The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

The Independent Student Newspaper of St. John's University

The Torch

Like a Hurricane

On Wednesday, Sept. 20, acclaimed author and University of Pennsylvania professor Dr. Michael Eric Dyson spoke at St. John’s University in a lecture entitled “Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Colors of Disaster.”

“When I think of Hurricane Katrina, I think of one of the most devastating natural disasters in U.S. history,” he said. “Everybody was at fault when it came to the government down there.”

Dyson has written several books, including the New York Times best seller Is Bill Cosby Right? and The Myth and Meaning of Malcolm X, as well as his newest book on race in Hurricane Katrina, for which the lecture was named.

Dyson compared the events and controversies of Hurricane Katrina to the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.

“Between 9/11 and August 29 of last year, there is a tale of two cities,” he said. “There was a vast outpouring of empathy and sympathy [for both tragedies]… [but] there is a jarring contrast between the help offered in the wake of Sept. 11 and Hurricane Katrina.”

Dyson added that the federal government actually turned down offers from several other nations to donate to the Katrina rescue effort through both materials and man power.

“When the Bush administration said ‘We don’t want to point fingers,’ that’s because the fingers most likely would’ve been pointing at them,” Dyson said to applause and laughter.

Dyson’s view on the ineptitude of the rescue and clean-up efforts was backed by the speech of Bethany Housman, a graduate student of sociology, who preceded Dyson with a recount of her “Plunge” trip to New Orleans last March with the University’s Campus Ministries and Catholic Charities.

“Our group was let down by the improvements made in six months,” Housman said. “It looked like the levees had broken the night before… There are still homes in the middle of streets, still families with no place to live.”

After Dyson finished speaking about the poor showing of the local and federal governments, he related it to the topics he is most well-known for, race and class.

“Who were all these poor people we saw on TV,” Dyson asked. “And why didn’t we know about them?”

He answered his own question.

“They are the invisible poor,” he said. “Invisible because we don’t want to see them, not because they want to be. We don’t want to deal with who they are and what they represent.”

Dyson then cited the Catholic Church’s idea of “culpable ignorance,” the notion that people are responsible for their own ignorance, and that not knowing about the situation is not an excuse for a failure to take action.

Dyson said that part of the reason that these parts of the country are so largely ignored is the great mix of many different races in the areas.

“The storm was not racially specific, but the consequences of the storm were racially particular,” he said, adding that it was not a coincidence that those with more money could afford to live on higher ground and, therefore, were less vulnerable to the storm.

He also pointed out the fact that Mississippi is the poorest state in the nation and Louisiana the second.

Throughout his speech, Dyson continually brought up rap and the hip-hop culture, often quoting the lyrics of prominent hip-hop artists such as Snoop Dogg, Jay-Z and Tupac Shakur.
He also addressed the comments made by rapper Kanye West on national television that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

“I was happy to see a rapper concerned about somebody other than his own crew,” Dyson said. “To be concerned about the poor… that’s what rap was originally about.”

Although Dyson did speak about racism, he added that it was mostly a more subversive, unintentional racism.

“It’s not that they saw black people and decided not to go,” he said. “That’s not how racism works. The subconscious cues to help did not kick in.”

The student reaction to Dyson was almost entirely positive, as the audience broke into applause several times during his lecture, and at times rapped or sang along with him as he quoted popular songs.

“[The lecture] was very insightful,” said freshman Michael Martinez. “The information on how we turned down services from numerous nations in responding to Hurricane Katrina… was an eye-opener”

Dyson made it clear that what is done today will shape the lives and attitudes of those who come later, and that people must act now to ensure that “our children and grandchildren remember that we are ‘E Pluribus Unum’ – out of many, one.”

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