Vice President Kamala Harris’ team and the White House are in full damage control mode after she said earlier this week that the federal government would focus on racial equity in its response to the Hurricane Ian disaster.
Imma need them to stop it, because Harris told no lies and said nothing she needs to be equivocal about. She told a truth, a truth that’s been true for a long time and moreover a truth that, if the world around us is any indication, will only be more true as time goes on. I’ll go out on a limb and say that not even Kamala Harris was fully present in the truth she was speaking when she said this to a group gathering of the Democratic National Committee over the weekend:
“It is our lowest-income communities and our communities of color that are most impacted by these extreme conditions and impacted by issues that are not of their own making. So we have to address this in a way that is about giving resources based on equity.”
What Harris didn’t say is the thing that scares racist white folks the most—that poor Black people would get priority in determining how hurricane relief money was spent. But so the hell what if she had?
The fact that extreme weather conditions impact poor people—who in this country disproportionately tend to be Black and Hispanic and live in places and under conditions more prone to the consequences of natural disasters—made the Fox News crowd’s heads pop completely off their shoulders. As if there’s nothing bigger for them to be enraged about, like I dunno, their U.S. Senate candidate’s son calling out his father on Twitter for being an abusive deadbeat.
But the reality is that government responses to natural disasters in this country have nearly always centered on race and class. It’s just that until now, that dynamic has only been actualized in ways that hurt poor people. The best examples, of course, were the local, state and federal government responses to Hurricane Katrina. Poor and working class Black folk were more likely to have lived in low-lying parts of New Orleans, close to the bodies of water where breached levees failed to hold back the deadly flood.
As a result, overwhelmingly Black neighborhoods like the Lower Ninth Ward, New Orleans East and Gentilly is where the most people were left stranded when the water rose. It was residents of those neighborhoods who were left to fend for themselves, wading through floodwaters or walking miles to shelter inside the then-named Superdome after being stranded for days on rooftops and overpasses without food or water or the protection of police, who had largely abandoned the city. And it’s those communities that, nearly two decades later, still haven’t fully recovered.
But you don’t need to look to a natural disaster a quarter century ago to get Harris’ point. Jackson, Mississippi, a majority-Black city that also happens to be the capital of its state, suffered a near total failure of its municipal water system just last month. That failure was preceded by record flooding, which was fueled by the same climate change feeding megastorms like Ian and Katrina before it.
Those storms are expected to happen more frequently and to leave more death and destruction in their wake. The people who stand to lose the most—who stand to die the most—are the ones who have always been on the wrong side of structural inequity in this country. As we speak, conservatives are pretending the vice president of the United States saying hurricane relief needs to happen in an equitable way is bad thing, while every Florida House Republican last week voted against a bill that includes federal disaster relief funds that could be used to help their own state.
They can afford to talk out of both sides of their mouths because the people hurt worst by their inaction aren’t wealthy whites who tend to vote GOP and have enough insurance to rebuild. In the meantime, Black Floridians are wondering if anyone will help them.
Harris looks like the only politician even talking about that, and she shouldn’t walk back from it.