The doctor: How come I've never seen you people before?
Okwe: Because we are the people you do not see. We are the ones who drive your cabs. We clean your rooms. And suck your cocks.
What Hurrican Katrina has revealed so starkly in New Orleans is that it does. It has brought to the forefront of our minds "the people you do not see."
"We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color," said Rep. Elijah E. Cummings, D-Md. "It would be unconscionable to stand by and do nothing."
When 80 percent of the city's population, according to the mayor, evacuated before Hurricane Katrina, that left behind those with no cars, no resources, no way out. Twenty-one percent of Orleans Parish households earn less than $10,000 a year. Nearly 27,000 families are below the poverty level. Most of those families are black.
Larry E. Davis, director of the University of Pittsburgh's Center on Race and Social Problems, said images of the disaster are an embarrassment to this nation.
"It suggests that the residuals of a racist legacy are still very much intact," he said. "It's as though you are looking at a picture of an African country."
Racial disparity in access to health care has been documented. Last December, the American Journal of Public Health reported that 886,000 African American deaths could have been prevented between 1991-2000 if they had the same care as whites.
Indeed the response has been slow, and inept in a situation where those who are well off were able to get out, and those who are poor were stranded at the convention center and any other of many places arround the City.
It shouldn't be a surprise that the world is seeing a sea of black faces, interspersed with a few low-income whites. The population of New Orleans, home of jazz, gumbo and lagniappe -- which means a little something extra -- is nearly 70 percent black. And very, very poor.
The reason many of those left behind didn't evacuate was that they didn't have a car or enough gas to make it to safety. Or they couldn't imagine leaving behind Ma'Dear, who lost both legs to diabetes.
Native Cajuns were already oppressed before the hurricane swallowed their remaining hope. The public schools are inadequate. Jobs are scarce. A simmering undercurrent of black-on-black violence is as thick there as jambalaya.
Add hunger. No electricity. No running water. No air conditioning. And no available medicine or medical care. Throw in the images of dead corpses and animal carcasses floating on downtown streets. Mix in the potential for epidemics of dysentery, tetanus and cholera.
The people who have been stranded, without food or water for several days now, must certainly feel forgotten, neglected and abandoned.
New Orleans' bad element, already flourishing in this city flush with danger and seduction, even intimidates the cops. And folks without any other way to get attention from rescue helicopters are shooting as the whirlybirds approach -- not to harm, but because their shouts don't reach high enough.
The media are adding to the confusion. Two different newswire captions for pictures of people carrying soggy groceries as they wade through chest-deep water describe a black man as "looting" and two white people as "finding." CNN.com changed the wording Thursday, however, after the photos made the rounds on blogs and e-mail lists.
Enter John Edwards, the only major political figure who seems to be able to talk about class. Here is a man who understands what is really going on here, the issues of class that he spoke about in the Presidential primaries have been brought to the front pages of our newspapers and the images on the television. While the most important thing to talk about right now is an effective releif operation, it is high time, while the Country still has the images of Katrina's devastation for Democrats to talk about class, as it is the very basis of our entire economic argument.
Commentators on television have expressed surprise, saying they think that most people didn't know there was such poverty in America. Thirty-seven million Americans live in poverty, most of them are the working poor, but it is clear that they have been invisible. But if these commentators are right, this tragedy can have a great influence, if we listen to its message.
The people most devastated have always lived on a razor blade, afraid of any setback, any illness, any job loss that could disrupt the fragile balance they achieved paycheck to paycheck. They didn't leave New Orleans because they couldn't leave. Some didn't leave their homes because they wanted to protect the hard-won possessions that made their lives a little easier.
The government released new poverty statistics this week. The number of Americans living in poverty rose again last year. Thirteen million children -- nearly one in every five -- lives in poverty. Close to 25 percent of all African Americans live in poverty. Twenty-three percent of the population in New Orleans lives in poverty. Those are chilling numbers. Because of Katrina, we have now seen many of the faces behind those numbers.
Poverty exists everywhere in America. It is in Detroit and El Paso. It is in Omaha, Nebraska and Stockton, California. It is in rural towns like Chillicothe, Ohio and Pine Bluff, Arkansas. Nearly half of the children in Detroit, Atlanta and Long Beach, California live in poverty. It doesn't have to be this way. We can begin embracing policies that offer opportunity, reward responsibility, and assume the dignity of each American.
There are immediate needs in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, and the first priority is meeting those, but after that, we need to think about the American community, about the one America we think we are, the one we talk about. We need people to feel more than sympathy with the victims, we need them to feel empathy with our national community that includes the poor. We have missed opportunities to make certain that all Americans would be more than huddled masses. We have been too slow to act in the face in the misery of our brothers and sisters. This is an ugly and horrifying wake-up call to America. Let us pray we answer this call. Now is the time to act.
Here's to the victems of Katrina, to the poor and downtrodden in America. And in the future may you cease to be "the people you do not see", may we understand your problems, and show more humanity towards our fellow human beings than we have for a very long time.
Cross posted at DailyKos.