When Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, thousands of people were stranded in the city, which was soon destroyed by wind and flood and filled with diseases. Because the great majority of people stranded in the city were black, it is assumed that latent racism underlying American society has taken its toll again. Racism is an easy card to play—it seems to be a problem everywhere from the LA Police to grandpa’s living room. There is the prejudice inherent in racism as well as the system in which groups are held back from positions of power.
Personally, however, I don’t think that the problem in New Orleans was racial prejudice. Yes, the far majority of folks trapped in the city, lied to and even shot at were black—but certainly not all. Nor do I actually think that the problem stemmed from authorities "not caring" about those who were stranded. Yes, I am sure that there are some who didn’t care about them, but I don’t think that is what created the situation.
I think, rather, that the horrors in the city were created from the assumptions those in power had about society in general.
The powers that be knew that there were many people who had no intention of leaving the city, no matter how many evacuation warnings were given. These were people who had ways of getting out of the city, but they chose not to. So, as many authorities were leaving the city, and they saw people staying behind, it was no surprise. After all, many people were foolish and decided to ride out the storm.
The real problem lay in what they didn’t think about. They didn’t think about the fact that there is a vibrant street culture in New Orleans who wouldn’t have the capacity to leave the city. They didn’t think about the many who were injured or elderly who were incapable of leaving, and without family to assist them. They didn’t think about the poor who rely on public transportation for their daily needs, and do not have money to pay to leave the city. They assumed that everyone could get out of the city if they wanted to. It was never a spoken assumption. If it had been spoken, it could have been questioned. But the assumption was still there, still and quiet in the minds of those in power.
And who could really blame them? They were under a tremendous amount of stress. They had to figure out how to take care of their families and property. They had extra responsibilities. They just never thought of those who wanted to be evacuated, but couldn’t be.
We mustn’t judge these authorities. It is easy to point fingers after the fact, "You should have done this!" Rather we should think about what we would have done in similar circumstances. Would we have thought of those who had no transportation? Would we have thought of those who had no reserve of cash to deal with an emergency? Would we have thought of those in nursing homes and mental health facilities and prisons, if we had no one that we personally knew in such circumstances? Would we have thought beyond ourselves to those who lack the resources we do on a daily basis?
These questions are easy to answer. First we need to ask, do we think of these folks now? This is not asking—WHAT do we think of them? If pressed on the point, I suppose that most of us would honestly say, "I never think badly about the poor and lowly." But the reason it is true is because the poor and lowly are so far out of our context, out of our lives, that we never actually think about them at all- either good or ill. If we don’t think of them now, how could we expect anyone else like us to think of them when they are facing a personal crisis? How can we expect anyone to assist the lowly in an emergency when they never thought of them on normal days?
The stranded in New Orleans weren’t put in a life-threatening position because of racism or even because of blatant prejudice of any kind. They were stranded because of middle-class assumptions.
What is a middle class assumption? It is what most of us who are middle class assume that "everyone" has in society, because everyone we know has them. It is what we assume is the minimum standard to live and function in our society. It is what goes thoughtless when dealing with large groups of people—from leading a church meeting to organizing a free concert to governing an entire population.
Having assumptions is not wrong. It is a part of the cultural baggage we all have. We learn it bit by bit beginning as infants, and our culture grows and is reshaped and is transformed as we get older. The assumptions, however, is just what we get used to—what we never see missing. If we have never (or have rarely) experienced a person speaking anything but Russian, then "normal" people speak Russian, and everyone who is not "normal" just doesn’t come to mind when we make plans. Sure, we can understand intellectually that other people speak other languages, that they are people who are just as important as us and that they have their own need that doesn’t include speaking Russian—perhaps they speak Bengali or use sign language. But in the normal course of day-to-day events, non-Russian-speakers don’t count because we have never experienced them.
And this is the case of the middle class with the lower class. Yes, most middle class people know—intellectually— that lower class people count as much as they do and have their own needs and issues that differ from middle class needs and issues. However, since the majority of the middle class do not "rub elbows" with those of the lower class, then the needs and issues of the lower class are unknown, not to mention the specific needs of individuals who find themselves in the lower class because they suddenly are lost without one of the things that they assumed was necessary to survive—but never really thought about it.
What are these assumptions?
Well, it is beyond my ability to list all of them. But below are a list of those that I and those whom I know experienced.
Ability to remain clean—The idea that everyone in our society has the capacity to a shower or bath with a change of clean clothes and proper hygiene items, such as soap, shampoo, deodorant, toothbrush, toothpaste, etc. However, this is a huge assumption to make. To remain clean in this way requires many resources that people, especially those who live on the street, do not have. Think casually how much you pay for your cleanness—between water, a place to have privacy, all the various items to clean clothes and hygiene items. Even a quick overview can help us realize how expensive hygiene is. Now we can know that cleanliness is next to godliness because only the gods can afford such a standard!
Ability to gain identification—Most people assume that identification is simple to obtain. But if you had all of your identification stolen from you or lost in a fire, then you might find that you were in a grave situation. For legal state I.D. you need two pieces of identification. And you cannot obtain any other identification without identification. And without identification, you cannot even check out a library book, let alone get a job or cash a check.
Well spoken English with no or minor accent—This is an assumption that many immigrants face daily. It is assumed that because they learned English with a strong accent that they do not know English well at all. And this is a barrier to many avenues of our society, although bi-lingual services are being provided more and more frequently now.
Basic knowledge of national events—Most of the middle class assume that everyone has access to a newspaper or at least watch television news. However, for those who do not have televisions or who do not choose to pay attention to news, this limits conversation and the main source of knowledge of basic cultural information for the middle class.
Personal transportation—According to the middle class, "normal" people have access to an automobile, and thus can drive to places quickly as often as they like. However, the cost of an automobile is such that a large percentage of the lower class cannot afford to pay for the car, insurance, repairs and gas.
Ability to travel out of town—This is the assumption that stranded many people in New Orleans. It is assumed that if necessary, with some planning, anyone can leave to another county or state if they so desire. However, many people are limited to public transportation, which is limited to a metropolitan area. Or Greyhound, but if you can’t book two weeks in advance or have extra money, then you ain’t going anywhere.
Well dressed, (but not necessarily fancy)—This is the assumption that keeps many lower class folks from attending church services or weddings. It is assumed by most of the middle class that everyone has at least one set of "nice" clothes for special occasions. However, many people, especially those of the lower class, just do not have them.
Computer literate—It is an assumption being made more and more often that everyone has the ability to get on a computer and know what one is doing. Along with this assumption is the idea that we can send important information to people on the internet, or through email, and that is adequate for all who need it. However, not everyone can use a computer and a large percentage of people have difficulties accessing the internet.
Health insurance—Some assume that everyone has some kind of health insurance, although is it becoming widely recognized that most people’s insurance is extremely inadequate. Again, it is a large percentage of the lower class has no insurance whatsoever, and a growing group is being turned away from almost any medical care due to past unpaid bills.
No mental illness—This is the most widespread assumption and the one that is most wrong. Perhaps some 10 percent of people have a diagnosed mental illness. And perhaps another ten percent has a mental illness that has not been diagnosed. But every single one of us has a mental weakness that makes us inadequate in an area that most people are adequate in. Some of us are weak socially, some are weak in mathematics, some are weak in self-assessment. But more often than not, those of us who are strong in an area cannot understand or appreciate those who are inadequate in some area of mental ability. What we must remember however is that mental weakness is what is normal.
Disposable money—It is assumed and expected that everyone has some money, even if it is a small amount, that they can use for an occasional lunch out or for an emergency. However, those of low income, while they might have the occasional financial surplus, they cannot predict ahead of time when they will have disposable income. Thus, having a middle class friend ask if they want to do lunch together is just embarrassing.
Literacy—The education system of the United States has done a remarkable job of teaching most people to read. But there are many people—almost exclusively of the lower class, with some rare exceptions—who are not literate, except in some rudimentary ways. Yet our society is run on the presumption of being able to read warnings, street signs and newspapers. Hospitals and banks hand folks contracts and liabilities to sign that even us educated folks have a hard time reading. For the illiterate, or the functionally illiterate, they just sign what they need to sign, acting like they know what they are being handed and agreeing to things that they have no clue about.
Place to sleep—Most urban areas have some kind of anti-camping ordinance. This is to prevent people from just crashing in parks or benches, cluttering up our usually “beautiful” landscape. These ordinances and our assumption when we meet anyone is that they have had a decent night’s rest. If we knew that the person we were talking to didn’t sleep the night before, we might make allowances to their lethargy or their nodding head as we speak to them. But if we assume that they had sleep, and that they even had a place to sleep, then we don’t give them any allowance for hardship suffered. We all recognize that we need sleep. But we don’t all notice those who haven’t gotten any.
It is important for all of us to recognize these assumptions and to fight such ignorance, both in ourselves and in others. To know that many people do not have these culturally significant items for the middle class is important for all of us. It is especially important for those who organize events or lead large groups of people to recognize what assumptions are being made, for the more assumptions we make, the more people we are excluding. But most importantly, it is important for those in civil leadership to be aware of their assumptions, so that they could truly represent all of their people, and not just the middle class and above.
We also need to be aware of these issues when we establish ministries as churches. When we have a worship service, are we going to turn our noses up at those who don’t smell very good, or do we offer them an opportunity to clean up? When we have a benevolence ministry, do we demand that people give us their ID or Social Security number, or do we offer benevolence to everyone, without exception? When we see people nodding, do we assume they are strung out on heroin, or do we take into account that perhaps they haven’t slept that night? Are our worship services all based on people being able to read, or do we provide a way for the illiterate to participate?
In these and other subtle ways we make it clear that our churches are for “middle class only.” We may not have signs, but a white church in South Africa twenty years ago didn’t need a sign either—they expressed the policy through their actions. Even so, we can deny the welcome we offer to the lower class, homeless or mentally ill by insisting that they operate under the secret codes of the middle class.
Let us open our table to everyone, by making allowances for those who cannot be middle class.