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Did Hurricane Katrina reveal a historic reality?

It's been almost five months since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and flooded most of New Orleans. But the rebuilding efforts are slow in coming. In his new book called "Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster," author Michael Eric Dyson looks at how race may have been a factor in the response to the disaster and offers ideas for how New Orleans can return to its
/ Source: TODAY

It's been almost five months since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast and flooded most of New Orleans. But the rebuilding efforts are slow in coming. In his new book called "Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster," author Michael Eric Dyson looks at how race may have been a factor in the response to the disaster and offers ideas for how New Orleans can return to its glory. Dyson was invited on the “Today” show to discuss the book. Here’s an excerpt:

If race grabbed the biggest headlines in the aftermath of Katrina because of poverty and politics, its force was also felt in other dimensions of the cultural and personal response to the hurricane. The media became a big part of the story. Reporters’ anger at the government’s tragic delay leaped off allegedly neutral pages and TV screens even as the stories also reinforced stereotypes of black behavior in exaggerated reports of looting and social anarchy. The black elite stepped up to express support for the poor and outrage at their treatment, putting aside, perhaps even denying, elements of its own recent assaults on poor blacks. And despite its embattled status as the purveyor of perversity, patriarchy, and pornography, quarters of hip-hop responded admirably, reminding us that they have been one of the few dependable sources of commentary on the black poor all along. The disaster also sparked renewed interest in the “race or class” debate as to what element of the dyad accounted more reliably for the fate of the black poor.

But one of the untold stories of Katrina is how the hurricane impacted racial and ethnic minorities other than blacks. For instance, nearly 40,000 Mexican citizens who lived (mostly in trailers) and worked in New Orleans were displaced. Altogether, nearly 145,000 Mexicans in the entire Gulf Coast region were scattered by Katrina. Latinos make up 3 percent of Louisiana’s population, 124,222 people of the state’s 4,515,770 residents. Many Latinos who live in the South are foreign born and are undocumented laborers on farms or in hotels, restaurants, and other service industry jobs.

The fear that government officials and police would target undocumented immigrants discouraged many Latinos from seeking hurricane relief, despite messages from Mexican president Vicente Fox that the American government had assured him that it wouldn’t take such action. In fact, for the first time in more than 150 years, Mexico sent aid to the United States in the form of an army unit of nearly 200 soldiers and 45 vehicles that joined a Mexican Navy crew helping hurricane survivors. It also sent food, medicine, nurses, and doctors to Louisiana, as well as a ship transporting ambulances and trucks. The League of United Latin American Citizens (LULAC) sent translators and established a relief fund, while its Arizona branch sent four container trucks with sleeping bags, water, and food.

Latinos in other areas were affected by the hurricane as well. In Bossier County, Louisiana, many Central Americans were employed in the service industry. And Baldwin County, Alabama, was home to many farm workers who lived in migrant camps. Many of them, and Jamaican immigrants as well, had either lost their documentation or had sought refuge in hotels — not designated shelter areas — for fear of having their citizenship status scrutinized. That fear outweighed the fact that undocumented immigrants, at least in theory, do have rights to disaster relief.

Thousands of Native Americans on the Gulf Coast were hard hit by the storm as well. According to the National Congress of American Indians (NCAI), several Native American tribes were in harm’s away across the damaged region, although early on there was little contact with affected members. In the immediate aftermath of Katrina, there was little information about the death tolls among the six federally recognized Native American tribes in Alabama, Louisiana, and Mississippi, including the Parch Band Creek Indian Tribe in Alabama; the Coushatta Indian Tribe, Jena Band of Choctaw, and Tunica-Biloxi Tribe in Louisiana; and the Chitimacha Tribe and the Choctaw Indians in Mississippi. For one tribe near Chalmette, Louisiana, the local high school served as a tribal morgue, holding the bodies of Native American workers, including shrimpers and other fishermen, who were drowned in the flooding near New Orleans. The Mississippi Band of Choctaw Indians experienced power outages on their reservation and sought shelter at tribal hotels. The NCAI partnered with the National Indian Gaming Association (NIGA) to raise relief funds for Native Americans in the Gulf States.

There were also nearly 50,000 Vietnamese fishermen who labored on the Louisiana coast —while others worked in the service and manufacturing industries — along with a large contingent of Filipino American shrimpers, part of the oldest Filipino community in North America. A community of Vietnamese shrimpers also lived and worked near Mississippi; many of them were displaced, while others died in the horrible pounding of Katrina. There were nearly 30,000 Vietnamese evacuees dispersed to Houston, although many of them were denied entry into the Astrodome, finding shelter instead at Houston’s Hong Kong City Mall.

The oversight of Latino, Native American, and Vietnamese and Filipino suffering in the catastrophe not only reinforces for the latter three groups their relative invisibility in American culture, and for Latinos their relative marginalization in the region. It shows as well that our analysis of minorities must constantly be revised to accommodate a broader view of how race and ethnicity function in the culture. As important as it is, the black-white racial paradigm simply does not exhaust the complex realities and complicated interactions among various minority groups and the broader society.

The black-white racial paradigm was also pressured by an enduring question among social analysts that was revived in the face of Katrina: is it race or class that determines the fate of poor blacks? Critics came down on either side during the crisis, but in this case, that might equate to six in one hand, half a dozen in the other. It is true that class is often overlooked to explain social reality. Ironically, it is often a subject broached by the acid conservatives who want to avoid confronting race, and who become raging parodies of Marxists in the bargain. They are only concerned about class to deflect race; they have little interest in unpacking the dynamics of class or engaging its deforming influence in the social scene. In this instance, race becomes a marker for class, a proxy, blurring and bending the boundaries that segregate them.

Class certainly loomed large in Katrina’s aftermath. Blacks of means escaped the tragedy; blacks without them suffered and died. In reality, it is how race and class interact that made the situation for the poor so horrible on the Gulf Coast. The rigid caste system that punishes poor blacks and other minorities also targets poor whites. Even among the oppressed, however, there are stark differences. Concentrated poverty doesn’t victimize poor whites in the same way it does poor blacks. For instance, the racial divide in car ownership discussed earlier partially reflects income differences between the races. However, as if to prove that not all inequalities are equal, even poor whites are far more likely to have access to cars than are poor blacks. In New Orleans, 53 percent of poor blacks were without cars while just 17 percent of poor whites lacked access to cars. The racial disparity in class effects shows up in education as well. Even poor white children are far less likely to live in, or to attend school in, neighborhoods where poverty is highly concentrated.

Moreover, one must also account for how the privileges of whiteness that transcend class open up opportunities for poor whites that are off limits to the black poor, whether it is a job offer at a restaurant wary of blacks or a schoolroom slot in a largely white, stable community. This is not to deny the vicious caste tensions that separate poor and working class whites from their middle-class and upper-class peers. Such tensions result in a dramatically different quality of life for the well-off and the have-nots. I simply aim to underscore the pull of racial familiarity that is often an unspoken variable, and sometimes the crucial difference, in the lives of the white and non-white poor. It is bad enough to be white and poor; it is worse still to be black, or brown, and female, and young, and poor. Simply said, race makes class hurt more.

In African American life, class and caste differences show up most dramatically in the chasms between the black fortunate and the black poor. As I watched Hurricane Katrina sweep waves of mostly poor and black folk into global view, I thought of the controversy stirred by Bill Cosby’s assault on the black poor — that they are detrimentally promiscuous, disinclined to education, unappreciative of good speech, determined to saddle their kids with weird names, and bent on blaming the white man for all their ills. Cosby’s views were widely celebrated in the press, and in many quarters of black America, especially among the black elite — the Afristocracy. Those few who were publicly critical of Cosby were said to be making excuses for the black poor while denying their need to be responsible for their own destinies. Others agreed with Cosby that the poor hampered their own progress because they were either too lazy or too ignorant to do better. In any case, Cosby, and a slew of critics, believed that the black poor suffered because they desired or deserved to be poor.

In the aftermath of Katrina, some of the same black critics who had previously sided with Cosby suddenly decried conservative visions of the black poor that, interestingly enough, accord quite well with the comedian’s views. For instance, Atlanta Journal-Constitution editorial page editor Cynthia Tucker penned a column, “Katrina Exposes Our Callous Treatment of the Poor,” nearly a week after the storm struck. She began dramatically — “Here in America, the land of opportunity, we gave up on the poor more than two decades ago.” She writes that under Ronald Reagan “we learned that the poor were simply too lazy to improve their prospects and their misery was their own fault.” Tucker argues that we “not only gave up trying to help the poor, but we also bought the argument that trying to assist them, especially through government programs, would just make matters worse.”

The right-wingers, she says, convinced us that the poor are illiterate, sick, and unemployed because of welfare, and because they choose to be. “So we turned our backs on the impoverished and tuned them out, leaving them stranded in the worst neighborhoods, worst schools and the worst geography.” Tucker writes that the images of the poor in the wake of Katrina shouldn’t surprise us, since it is the outgrowth of a culture that has left the poor to their own devices. Tucker concludes her column with a rousing portrayal of the insular attitudes that deny the privileges of the well to do, blame the poor for their ills, and sweep the plight of the poor under our collective social carpet.

In fact, it’s easy for all of us who live in relative prosperity to forget that most of us are here because we had the good sense to be born to the right parents. While a few impoverished young adults can still scratch and claw their way into the mainstream, it is getting harder and harder to do so as the industrial jobs that created the great middle class are disappearing. (Why do you think so many working-class sons and daughters volunteer for the armed forces?) Income inequality is increasing in this country; the latest census shows that the number of people living in poverty is rising. Still, a few predictable voices on the far-right fringe are already thinking up ways to blame Hurricane Katrina’s victims for their plight. Some are playing up the lawlessness of a few thugs; others are casting responsibility for the crisis solely on local authorities. Haven’t we listened to those callous self-promoters long enough? Hurricane Katrina overwhelmed levees and exploded the conventional wisdom about a shared American prosperity, exposing a group of people so poor they didn’t have $50 for a bus ticket out of town. If we want to learn something from this disaster, the lesson ought to be: America’s poor deserve better than this.

But less than a year before Tucker’s heroic defense of the vulnerable, she had heartily endorsed Cosby’s equally callous condemnation of the black poor. In a column entitled “Bill Cosby’s Pointed Remarks May Spark Much-Needed Debate,” Tucker lauded the comedian–cum–social critic for his willingness to ­address the black poor’s “self-inflicted wounds” in his “pointedly politically incorrect” diatribe against the black poor. After briefly acknowledging that American society “still bears some responsibility for the failure of so many black Americans to join the economic and cultural mainstream,” Tucker asked if black Americans shouldn’t “acknowledge that, at the dawn of the 21st century, personal responsibility has at least as much to do with success in modern America as race, especially since the Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board rolled back much of systemic racism?”

A few months later, in a column entitled “Bill Cosby’s Plain-Spokenness Comes Not a Moment Too Soon,” Tucker affirmed the need for the Afristocracy to bear down on their less-fortunate kin by favorably citing the earlier example of black elites doing just that. “Throughout the first half of the 20th century, accomplished blacks routinely policed the behavior of their less-polished brethren, urging thrift, moderation, tidiness.” Such policing of black behavior gave way to a black leadership class during the civil rights movement that was loath to admit black failure for fear that it “would damage the movement,” while black power advocates “denounced any black critic of black failure as a race traitor.” Tucker concludes her column comparing American blacks to their kin throughout the diaspora who come to this country and succeed against the odds. She draws the lesson from their success that race simply isn’t that big a barrier to black achievement.

But black parents ought to note this, as well: The success of black immigrants strongly suggests that race is no great barrier to achievement. While many black activists contend that there is still a grave disadvantage in being the descendant of slaves, it is hard to see what that could be. (Note, too, that black West Indians are also the descendants of slaves.) Yes, our ancestors suffered. But the 21st-century racist aims his hate at the color of our skin—not at where we came from or who our grandparents were.

Nowhere does Tucker mention, as she did in her column after Katrina, the conservative philosophy and policies that hamper the progress and achievement of the black poor. No mention of deindustrialization, fortunate birth to middle-class parents, or the income inequality she previously addressed as reasons for poverty. Absent is the sense that blaming the poor for their problems is but the reflection of our callous refusal to acknowledge society’s role in black poverty. Completely missing is the insight that Katrina brought to Tucker: that is, that we have collective responsibility for banishing the poor to the margins of the economy through horrible communities, schools, and living conditions. After Katrina, Tucker saw social and political responsibility; whereas after Cosby, she had seen only personal responsibility and self-determining fate. It is not that Tucker is unaware of the need to balance the call for personal and social responsibility—she pays lip service to the latter in her Cosby columns. But she tips the scales heavily in favor of the poor creating the conditions of their success or failure. Thus she relegates her citation of the social forces that constrain them to a footnote. When it concerns Cosby’s carping, she is no longer outraged with society having turned its back on the poor—as if a black back turner is not as destructive and influential in his denunciations as a white conservative. Instead, Tucker joins Cosby in calling for Afristocrats to police the behavior of the poor. Tucker’s endorsement of such elitism is telling, a symptom of the condescension and paternalism that the Afristocracy has historically displayed toward the poor.

It seems that Tucker only opposes assaults on the poor when they originate from white society. She can only detect the heinous disregard for the social conditions that plague the poor when they emerge outside the race. But when the flag of attack waves broadly in black culture, especially under the leadership of an embittered Afristocrat such as Bill Cosby—an attack that is often joined by figures like talk show host Larry Elder or writer Shelby Steele—Tucker can only join the cavalry and ride roughshod over the nuanced and complex positions she otherwise upholds. As Tucker well knows, Cosby’s words count even more because he is a celebrated comic whose race-neutral politics have endeared him to a white audience that he has never tested, or turned against, in the way he has the black poor.

Of course, Cosby doesn’t stand alone. Katrina’s waters washed up hard against the class bigotry of all those black figures such as economists Thomas Sowell and Walter Williams who chimed in on Bill Cosby’s attack on the poor. There are many Afristocrats who actively fought against the poor, or who simply forgot them. There are even some who, like President George Bush, don’t care about poor blacks. Such views prevailed even among some black elites in the Delta. The black upper classes in eastern New Orleans, for example, have educated their children at predominantly black magnet schools such as McDonogh No. 35 Senior High School, Warren Easton Fundamental, and Eleanor McMain Magnet Secondary School, while the masses of poor blacks suffer in substandard schools. When we black folk rail against the moral failings of the poor while overlooking the inequality and deprivation they confront, whether in New Orleans or in Washington, D.C., we only inflame the suffering of the vulnerable without relieving their plight.

There is, too, a curious color dynamic that sadly persists in our culture. In fact, New Orleans invented the brown paper bag party—usually at a gathering in a home—where anyone darker than the bag attached to the door was denied entrance. The brown bag criterion survives as a metaphor for how the black cultural elite quite literally establishes caste along color lines within black life. On my many trips to New Orleans, whether to lecture at one of its universities or colleges, to preach from one of its pulpits, or to speak at an empowerment seminar during the annual Essence Music Festival, I have observed color politics at work among black folk. The cruel color code has to be defeated by our love for one another.

Of course, it is a marvelous sight to see so many black folk rally around the poor after Katrina. The press noted how Katrina was a “generation-defining catastrophe” that galvanized black generosity and solidarity throughout the nation. Black churches around the country raised millions of dollars for relief efforts. Several artists held or participated in fund-raisers. There was the S.O.S. (Saving OurSelves) Relief Telethon broadcast on BET and cosponsored by the National Urban League, the American Red Cross, the Hip-Hop Summit Action Network, and Essence Communications, which raised $10 million. The Jazz at Lincoln Center’s “Higher Ground” relief benefit was spearheaded by New Orleans native and the center’s artistic director Wynton Marsalis. There were several fund-raisers hosted by hip-hop artists, including Mississippi native David Banner’s Heal the Hood Hurricane Relief Concert. There were also extensive fund-raising efforts made by New Orleans natives Master P and Juvenile, Chicago’s Twista, and Brooklyn writer and activist Kevin Powell—joined by Common, Kanye West, Mos Def, and Talib Kweli. Many black professional athletes also visited the Gulf Coast and contributed money and time to relief efforts.

We should be reminded, however, that the black poor are flooded daily by material misery; they are routinely buffeted by harsh racial winds. The obvious absence of the black blessed at times of ongoing difficulty—to defend and protect the poor in principled fashion—underscores the woefully episodic character of black social regard. Lots of well-to-do black folk are doing a lot to help, but too many of us have left the black poor stranded on islands of social isolation and class alienation. Episodes of goodwill and compassion are no replacement for structural change. As Martin Luther King, Jr., said at Riverside Church exactly a year before he was murdered:

“On the one hand we are called to play the good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”

Charity is no substitute for justice. If we never challenge a social order that allows some to accumulate wealth—even if they decide to help the less fortunate—while others are shortchanged, then even acts of kindness end up supporting unjust arrangements. We must never ignore the injustices that make charity necessary, or the inequalities that make it possible.

What made Kanye West’s defense of the black poor so admirable is that it suggested the willingness of a rich black celebrity to sacrifice his reputation, perhaps even his livelihood, and surely his comfort, to speak out on behalf of his less-­fortunate brothers and sisters. The week after he was featured on the cover of Time magazine as the “smartest man in pop music,” West made his stand against Bush and conservative social neglect on television. West’s comments brought a predictable firestorm of controversy and criticism. Television ingenue Kelly Carlson, star of the series “Nip/Tuck,” was offended. “I don’t think a lot of people this day and age dislike black people,” the young white starlet said. “I mean I think we’ve kind of moved on from that. So to go on television and say that, I think it’s tacky, I think it’s very low rent.”

Obviously Carlson is unaware of all the comments made by whites in the aftermath of Katrina as to why “lazy, ignorant blacks” didn’t remove themselves from New Orleans when they heard the storm was coming. She must be oblivious to several incidents that occurred after Katrina struck that support West’s comments and that render hers naive at best, and willfully ignorant at worst. As Tulane University professor Lawrence N. Powell contends, racial animosity for black folk flared when they were barred from the predominantly white neighborhood of Gretna outside of New Orleans, and when a congressman celebrated nature’s destruction of public housing.

I don’t how to get this point across without being blunt, but white supremacists have dropped the pretense of code-speak and are saying flat-out, “don’t let them back in,” using the n-word for emphasis. These raw words echoed at the police blockade on the Mississippi River bridge connecting New Orleans with the West Bank of suburban Jefferson parish, where policemen from Gretna, a notoriously racist town, fired shots over the heads of Convention Center evacuees as they walked toward the on-ramp pursuant to instructions that buses were waiting on the other side to carry them to safety.... A friend who rode out the storm in Uptown New Orleans ... tells of witnessing gas station owners urging the military to keep blacks out. Several Uptown swells and white-shoe lawyers who huddled in the Hyatt Hotel across from the crowded misery inside the sodden and unsanitary Superdome were almost jubilant about the ethnic cleansing wrought by Katrina, so friends in the media report. Republican Congressman Richard Baker, representing a prosperous area of Baton Rouge, said this of the storm’s aftermath: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.”

New Orleans rapper Master P questioned whether West’s comments were genuine or inspired by commercial interests. “I hope the comments that Kanye West made is sincere and this is not a promotional thing to sell records,” Master P commented. “I know he’s got a new album out right now.” Master P’s personal involvement may have clouded his understanding of the critical relationship between politics and the relief for the poor he so desperately desired. “We gotta save people. We need George Bush, we need the Mayor [of New Orleans], we need the [Louisiana] Governor. I’ve lost people, I know how real it is. This ain’t about a promotional thing with me. I’ve got loved ones out there missing.” But unlike Carlson, West understood, indeed felt, the profound disregard for black life that the president’s policies reinforced. And unlike Master P, West understood that one of the reasons more help hadn’t gotten to the black poor more quickly is because of a delayed governmental response that had racial roots.

West proved that his comments were anchored in reason and passionate commitment, and not a one-off rant that was more cathartic than critical, when he defended himself a week later. “People are like, ‘Yo, aren’t you scared that something’s going to happen to you?’” West said. “I was like, ‘I can think of a lot worse things that could happen to me, like how about not eating for five days? Or how about not knowing where my f*** family is? Everybody’s always concerned about theyself.” West was critical of the nation’s denial of poverty, but he warned that it would come back to haunt us. “I just feel like America’s always been pushing the [impoverished] under the counter, trying to act like it’s not really there. And what happens if you’re cleaning the kitchen and you’re always dusting something under the counter? If you spill something, it’s going come up and be in your ... face.”

Not only did West redeem the sometimes sorry state of a hip-hop world careening on the gaudy trinkets of its own success—booze, broads, and bling—but his gesture signaled a political courage on the part of the black blessed that is today all too rare. Many hip-hop artists were encouraged by West’s words, affirming that he echoed the sentiments of less-known artists. Still others took them as the occasion to challenge themselves and their peers to bridge the gap between their art and their practice. “We’ve been screaming this for five years,” David Banner proclaimed about the critique of the Bush administration put forth by many rap artists. “You listen to your David Banners, Dead Prez, listen to rap music period. This is what rappers have been screaming all the time. The problem is America concentrates more on our cuss words. They don’t hear the pain in the music all the time. You just finally had somebody who has the power Kanye has, who said it at the right time.”

Fellow Southern rapper T.I. challenged the tall-talking emcees, who brag about living a lavish lifestyle, to furnish proof of their treasure in their philanthropy. “I called everybody’s bluff who be talking all that ballin’ sh**,” T.I. said. “Popping all them bottles in the club ... talking about how much girls and jewelry and cars they got. Let’s see how much money they’ve got for a good cause. Basically, I told everybody to put their money where their mouths are, and if you ain’t got no money to give to the cause, I don’t want to hear that sh** no more.” Chicago rapper Twista challenged black people to embrace the poor, who are wrongfully neglected by the government. “They’ve been bogus, so what is everybody so shocked about?” Twista said of the political establishment. “I feel the response was real slow, but I look at my own harder than I look at them. I feel like us as black folks were supposed to stop what we was doing, put all that sh** down and get these [disaster victims] straight.”

New Orleans rapper Juvenile, best known in the mainstream for the trend-setting single “Back That Thang Up,” lost his home and cars in the flood, but was critical of the poverty and corruption that plagued his beloved hometown before Katrina. “All we lost was our home,” he said. “A lot of people lost their lives. But we lost beyond a house or a door. We lost an environment. So we lost everybody. Everybody lost. We lost that spirit ... There ain’t nothing like New Orleans. We got spirit. We the smallest city, the highest in poverty. We was the lowest in the education system. We was just about to go on strike with the teachers. The school board system was corrupt. Our police system is corrupt. Our judicial system is corrupt.” Juvenile criticized the federal government but also suggested that, given the extreme poverty of many residents, the storm clouds of Katrina may have contained a silver lining. “It didn’t take a hurricane for me to do nothing for New Orleans,” he said, “’cause like Chris Rock said, we was f***** up before the hurricane hit. Y’all should’ve been sending us ... FEMA. We’ve been f***** up. For a lot of us that sh** was a blessing.”

Perhaps the most articulate, well-spoken supporter of Kanye West’s perspective is an NBA athlete whose political bona fides were established long before Katrina. “I definitely agree with Kanye West,” said the Washington Wizards’ Etan Thomas, who raised cash and gathered supplies for the hurricane survivors. “Had this been a rich, lily-white suburban area that got hit, you think they would have had to wait five days to get food or water? When the hurricane hit in Florida, Bush made sure those people got help the next day. But now, when you are dealing with a majority poorer class of black people, it takes five days? Then you still don’t send help but instead send the National Guard to ‘maintain order’? Are you kidding me?” The author of More Than an Athlete, a collection of verse that assails racism, the death penalty, and materialism, Thomas has made a conscious choice to embrace the heroic legacies of outspoken athletes who made their marks in their professions as a springboard to raising social consciousness. “I admire athletes of the past, like Bill Russell, Muhammad Ali, Jim Brown, John Carlos and Tommie Smith, Kareem [Abdul-Jabbar] — athletes who used their position as a platform to speak out on social issues and stand up for a cause. Basketball is not my life. A quote I live by is: ‘I speak my mind because biting my tongue would make my pride bleed.’”

Kanye West’s words, and those of the figures who supported him, suggest that not nearly enough of us are invested in consistently raising our voices for the voiceless. Narrow career interests and risk aversion define our number. Too many of us are “safe Negroes” who don’t realize that we can never really be safe until all black people are safe. Kanye West saw his identity tied to the identity of the poor, and realized that the people who were drowning were “my people.” That simple act of identification is the primal scream of recognition of kin through the bonds of shared history and conscience.

Excerpted from “Come Hell or High Water” by Michael Eric Dyson. Copyright © 2006 by Michael Eric Dyson. Published by Perseus Books Group. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt can be used without permission of the publisher.