Today's date:
Fall 2005

New Orleans Revealed Ignorance of the Other

Richard Sennett, professor of social and cultural thought at the London School of Economics, is one of America’s most prominent experts on race, class and cities. His books include The Hidden Injuries of Class, The Fall of Public Man and The Corrosion of Character. He comments are adapted from a interview for NPQ’s weekly column, Global Viewpoint.

INVISIBILITY AND RAGE | In America there is a peculiar sociological phenomenon that is not present in the places where the tsunami hit, but was plain for all to seee after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. It has been true for a very long time in America that blacks have only appeared as part of civic life when something goes wrong. Think back to the race riots of the 1960s: America suddenly discovered, it seemed for the first time, that blacks were living in our major cities.

Part of the problem here is that there is a long history of invisibility of poor blacks in America. The emotional damage of non-recognition is deeply corrosive. When people are treated as invisible they tend to respond in a way which, let us say, is not grateful for suddenly being seen. A kind of psychological flood of rage is released that is a response to decades of what I call “the hidden injuries of class.” This dialectic of social invisibility and rage is what leads to the looting and other destructive and self-destructive behavior of the kind we saw in New Orleans.

Despite their poverty, the victims of the tsunami in South Asia were socially visible in normal times, in part because the poor are the majority. Rather than rage, they exhibited an enormous collective solidarity in the wake of catastrophe.

A WITHERED PUBLIC REALM | What happened in New Orleans was not an event. It was the end point of a long process of degradation of American civic life and the evisceration of the state.

In America, the state—at the national, state and local level—has been hollowed out. The effectiveness of the state has been under attack since the end of the Great Society a quarter of a century ago. What we have seen in New Orleans is not some short-term bureaucratic bungling of a relief effort. It is the result of the demise of the state.

What I despair of is that the question of blame will be personalized, whether George W. Bush or some governor or mayor did this or that right or wrong. It could all end up like the self-deluding response to 9/11. We looked around for someone to blame, so we attacked Iraq, even though it was beside the point.

But the real blame is structural. My hope is that, instead, there would be a discussion about how to restore state power at all levels.

Truly, the inability to deal with this crisis is, in my view, one of the first signs of the decay of the United States. I don’t mean decadence in the Roman sense, but in the sense of an inability to face reality. A lack of realism has gripped America, from its foreign policy to its urban policy.

After 25 years of eroding the state, we seem to have lost even the ability to inquire as a society into the larger issue of how public realm should be structured. Instead we descend into polemical recrimination or debates over the technical details of disaster relief. Public discourse itself has so atrophied we are unable to address social problems rationally. That is a measure of decadence.

INTEGRATED CITIES | Let’s start with American cities: They should be more spatially integrated. Poor blacks could be come invisible in American cities because they were never physically present. By and large, their daily lives take place far from the spaces inhabited by the white middle class. Out of sight, out of mind. Localization is a way of weakening the public realm.

This was illustrated very disturbingly by the well-meaning governor of Louisiana in assessing the evacuation of New Orleans. She couldn’t imagine that many people didn’t have a car to get out of town or a credit card to check into a hotel!

If American cities were more spatially integrated, there would be more knowledge of each other. That is the foundation of an effective public realm.

In Europe, the debate would, ironically, be how to make the poor anonymous through inclusion. American culture, particularly the left, has put such a premium on the value of difference that it makes it hard to formulate policies for all citizens as essentially equal. Rather, the discussion in America immediately turns to what it means to be black and poor instead of what is owed to citizens as citizens.

Spatial integration of American cities would put an end to this strain of “don’t want to know” about the other we’ve seen since the Puritans and the Indians and see today with blacks and whites in New Orleans or whites and Hispanics in Los Angeles.

Spatial dis-integration has led to the literal stupidity of some Americans in the Greek sense—ignorance of the other.