Although New Orleans has been trying to use Mardi Gras as a tool for 'recovery', the truth is: this city won't ever be the same. Hurricane Katrina completely ravaged the city. But equally as significant is the fact that Katrina exposed this country's patterns of racism, poverty, and neglect.
Understandably, most commentators have focused on the woeful response from the federal government of today; as they very well should. Others, however, have used this sad situation as a way to awaken this country from the historical coma that its been in. It is time for us to come to terms with how our government has historically neglected the needs of the poor and marginalized, while supporting agendas that led to the creation and sustaining of two completely different Americas.
As history reminds us, it was during the presidencies of Franklin D. Roosevelt and Harry S. Truman that great progressive policies like Social Security, protective labor laws and the GI Bill were adopted. But with these initiatives came a pretty subtle and destructive movement: the creation of "Affirmative Action for White People." It's not a movement that you'll ever read about in history books, but it's something that plays a significant role in outlining the states of Black and White America today.
Although the late 1930s/early 1940s virtually spelled the end of Jim Crowism, Congress was still largely controlled by southern lawmakers. Under southern-controlled legislation, policies that dealt with welfare, working relations, and war either excluded the vast majority of African Americans or treated them differently from other groups (particularly whites). Between 1945 and 1955, the federal government dedicated more than $100 billion in support of retirement programs, job skills development, educational opportunities, homeownership and small-business formation. Together, these programs dramatically reshaped the country's economic and social framework by creating a modern, well-schooled, home-owning white middle class. At no other time in American history had so many resouces been devoted to a current generation for completing its education, entering the workforce and forming families.
Unfortuntely, however, the black generation was left out of this governmental support effort. Southern members of Congress, who relied on the use of occupational exclusions, took advantage of the concept of American federalism to ensure that national policies would not disturb their region's racial order. In simple terms, they wanted to make sure that racist institutions of segregation and disparity were allowed to survive in their areas of the country. This is unsettling history, especially for those of us who keenly admire the New Deal and the Fair Deal (if you don't know about these initiatives, I would strongly recommend that you look into them).
What's disturbing is that while many public policies were providing priviledged white Americans with valuable tools (in the form of good jobs, economic stability, educational opportunities, middle-class status, security blankets for their old age, etc.), black Americans were left to fend for themselves, battling against an oppressive, exclusive, and destructive system.
When you think about the hurricane relief provided to predominately white Floridians a few years ago versus the hurricane relief of predominately black Gulf Coasters today. What does that tell you?
I strongly recommend "When Affirmative Action Was White: An Untold History of Racial Inequality in Twentieth-Century America" by Ira Katznelson. It's a very interesting read.
But, be prepare to be unnerved...