TW: racism, hurricane-related damage, erasure of Black people from national narratives, erasure of Indigenous people, class warfare
Over at the New York Times, Michael Kimmelman, who until recently was one of their main Europe-based correspondents, has written an intriguing (and free to read) take on the situation in New York following Hurricane Sandy’s destruction. In a nutshell, it’s a very meandering look at how this is, or at least should be, some sort of a wake-up call about the massive toll our national infrastructure is going to take over the coming years. Ultimately it concludes that the substantive investment required to make adjustments as the climate changes will only be available to the wealthy, namely in Manhattan. On the other hand, the working and middle class neighborhoods of Queens, Brooklyn, Staten Island, and eventually even the Bronx will probably receive public assistance only to rebuild, rather than to retrofit for new sea levels.
The problem is of course that Kimmelman treats these facts as things that have only just now rudely erupted into the national discourse. But, it seems obvious that the low-lying coastal edges of New York would face chilling new risks as the climate changed and that assistance would be concentrated in the well-to-do neighborhoods when you think about it. After all, there’s already been an example of an almost identical series of events, just with more Black people involved.
(Apparently what New Orleans looked like when the levies broke after Katrina went down the memory hole. Originally from this article which discusses the way post-disaster investment was primarily directed at wealthier residential districts and business areas.)
I don’t want to pick on Kimmelman, but that is a pretty glaring omission. To his credit, he has done some really important and interesting reporting on issues that affect Black communities in various cultural contexts, but that’s precisely the problem: his coverage in both articles has treated the experiences of primarily Black individuals in isolation. He appears to be able to cover négritude or Katrina with sympathy and interest in the lives of Black people, but importantly he stops there. The reality of Blacks in France, in the US, or anywhere in the world are in these writings exclusively that – about Black people. They aren’t analyzed as part of the larger culture, perhaps because like many people still today Kimmelman might not think of Black people in those terms. Alternatively, Kimmelman might draw connections between primarily Black experiences and national events, but shy away from writing about it, fearing that his readers will reject any such article for treating Black people as part of the larger country.
Regardless of cause, the effect is that the national consciousness is bleached. The regrettable tragedies this year in New York and New Jersey eclipse the equally appalling devastation in 2005 in New Orleans. The former are something that affects the national consciousness of all Americans, while apparently the latter was a “niche” disaster. Just like the new hurdles imposed by climate change on economically disenfranchised Native American communities, apparently Katrina didn’t happen to “real” Americans.
Admittedly, Kimmelman does imply that there’s interplay between race and class, especially in the demographic distinction between Manhattan and the other boroughs. He does that with a single line in the recent piece, in which he noted,
That billions of dollars may end up being spent to protect businesses in Lower Manhattan while old, working-class communities on the waterfronts of Queens, Brooklyn and Staten Island most likely won’t get the same protection flies in the face of ideas about social justice, and about New York City, with its open-armed self-image as a capital of diversity.
In Kimmelman’s eyes, that appears to be the extent to which the way Black people and other people of color can contribute to this national realization of the dangerous interplay between inequality and climate: as additional flavor to the class war. And remember, if there’s not enough White people involved, it falls off the radar, so vague association is supposedly the best that people of color can hope for, at least from Kimmelman and those who think like him.