The on-rush of significant catastrophes is getting overwhelming, and the professional media throws out the term compassion fatigue before the details of what is happening in Iraq, New Orleans and Mississippi are even clear. How could I be tired of caring before I’m even clear what I care about?
In the week of Katrina, I couldn’t go anywhere without hearing about the disappointment that my barber, the policeman whose hair he cut, the nurses I met with and all of my in-laws felt about the national response to people trapped in New Orleans. Eating a quick meal out, I’d hear the people at the neighboring table expressing their shock over the racist neglect that the victims faced. All sorts of people were talking about why people were abandoned in the outer parishes, and they were all outraged. The winds of the hurricane were historically destructive, but there was something in the response and the lack of preparation for it by political cronies that was criminal.
How would we begin to understand the nature of the crime, if only to prevent it reoccurring? We needed to talk among ourselves. And the discussions veered into basic questions of class and race. The discussions weren’t always perfect, but they were nearly universal and seemed heartfelt to me. A friend speculated that only the privilege of some allows for these discussions, and that those experiencing the most suffering wouldn’t look at things in term of race or class.
I know the impatience with polite discussion of suffering. It’s common among my peers. Sometimes it seems like we haven’t earned the right to empathize with lives we’ve never lived. We become frustrated with all the complicated rationalizations and politics of theories, and we yearn for simple and direct action. A thirsty child wants water, not a lecture.
But the nurses and the in-laws, the policeman and the barber who all joined me in trying to understand what went wrong, cared about the injustice of man and nature. What they say about the realities of racism and class difference as they protest these injustices seems like the best conversation to me. They care but feel powerless to help. They try to understand grand social forces and bad societal behavior because they don’t want victims to suffer further. They want to understand so that they can help. What better cause should we address with our privilege? We may fall into abstractions as we try to understand, but not even the least among us can slip the bonds of abstraction.
And I know that people, mostly black and poor, trapped on a bridge, under fire from sheriffs who block their escape from tragedy, know about racism and class oppression. And I know they had some long conversations, on a night caught between floodwaters and men with guns, about injustice. It seems to me that we who aren’t faced with abject suffering everyday (or today) have been slowly taught to understand race and class by those who are. Racism and the words that describe it weren’t solely invented in an ivory tower.