“George Bush does not care about black people!”
– Kanye West going seriously off-script is amongst the most iconic unplanned television moments of the 21st century.
Whilst being careful not to place too much gravitas on a man who refers to himself as ‘The Louis Vuitton Don,’ Mr West must be credited for risking his career with the most honest statement injected into the midst of a public show since a Danish child declared his Emperor should probably put some pants on.
George Bush would later say that Kanye’s attack was the worst moment of his Presidency, worse than 9/11, Iraq and the 2008 crash. “I’m not racist” Bush protested (which, by the way, only ever makes people sound more racist). All those years later, he still couldn’t comprehend what Yeezy could have meant by that statement. Well if it’s still giving ‘W’ sleepless nights on the ranch, maybe he could look at the media response to the New Orleans Mother’s Day shooting, compare it to the response that followed the tragic events that took place in Massachusetts or Connecticut recently and see if that doesn’t help clarify things a bit
Kanye, as rappers tend to do, chose his words careful when he said what he said in 2005. He didn’t say Bush hates black people, he said ‘he doesn’t care.’ He was saying Bush sees poor black people as people, but still belonging to a cultural group distinct from his own. These are not people that Bush looks at and shares a sense of identity with. Kanye was alluding to the fact that Bush’s empathy could not overcome the hurdles erected by the social distinctions of race, class and wealth. These hurdles barred Bush, consciously or subconsciously, from prioritizing the suffering of the people of New Orleans as he would with rich white people in his neighborhood in Texas.
In 2013, there is a new President of darker pigmentation. But a change in President doesn’t lead to an immediate change in society’s power structure – and that power structure still dictates normative narratives that continue to edit out America’s tragic tale of New Orleans.
I was fortunate enough to spend a few months living in New Orleans whilst working with a law firm last year. My impressions was that New Orleans is certainly a city apart; it is aware of its outsider status and wears it’s technicolored lifestyle proudly on its sleeve. Maybe it is this self-conscious embrace of difference that leads to the mainstream seeing it as somehow ‘un-American .’ Its kind of European, it has a little of the African, a bit of the Caribbean and a lot of the outer-space about it. But it is also associated with violence and a reputation as being America’s ‘murder city’. The combined effect of all this allows the media to view the city as a place where horrific events like the shooting that occurred last Sunday, are ‘meant’ to take place. The shooting in New Orleans has been subtly denied the status of tragedy as the domestic and international coverage has been virtually non-existent. David Dennis wrote an excellent piece in The Guardian this week asking why the New Orleans shooting isn’t being considered a tragedy. He highlighted the fact that the story hadn’t even finished before the media lost interest. The suspects were still at large as the story disappeared from the newspapers.
Remember the media coverage when the Boston suspects were on the run?
A tragedy is not determined by facts or the body count, it is reliant upon public perception. Writer Aldous Huxley told us ‘We participate in tragedy. At comedy we only look.” What we collectively decide to be a tragedy says more about us that about the actually horror of the event we mourn. When we decide that the shooting of innocent teenagers in our hometown is tragic but not the unprovoked drone strike that killed on 16-year old U.S citizen Abdulrahman al-Awlak in Yemen, we are subconsciously revealing who we think should be included in the club of empathy. Watch the below video for the reality of the tragedy that the media has minimized:
When you see this you have to ask, why isn’t this a bigger story? Why isn’t there blanket media coverage, outcry from all over the globe and vocal demand from all media outlets to find out how this could have happened? Where are the Alex Jones conspiracy theories, the internet trolls posting ‘THE TRUTH’ on every Youtube video, blaming Obama for orchestrating the whole thing to take away their liberty? The reason for the absence of Benghazi-level paranoia is the same reason behind Bush’s lethargic response to Katrina, the same reason why the anniversary of Katrina passes each year with minimal acknowledgement, whilst a few a weeks later mourning for 9/11 is compulsory even for us here in London. People I got to know in New Orleans hadn’t forgotten how it felt to be deserted and then demonized by the rest of the country when they were crying out for help; I’m sure they are not too surprised with the lack of reaction to the Mother’s Day shooting either. As President ‘W’ said: Fool me once, erm… fool me twice… fool me you can’t fool me again.”
An enduring irony of the global appeal of America is that it often comes from the margins, those who are being excluded from the official national narrative. In other countries it is usually the culture of the mainstream that is exported overseas. Yet it was the second class negroes of this ‘un-american’ city who are credited with creating the first ‘American artform’ in Jazz. Jazz was embraced around the world in same way the hip-hop of the South Bronx left behind by Reganomics would also be nearly a century later. New Orleans will of course recover from this latest tragedy; behind all the magic and madness in city was a toughness that any visitor could not ignore. However, the rest of America may wish to start expanding its empathy to include this city again. Because with its multi-cultural influences and avowed lust for life, not just is New Orleans part of America, it might just be its best part.