During an NBC telethon for victims of Katrina last Friday night, rapper Kanye West launched an unscripted, self-indulgent diatribe declaring that "George Bush doesn't care about black people." He also riffed against the Iraq war and generally made the case that America is racist. He should be ashamed.
Just last week Time magazine dubbed West "the smartest man in pop music" and "Hip Hop's Class Act" - which, in retrospect, seems to have kept the bar for that industry not far from its historical low.
Assume for the sake of argument that West's rant were accurate. Was this really the time to say so? The telethon was intended to raise millions of dollars for victims, a great many of them poor black folks. What was to be gained from insulting untold millions of middle-class voters who disagree with West about Bush, the war or America? Could it be that, if the top priority was to raise money for the victims, maybe - just maybe - this wasn't the moment to self-righteously preen? Perhaps West's top priority was "keeping it real," even at the price of keeping the victims miserable just a little while longer.
Apparently such objections are meaningless in this environment, where any Katrina-related racial grievance has merit. For example, on September 2, Randall Robinson, the former head of TransAfrica, matter-of-factly asserted on (the supposedly fact-checked) HuffingtonPost.com that, thanks to Bush's inattention, black hurricane victims (not "hurricane victims" - just the black ones) were eating corpses to stay alive after four days without food. Robinson later retracted the bogus assertion but did not apologize for suggesting that it doesn't take much prompting for blacks to resort to cannibalism. Why should he apologize? If it were so, it wouldn't be because of any shortcomings of the cannibals-of-color but because of Bush's racism.
For the first day or two of this horrible story, the media held off talking about the now holy duality of "race and class." A few writers, most notably Jack Shafer of Slate magazine, thought the silence was a bit odd and raised some interesting questions about media coverage. Suddenly, within 24 hours the press couldn't get enough of the subject. Cable news anchors were demanding to know "what it says about America" that those left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and black.
That newscasters were suddenly shocked by this development is a bit odd. Under what scenario, one might ask, were they expecting the Superdome to fill disproportionately with rich white folks while the poor watched from safety and comfort?
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.