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."
When Wolf Blitzer on CNN at the end of the week said, "Had this happened in a predominantly white community, the federal government would have responded much more quickly," he was probably right. Had not reporters made racist assumptions about black behavior and given airtime to a few purveyors of hatred, rescuers would not have had to view their operations as demanding military precaution rather than merely humanitarian speed. Had commanders not seen the need to arrive at the convention center with overwhelming force, they probably would have been able to evacuate people from there a day earlier.
Instead of tamping down hysteria, network talkers regularly stirred up racial anger. On NBC, anchor Brian Williams lectured that the hurricane would "necessitate a national discussion on race, on oil, politics, class, infrastructure, the environment and more." On ABC, Ted Koppel began by orating that New Orleans is 67 percent black, and, "The slow response to the victims of Hurricane Katrina has led to questions about race, poverty and a seemingly indifferent government." CNN's Blitzer repeatedly called the hurricane victims "so poor and so black," and prodded interviewees to find racism in the government's response.
The facts, though, indicate that Katrina was an equal-opportunity drowner. Of the identified victims released to families from a makeshift New Orleans morgue, 44 percent were African-American, 47 percent Caucasian, 3 percent Hispanic and 8 percent unknown. Nor were blacks the only ones to see their homes destroyed. Katrina's storm surge demolished 95 percent of the homes in 95 percent white St. Bernard parish.
One broadcaster from that parish noted: "It was over five days before the federal government showed up. ... Sixty-six thousand people live in my parish. ... They're picking up pets in the city, and I still have people in the attics trapped, waiting on roofs for someone to come rescue them."