Monday, September 19, 2005

More on Katrina and Southern History

From Sunday's Boston Globe.

8 comments:

Rhonda said...

I'm glad you posted this, but I'm surprised you had no comment to add.

dcat said...

Rhonda --
i just wanted to get it posted -- things are crazy around here, as we have this federally mandated Constitution day stuff to deal with, snd somehow i am doing both a public lecture on the Constitution and am participating on a panel discussion on the Voting Rights Act, plus my book on the Sox is in the very final stages of getting ready to be released, so i haven't been blogging as much as I would like.
I think that we need to be cognizant of the race and class dimensions, but some of the people who have brought up this issue have been a bit to shrill for my taste (see West, Kanye).
I could not help but think about Woodward's irony of Southern History when I read this article and the other reflections on Katrina, race and the South -- the idea that the South has always had a great deal to teach America as a wholw if America would only listen, because unlike the rest of the country, the South has seen defeat and degradation. it was more effective as pre-vietnam commentary than it has been since, but it still is an essay that has had a profound role in shaping how I think of the South and its place in the nation.

Does that redeem me a bit?

dcat

Lee said...

Don't worry Derek you don't need to be redeemed :P

Certainly there are entire books to write on the subject of Katrina, race, and the modern South. This article foreshadows many of the themes that will be re-hashed in many longer treatments.

In the end though, a large part of this tragedy will be explained by a combination of government ineptitude, poverty not especially different from many other American cities, and the truly unique and unforgiving geography of New Orleans.

In short, I am not convinced that Milwaukee, Detroit, or any number of other cities would have survived much better in an equivalent disaster. They were just lucky enough to have founders who did not place them in an untenable flood zone. And they've never had to rely on a crony-packed, budget-starved FEMA to rescue them.

With that said, it's obvious that the poorest and brownest New Orleans citizens tended to live in the lowest-lying areas. Ironically though, I gather that some of these neighborhoods (i.e. the lower 9th ward) were relatively new, mainly populated since the 1950s due to new building opportunities made possible by better levee protection. Hence these neighborhoods were originally seen by many as great places for an emerging black middle class. Probably many of the original inhabitants never would have guessed that their neighborhoods would go *downhill* after the victories of the Civil Rights movement, and would end up submerged in 2005.

Hell I don't know what my point is, except to say that I'm suspicious of anybody who tries to boil down Katrina to one-liners and sound bites. Probably the most delicious irony is the spectacle of anti-big-government Southern Republicans screaming for big government to come save them. Nevermind that they are the ones responsible for gutting our essential services these last 5 years, while pursuing reckless and expensive adventures in the name of "security"....

Rhonda said...

God help us all if I'm the one handing out redemption.

The article brought to mind a few different threads of argument regarding the South in America (certainly Woodward, as you say). I struggle with living in a state where my southern identity is suspect and my neighbors and students have no problem with identifying the racism of this area as somehow "Mississippi," as if it doesn't exist here at all.

dcat said...

Rhonda --
I am working on an edited collection on Southern identity as you know, and I still am uncertain that we can pinpoint what it means to be southern, or even what is the South, with any precision. there is an element of something that we often talked about at last year's NEH seminar (Rhonda and I were colleagues there for those who do not know) and that is the whole authenticity question. Some southerners certainly try to stand as getekeepers for what is the authentic South. It is an odd combination of pride, chauvanism, and arrogance.
But you pinpoint one of the other problems, which is this "Mississippi-ization" of the South, which is unfair simultaneously to bnoth the South as a whole and to Mississippi.

dc

Rhonda said...

To be fair to my students here, they not only use Mississippi (as in "There's a whole lot of Mississippi between Pittsburgh and Philly") as a southern metonym, but also Kentucky (as in using "Pennsyltucky" to describe central PA). I am fascinated by how many of my neighbors here manage to look at what is right outside their doors and imagine it to be elsewhere, specifically in the South.

I think it's impossible to pin down a definition of Southern Identity, but when people imagine their local unpleasantries to be magically southern, then we need to get them to step back and question their perceptions of the South. (Similarly, when people tell me I'm "not really southern," because I'm smart/wearing shoes/not a white supremacist/whatever, I think it's important to continue claiming southern identity, even if I can't define it so well.)

So many of us have talked about the disconnect of seeing what appear to be third-world images coming out of an American city, but I believe that for my students (and maybe others here in central PA as well), New Orleans and the rest of the South are almost as foreign as Africa is to me. I am, sadly, not exaggerating.

dcat said...

Rhonda --
It is interesting that your students both use southern references as derogatory, but also that they blend what many might eb "southern" and "Appalachian" stereotypes. Obviously this is something that we qas a society have decided is still somehow acceptable -- and much of it is probably earned over generations of, in particular, racism. Still, I think we need to make sure that people, and northern students in particular, think more critically about these southern stereotypes that they hold. Yes, the South has a legacy of racism, but so too does the North, and the South has in most cases probably reconciled itself to its past more honestly than has much of the north.
Still, have to give your students credit for cleverness.
dcat

Lee said...

I think you will find that a large number of educated/professional Southerners choose to stay in the South, not because we are racist/provincial/neo-Confederate, but simply because we feel we face a bit of an uphill battle in other parts of the country. Why bother with migrating and trying to defeat stereotypes, if you can simply stay in a relatively thriving part of the country?

It would be interesting to see statistical evidence on migration patterns, particularly for the highly educated elites. If anything, it appears that the South is full of relocated professionals from other parts of the country. Such as Dcat.

It doesn't seem as if the South is anywhere close to producing dominant cultural cities like New York or Los Angeles, but you will find that these migration patterns seem to be elevating the cultural complexity of many places. Especially in your Southern college/medical/high tech areas, there's little need for a cultural inferiority complex.