Did New Orleans blacks die at a higher rate than whites in the wake of Hurricane Katrina? On the evidence so far, the answer is no. Of the 1,100 bodies recovered in Louisiana after Katrina, 836 were found in New Orleans, and the state has released data on 568 of those that were judged to be storm-related. As of last week, blacks, which were 67.2 percent of the pre-storm population of New Orleans, account for 50.9 percent of the city victims so far identified by race. It was New Orleans Caucasians who died way out of proportion to their numbers-28 percent of the population, 45.6 percent of the city’s known Katrina deaths by race.
This is far from the impression that the media have managed to leave, both during the crisis and in the months since. It’s possible, though unlikely, that these percentages may change in the final figures. Louisiana is not releasing any information on the rest of the dead until they are identified and their families notified.
In the chaos of Katrina, the press was hardly in a position to know that whites were dying as fast as blacks. But it was responsible for strumming the racial theme so relentlessly in the absence of actual information. A mix of factors were operating-faces shown on TV were mostly black, quotable black spokesmen kept insisting that racism was at work, and national reporters on the scene may have thought that since this was the south, blacks were probably being victimized in some way. This hardened into a narrative line for New Orleans that stressed race, and to lesser extent, class.
Jack Shafer of Slate.com said, “(We) in the media are ignoring that fact that almost all the victims in New Orleans are black and poor.” Wolf Blitzer said the victims were “so poor, so black.” The Washington Post, reflecting the resentment of its majority-black city, pumped up the racial theme. A questionable page one story headlined “To Me, It Just Seems Like Black People are Marked.” An unusually gassy essay in the style section talked about the sins of mainstream America and it’s “tattered racial legacy.” A story on the decline of Bush’s approval rating kept the racial theme aloft with the subhead “He Says Race Didn’t Affect Efforts; Blacks in Poll Disagree.” As Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler said in a different context, “When the press corps reaches an overall judgment, they often start looking for easy-to-tell stories to illustrate their global belief.”
Racial agitators and entertainers played a big role. Randall Robinson, the former head of TransAfrica said, “This is what we have come to. This defining watershed moment in America's racial history." Jesse Jackson said, “Today I saw 5,000 African-Americans desperate, perishing, dehydrated, babies dying.” (That would be 5,000 blacks dying out of a total of 1,349 known dead of all races in all Gulf States combined.) The morning show host of a New York City rap station saw the New Orleans situation as “genocide.” Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics, said Katrina “disclosed our racism in multiple ways.” Comedian and activist Dick Gregory saw an anti-black conspiracy in New Orleans. And rapper Kanye West offered the opinion that “America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off, as slow as possible,” adding his soon to be famous accusation, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” The media carried all the race chatter without much in the way or caution or evidence.
Even now, mainstream media have done little to set the record straight. The numbers and percentages of death by race are easy to find among bloggers, very hard to find in mainstream reporting. On December 18, three days after the state of Louisiana delivered a breakdown of deaths by race, The New York Times ran a long analysis of Katrina that omitted the racial breakdown from the state report. By contrast, the Los Angeles Times ran an excellent article, also on December 18, that began this way: “The bodies of New Orleans residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city’s poorer districts, such as the Lower 9th Ward.” The paper reported that its own analysis “contradicts what swiftly became conventional wisdom in the days after the storm hit--that it was the city’s poorest African American residents who bore the brunt of the hurricane.” Good journalism. Will the rest of the media catch on?