effect your life one bit, unlike the
ones you carry around with you and display within earshot of people
like me, supposing that no one could possibly disagree.
But I'm not wrong, am I Chip? I know you. I see people like you
all the time, in airports, in business suits, on their lunch breaks.
People who will take advantage of any opportunity to ratify and
reify their pre-existing prejudices towards the poor, towards black
folks. You see the same three video loops of the same dozen or so
looters on Fox News and you conclude that poor black people are
crazy, immoral, criminal.
You, or others quite a bit like you, are the ones posting messages
on chat room boards, calling looters sub-human "vermin,"
"scum," or "cockroaches." I heard you use the
word "animals" three times today: you and that woman across
from you – what was her name? Skyler?
What was it you said as you scooped the last bite of black beans
and rice into your eager mouth? Like zoo animals? Yes, I think that
Well Chuck, it's a free country, and so you certainly have the
right I suppose to continue lecturing the poor, in between checking
your Blackberry and dropping the kids off at soccer practice. If
you want to believe that the poor of New Orleans are immoral and
greedy, and unworthy of support at a time like this – or somehow
more in need of your scolding than whatever donation you might make
to a relief fund – so be it.
But let's leave God out of it, shall we? All of it.
Your God is one with whom I am not familiar, and I'd prefer to
keep it that way.
Tim Wise is the author of White Like Me: Reflections on
Race from a Privileged Son (2005: Soft Skull Press). He lived
in New Orleans from 1986-1996. He can be reached at [email protected].