In a congressional hearing Tuesday, liberals said that racism caused delays in Hurricane Katrina relief and rescue. They're right, but they misidentified the culprit.
As I've reviewed records of the week of Aug., 28, an ugly picture has emerged: Some politicians and journalists painted a portrait of impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other as well as the police and rescue workers trying to protect and save them. For example, Mayor Ray Nagin said many of his constituents were in an "almost animalistic state."
Four days after the storm hit, black political organizer Randall Robinson said the "thousands of blacks in New Orleans ... have begun eating corpses to survive." Even for those who see cannibalism as benign, a feast after only four days is premature. CNN became hysterical about "groups of young men roaming the city, shooting at people, attempting to rape women." Author Michael Lewis reduced the television message to a sentence: "Crazy black people with automatic weapons are out hunting white people, and there's no bag limit."
None of these rumors was true, as The New York Times belatedly reported a month after the winds died down: It called them "figments of frightened imaginations." New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Maoss also noted after the fact that if media had been characterizing the attitudes of "sweaty, hungry, desperate white people, middle-class white people, it's hard to believe that these kinds of myths would have sprung up quite as readily."
Journalists who got up close to the situation and let their eyes rather than their fears and prejudices inform them did not succumb to hysteria. Photographer Tony Sambato described the supposedly scary African-Americans at the New Orleans convention center as "families who listened to the authorities, who followed direction, who believed in the government. ... They've been behaving. They have not started any melees, any riots, nothing. They just want food and support. There's no hostility there."
Coast Guard Lt. Chris Huberty, who flew a rescue helicopter, also resented TV's negative characterizations of black New Orleans residents: "There were plenty of people sacrificing for others, regardless of their demographic."