I interviewed a Congressman today, who told me that one thing that we need to change in this country is the idea that if you’ve complained to your Congressman about something, you’ve done your part. He said people don’t take enough responsibility for their own local issues. He said he tells people, “I’ll do what I can for you on my end, but what are you doing for yourself on your end?”
Tonight I was at this social event, and got to talking to this guy who turned out to be a retired National Guardsman. We were talking about politics, and I mentioned what the Congressman had said to me. The Guardsman said he had served in New Orleans right after Hurricane Katrina. He said it was really difficult to deal with what he saw from so many black residents of New Orleans in the hurricane’s aftermath. Many, but not all, wouldn’t do anything for themselves. He said they would tell the Guardsmen to pick up the trash in the street.
“Why don’t you do it?” the Guardsmen would say.
“That’s why you’re here,” the locals said.
The Guardsman told me that it was so frustrating to see the learned helplessness of the poor black people of New Orleans. He is a white man from the country, and couldn’t understand what that was about.
Then Hurricane Rita hit southwestern Louisiana, and his unit was transferred to that part of the state to work. That’s where Cajuns live. He told me that in most places they went, the local Cajuns told the Guardsmen, “Thanks for coming, but we’ve got this.” And it was true. Before the Guard could get there, those people had organized themselves and started clearing the debris, and getting things back in order.
Unavoidably, race is a factor. But it’s really about culture. Assuming this Guardsman saw things as they really were, why did the urban black people of New Orleans, at least the ones observed by this Guardsman, lack the social capital, or even the wherewithal, to help themselves even as they were being helped by the government, but the rural Cajuns of southwest Louisiana were on the job even before the government help arrived? What makes the cultural difference?
I should say that the Guardsman told this story not in a sense of ethnic superiority — he is neither black nor Cajun — but more in a spirit of genuine sociological curiosity.