When someone who, as a teenager, reported on the assassination of Martin Luther King and who has analysed every turning point in black America since tells you they are enraged, you take notice.
Manning Marable is calm and forensic, but there’s no concealing his anger, shared, he notes, by millions of Americans at the “criminal response” to the New Orleans tragedy.
“What struck me most,” he says, “was that the feeling that has swept African Americans, regardless of political affiliation, is the outrage. They have simply been enraged by the inaction, contempt and ineptitude of the Bush regime towards this crisis.
“Black Republicans, few in number as they are, were appalled and enraged by the racist contempt of the government. Perhaps the possible exception is Bush’s secretary of state, Condoleezza Rice.
“The second most striking thing about the socio-economic and moral crisis represented by the tragedy of New Orleans is that so many millions of Americans were deeply surprised by what they saw.”
Marable’s account of the disaster will be familiar to many, but in being retold loses none of its power to shock.
“The disaster eminently could have been avoided. There had been long discussions with civil defence authorities about the dangers of a hurricane or tropical storm hitting New Orleans.
“The city is well below sea-level. When you visit the city it’s impossible not to notice, even when you are on relatively high ground such as the French Quarter, that the Mississippi river looms over it.
“Ward nine, which is historically the poorest African American neighbourhood, is most vulnerable because it is right next to the levees. The danger of flooding is worst in the parts of the city that are most economically disadvantaged.
“Everybody knew this. Everybody knew that the levees weren’t safe if even a category three storm hit the city. It was truly a disaster waiting to happen.”
The hollowing out of New Orleans may be especially pronounced, but it fits a pattern of what has happened to other US cities over the last few decades of neo-liberalism and sharpening social division.
“The population of the city itself had shrunk. In the core area were about 500,000 people. The wider metro area had a little over a million.
“In a city like New Orleans the wealthy and upper class residents live in their vast majority — about 90 percent — in the suburbs. They live near the airport or further out — out of harm’s way — and simply commute into the city to work.
“The white middle class, almost to a person, was able to get out. It was the poor, the African Americans who were left behind. You are talking about people who had no assets, who most often didn’t own a car. There was no physical way for them to leave.
“Yet within 24 hours Fema, the agency responsible for responding to disasters, began a mantra saying that these were people who chose to deliberately ignore warnings about evacuation.
“That was not only a gross distortion of the truth, it was deeply racist—and the Fema representatives knew it.
“Out of the half a million people in the central city, there were about 200,000 who are overwhelmingly African American and very young or elderly.
“Many of the elderly suffer from diabetes or other kinds of chronic illnesses. Others have never lived anywhere else in their entire lives. Their networks, support systems and families are wrapped up in those communities.
“Where were they going to go? They don’t have discretionary income to be able to fly out at a moment’s notice.
“Even if they did, there weren’t enough planes to accommodate them. Fema made no provision for mass public transport to evacuate the city. To then blame the people who died as irresponsible for not getting out is so outrageous it’s hard to wrap your mind around it.
“Yet that’s what they did on the television. That’s why millions of black people and progressive white people were totally outraged by it. Even the media, after being embedded for so long in Iraq, began to reflect the truth.
“Even reporters for Fox News began to defect from the right wing line. These are journalists accustomed to parroting the pro-American, patriotic line.
“There was nothing patriotic about this mass, wholesale, deliberate, federal slaughter of innocent people, who had done nothing wrong except, perhaps, to have a misplaced trust that federal authorities would intercede to protect them.”
The images of “corpses left to rot” and of “elderly women left to die outside the Superdome” are set to haunt the Bush administration throughout its second term.
The statistics on the class and racial divisions in the US may not be viscerally visual, but they are just as shocking in their own right.
“The typical white household has a net wealth of about $90,000,” says Marable, “for African Americans it’s about $6,000.”
In 1983 his book, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, Marable documented the murderous social divide that existed at the onset of the neo-liberal offensive.
“The figures today are much worse,” he says. “The media focuses not on net wealth, but on median income. If you do that, you ignore wealth accumulation, asset control and asset ownership.
“For example, 70 percent of all white Americans are owner-occupiers. For African Americans the figure is 46 percent, for Hispanics, less than 40 percent.
“One third of all black households have negative net wealth. That’s hard to do — they owe more than the totality of the clothes on their back and the possessions they have built up in the course of their lives.
“About 21 or 22 percent of black households are today below the federal government’s established poverty line. Again that minimises the extent of poverty because the government’s statistics do not truly reflect the levels of poverty.”
The last such wholesale transfer of wealth from the bottom to the top of US society was in the 1920s. Following a hurricane in 1927 the New Orleans authorities flooded the poor areas to save the property of the wealthy who, as today, also had the means to escape.
Two years later the Wall Street Crash punctured the facade of prosperity and plunged the world into economic depression.
“There are parallels. The 1920s also coincide with the consolidation of white supremacy in the South — the Jim Crow regime in Louisiana and Mississippi.
“The administrations of Calvin Coolidge and later Herbert Hoover were extremely pro-business, anti-labour and anti-black — just like the Bush regime.”
So why has racist division persisted, despite a civil war in the 1860s that ended slavery, the transformation of the US into the world’s dominant power, immense economic development and the civil rights movement of the 1950s and 1960s?
“I’ve written several books trying to answer that question, at least for myself. In 2002 I wrote a book titled The Great Wells of Democracy.
“The first chapter is called Structural Racism, a Short History and I’ve got a new book coming out in December or January called Living Black History.
“The short answer is: because the US was constructed on a racial foundation. By that I mean that the state is, in effect, structurally racist.
“Prefiguring the state was a political economy based on chattel slavery of people of African descent. So the state apparatus and all institutions given licence by the state are riddled through and compromised by the existence of slavery as foundational to the society.
“There are so many ways to document this. The White House itself was partially constructed by slave labour. That statue of freedom on top of the Capitol dome was lifted up and placed there by black slave labour.
“Most of the major corporations are descended from businesses that in the 18th or 19th centuries profited from slavery. Many of the founders and original trustees of the institution I teach in, Columbia University, got their money from slavery. You could go on and on.”
Marable outlines four, what he calls, racial domains, which have characterised US history. “By racial domain I mean a social formation with a specific political economy and a set of relations of inequality which are grounded in notions of white supremacy and black inferiority.
“These four domains were slavery, Jim Crow segregation in the South, urban ghettoisation and the fourth domain, which has emerged in last quarter of a century — what I call the New Racial Domain.
“It is characterised by three things, an unholy trinity — mass unemployment, mass incarceration, and mass political disenfranchisement.”
The three seemingly colour blind elements come together in to reimpose racist divisions. “By unemployment, I don’t just mean occasional joblessness,” explains Marable. “There are millions of blacks and Latinos who are outside of the paid labour force, not just occasionally unemployed, but outside the formal economy.
“So in a community such as where I live, I’m looking outside right now at Harlem in New York, something like 50 percent of the male adults have been unemployed at some point in the last 12 months.
“Something like 40 percent of the population of this community is in the informal sector. That kind of unemployment drives who is going to go to prison.”
The expansion of the US prison population is staggering. “The US has 2.2 million citizens incarcerated, but that’s not a static group. About 650,000 people enter prison every year and a similar number are released.
“Then you have the people on probation, parole or awaiting trial. If you add those to the number it’s about 5.5 to 6 million people a year who are sucked in to the criminal justice system.”
One result is that millions of people are shut out even the limited electoral process just as surely as when black people were denied the vote across the Deep South in the 1950s.
“The reason is that in most states prisoners cannot vote and neither can those on parole. In about seven states you lose the right to vote for the rest of your life if you have a single felony conviction.
“In virtually every state a single conviction means you lose the right to be employed in a whole series of jobs for the rest of your life.
“Here in New York, for example, you have to have a licence to be a barber, a plumber, a beautician… you are prescribed from all of these jobs for a single felony conviction.
“Because the police operate in a racialised way, blacks and Latinos are disproportionately arrested and receive longer sentences for identical crimes to those committed by white people.
“Consequently, what is being constructed is a two-tiered, racialised society.”
All this is nearly half a century on from when Rosa Parks sparked the civil rights movement by refusing to give up her seat on a bus to a white man in the city of Montgomery on 1 December 1955.
“Sure, the white and coloured signs have long since been taken down. The Civil Rights Act of 1964 outlawed segregation in public accommodation.
“The 1965 act gave blacks the right to vote—this is 100 years after the end of the Civil War, don’t forget. Yet in a state like Mississippi today one third of all black males are disenfranchised from voting because they have a conviction.”
While the state’s repressive arm has strengthened its grasp on society, it has retreated from intervening in welfare and public life.
“Neo-liberalism has left local government truncated, unable to expand services. The white upper class and upper middle class flees to the suburbs, leaving the core central cities to rot.”
Marable is an activist, who was part of the movement around black Democrat Jesse Jackson’s bid for the presidency in the 1980s and who has documented the retreat from radicalism of many progressive and black organisations since then.
“The real question is what’s to be done?” he says. “In the 1990s I was involved in an effort to create something called the Black Radical Congress (BRC). A network of radical activists that was explicitly anti-capitalist, anti-racist and anti-sexist.
“It was committed to working with broad, progressive multi-racial and multi-ethnic forces.
“We did a lot of different things. We focused in part on the issues surrounding the prison-industrial complex and also on school privatisation issues—turning over our schools to corporations is just about as outrageous as what happened in New Orleans.
“There is no denying that 9/11 had a deep negative impact on the progressive movement. There was an upsurge in anti-war and anti-racist activity in 2002, but it failed to consolidate and sustain organisations that could deepen and broaden that movement to reach sections of the working class in an effective way.
“The same was true of the BRC. Part of our problem was objective, sectarian errors that we committed. There was a lot of success at some levels, but there was an overall failure to consolidate a national centre which would help to sustain movement across the board.”
As for today — there are signs of hope amid a rampant crisis.
“Many people are now talking about how we fight back. I really wish that we had an effective BRC now, because that could be a conduit.
“In the absence of a coherent socialist or left political pole the rage of many younger African Americans may take them to the arguments of other oppositional groups to the US war machine.
“There has, for example, been what I would estimate as a threefold increase in the number of African Americans converting to Islam over the last four years.”
Could the response to New Orleans, the revitalised anti-war movement and other strands come together in new political formation?
“It may. One of the things that might compromise these hopeful signs is the disarray of the US labour movement. Over the summer the national union federation, the AFL-CIO, split at a time of enormous weakness and backwardness of leadership.
“Progressives are not of one mind about how to interpret this split.
“If we had a stronger, clearer labour movement I would feel much more hopeful about what can come out of this.
“However, there are developments. There are meetings taking place right now among, for example, younger African Americans who are influenced heavily by the hip-hop community.
“I’m on the board of the national hip-hop summit action network. We are having a meeting next week to discuss what can be done around New Orleans but also more generally how can hip-hop culture respond to the crisis.
“The same thing is going to happen in policy way with the Congressional Black Caucus.”
But there is no escaping from the fact that “in the absence of a strong left, grounded in labour or in the black freedom struggle, there is a sense of a lack of organisation to immediately respond to a crisis.
“One hopeful sign is that firm belief now among millions of people that the government is criminal, that it’s shown itself to be deeply, irresponsibly racist.
“So universities have stopped teaching the curriculum over the last few days. Instead there are intense conversations and meetings about what does New Orleans mean.
“One student said to me that this is the most profound thing that had happened to illustrate racism to him — he was a white student.
“He said he didn’t live through the Selma march or the Montgomery bus boycott. He was an infant when Jesse Jackson ran for president and during the anti-apartheid mobilisations of the late 1980s.
“But New Orleans highlighted to him the race/class chasm that cuts to the heart of power in this country.
“The challenge is to build organisations, resistance, agency and leadership to challenge a regime that is trampling over nearly 300 million people at home and many more abroad.”
Manning Marable's Z-Net homepage: www.zmag.org/bios/homepage.cfm?authorID=76
Manning Marable’s pathbreaking book on racism in the United States, How Capitalism Underdeveloped Black America, is available from Bookmarks, the socialist bookshop. Phone 020 7637 1848 or go to www.bookmarks.uk.com