The Spotlight Moves On

When Kanye West quipped on national television last September, as an astonished Mike Meyers looked on, that George Bush "doesn’t care about black people," he was only partly right. George Bush doesn’t care about white people, either. In fact, George Bush only cares about rich people.

© Jerry Russell

But even that’s not telling the whole story. As much as I dislike our president, he’s not unlike much of the world, which doesn’t care much for poor people of any color, except in crises like Katrina. And even then, once the cameras have packed up and gone home and the politicians" hollow promises of "never again" have faded, it’s back to business-as-usual.

The slow pace of relief and rebuilding in New Orleans isn’t all that unfamiliar to victims of the Indian Ocean tsunami. In Sri Lanka, according to the Save the Children office there, 500,000 people were displaced by the storm and, 15 months later, many are still living in refugee camps waiting for new housing. Meanwhile, 70 percent of the $204 million that Japan donated to the effort remains unspent. Even without deadly storms, poor people in the region face daily threats of discharging effluent pipes, smelly toxic air and polluted (or scarce) drinking water.

Southeast Louisiana was an environmental nightmare before Katrina. "Cancer Alley," the stretch of the Mississippi between New Orleans and Baton Rouge, has more than 100 polluting chemical plants, oil refineries and other industries routinely sending their waste discharge downwind or downstream, mostly into neighborhoods that are both black and poor. Not levee breaks, but they might as well be.

It is no accident, really, that all over the world it is the poor who bear the brunt of not only direct exploitation by other people—including environmental insults like nearby location of incinerators, industrial facilities and oil fields—but also of being in the crosshairs when disasters occur. For that matter, I don’t recall that anyone from Beverly Hills was trapped down in those West Virginia mines. There, too, public sympathy and concern will wither away as soon as the cameras move back to their usual focus on the lifestyles of the rich and famous.

I have to admit I took some delight last fall in watching CNN’s Anderson Cooper squirm a bit—choosing his words ever so carefully so as not to condemn his media colleagues (and bosses)—when Realtime‘s Bill Maher asked if all the hair-flailing, hip-booted media coverage of Katrina might mean "we got our press corps back."

The media covered Katrina exhaustively, but only as it unfolded as a dramatic news event. The task of rebuilding is not so exciting to cover. It has some visuals—like men in protective spacesuits—but the danger from lingering toxic chemicals and bacteria has been largely ignored, as has the pathetically small amount of money that has been budgeted to remediate environmental (read: health) problems. And that’s the part of the story that should be making headlines, even after the camera crews have departed.