Whatever the shortcomings of the federal response to Katrina - and there were many - the fact is that the plight of the abandoned poor in New Orleans says far more about that city and the state of Louisiana than about America generally. The city had evacuation plans it failed to follow even as local leaders warned that their worst fears were coming true. They did not ask for help in a timely fashion, and then they immediately blamed the feds when they didn't get the immediate help they didn't immediately ask for.
But let us come back to the issue of race. Mr. West told viewers that the media was saying white people "find" food and water while black people are "looters." This was presumably a reference to a widely distributed set of photos showing a white couple carrying food and water and a black man carrying a bag. In the captions, the whites were said to have found the food while the black was said to have looted it. Problem is, this is evidence of precisely nothing. First of all, these photos were taken by two different photographers working for two separate news agencies. The caption saying the black guy looted his goods was taken for the Associated Press, and the photographer confirms that his subject did in fact loot his items. The whites in question, according to the photographer for Agence France-Presse, did in fact find their booty. Perhaps West should bemoan the racism of the French media.
West's assertion of racism was groundless on other counts as well. It takes considerable ignorance of American politics - or willful deception - to have missed the fact that the Bush administration has worked very hard to appear "compassionate" on race issues. It seems odd that the White House would punt on racial quotas in order to placate moderate whites and blacks, then willfully incur enormous political damage by letting people die on the streets of New Orleans.
The danger here is real. Tens of thousands of black New Orleaneans persevered with dignity and sacrifice in the face of Katrina. But a sizable minority of blacks - including police - behaved reprehensibly in the aftermath, shooting at rescue workers, raping, killing and, yes, looting (though no cannibalism). If black activists are going to denounce the "white response" to Katrina with such sweeping invective, they are going to invite an equally unfair and sweeping discussion of the "black response." That's not the debate to have right now.
But it is the one we're likely to have. Mr. West has already been invited to two more telethons.