Originally issued September 2005.

Three weeks ago, Hurricane Katrina bared our nation’s soul — our hearts have been broken by the voices and images coming from the battered Gulf Coast region. Many within the Pax Christi movement have responded to this catastrophe, opening their homes to survivors, donating to relief efforts, and offering prayers for all those affected. Hundreds of Pax Christi members were also displaced because of the storm, including members of Pax Christi New Orleans and local groups throughout the Gulf region.

These last days have provided a searing image of what racism and misplaced national priorities look like in the United States. It was particularly overwhelming to be confronted with the media images of the disproportionate number of people – many of whom were people of color and living in poverty – unable to evacuate their communities. The emergency response to these sisters and brothers was shameful, and symbolic of failures in how our wealthy nation treats people who are poor and marginalized.

While racism lies behind the question “Who was left behind?”, it also played a large role in media coverage, despite the efforts from some reporters to strike back at political posturing. News reports on white people looking for food and drink labeled them as survivors, while news stories reporting on black people doing the same thing labeled them as looters and robbers. The media were also only too quick to label survivors as refugees, despite the fact that these individuals are U.S. citizens – people who pay U.S. taxes, vote in U.S. elections, and contribute to the health and well-being of the entire Gulf Coast region.

The devastating effects of environmental racism are also felt throughout the South, as areas submerged in “toxic soup” are primarily in communities of color. Large petrochemical, plastic and manufacturing companies have sowed damage in poor communities of color in the Gulf region for decades, while making millions of dollars in profit at these communities’ expense. The massive flooding throughout this region has only exacerbated the pollution these communities experience.

This disaster has also reminded the nation of the consequences of our country’s spending priorities. While the Bush administration and Congress continue to spend significant national resources on the occupation of Iraq, money dedicated for U.S. infrastructure and community development has been slashed dramatically. These cuts are emblematic of a decades-long trend by the federal government to divest from community development projects.

Hurricane Katrina has shown that the politics of individualism have eroded in our national conscience the sense of a commitment to the common good. Our true failures as a nation regarding Hurricane Katrina cannot be blamed on one individual, but on a national ideology of personal responsibility over community well-being; a national ideology that says “you are only entitled to what you can afford,” rather than “we are all entitled to the basic necessities of life.”

We are now in the 25th anniversary year of the U.S. Bishops’ historic pastoral on racism, “Brothers and Sisters to Us.” As the bishops wrote in the pastoral, “Each of us as Catholics must acknowledge a share in the mistakes and sins of the past. Many of us have been prisoners of fear and prejudice. We have preached the Gospel while closing our eyes to the racism it condemns.”

Hurricane Katrina has provided an opportunity for all of white America to acknowledge some level of participation in the racist structures that brought about this unimaginable degree of suffering. As a predominately white organization, Pax Christi USA must open its eyes to the lingering fears and prejudices that keep us from the mindfulness needed to be accountable to the most disempowered of our brothers and sisters. We, too, must read the Gospel with anti-racist eyes, and seek the next steps in our own transformation into a people who, as part of our mission, would have been working alongside our brothers and sisters of color, caring about and preparing for their safety and continued well being long before Hurricane Katrina hit.

During this phase of clean-up and recovery in the Gulf Region, let us hold up the work being done by grassroots, low-income, people of color-led organizations. A list of groups can be found at http://katrina.mayfirst.org/. These organizations are at the forefront of organizing at the grassroots level in hurricane-affected areas, and are providing immediate disaster relief to poor people and people of color; are directed by, or accountable to, poor people and people of color; and are fostering the democratic inclusion of poor people and people of color in the rebuilding process.

As the coverage of Hurricane Katrina continues in the next weeks and months, let us, as Catholics, also strive to call to accountability those institutions that contributed to the misery that has exposed our country’s racist underpinnings to the entire world. As we open our eyes to ourselves, we also turn our eyes toward the structures that support the daily evil of racism. “Our struggle is not only against blood and flesh but against powers and principalities.” (Ephesians 6:12)

The bishops wrote 25 years ago, “[T]he sin of racism defiles the image of God and degrades the sacred dignity of humankind which has been revealed by the mystery of the Incarnation. Let all know that (racism) is a terrible sin that mocks the cross of Christ…for the brother and sister of our Brother Jesus Christ are brother and sister to us.” (Brothers and Sisters to Us, 1979)

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