The Race Canard
A letter to the editor of the Oregonian, in Portland, Ore., said of Katrina: "I am deeply disturbed and angered by the number of reports claiming racism has something to do with the delay in the relief effort. These claims are unsubstantiated and a complete lie. To even suggest that our government would allow people to die simply because of the color of their skin is despicable. ... In a time of national crisis, another media-driven race war is the last thing this country needs."
Amen to that. The usual racemongers played their usual role. Jesse Jackson said the scene in New Orleans "looked like Africans in the hull of a slave ship." Carol Moseley Braun, the former Democratic senator from Illinois, said the scene in New Orleans was similar to the fatal neglect of blacks after Reconstruction. Morning show hosts at a New York City rap station detected "genocide" in New Orleans. On a slightly more respectable level, black members of Congress, judges, and activists stoked racial polarization. "This is a racial story," said an attorney for the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People. A black judge in Arkansas said Katrina revealed the "ugly, stinking, pus-filled sores" of racism.
A common charge was that aid would have come more quickly if New Orleans had been predominantly white. There is no evidence for this at all. Across-the-board incompetence at every level of government is a far more compelling explanation than racist intent or behavior. The hard-hit mostly white parishes around New Orleans waited just as long as the poorest wards of the city did for help.
Double standard. Evidence-free assertion of racism seemed everywhere. Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for Ethics in Nashville said Katrina "disclosed our racism in multiple ways," none of which he bothered to mention. The most poisonous statements were the ones linking failure in New Orleans to racist violence of the past. "You'd have to go back to slavery, or the burning of black towns, to find a comparable event that has affected black people this way," said University of California-Los Angeles sociologist and African-American studies Prof. Darnell Hunt, thus positioning the disaster in New Orleans as similar to some of the worst racism in history. This kind of rhetoric has an effect. Two thirds of blacks polled say they see racism as a cause of the failures to cope quickly with Katrina.
The mainstream media played a role, too. Several TV anchors and interviewers prodded or invited black officials to say they spotted heavy racism in New Orleans. Comedian Nancy Giles, on CBS Sunday Morning, announced that Katrina victims went without food and water for days simply because they were black.
Racial charges were endlessly recycled. Rapper Kanye West's claim that "George Bush doesn't care about black people" has been published more than 400,000 times, according to a Google search. Almost as famous are the captions of similar photos of a white man "finding food" in New Orleans and a black man "looting." The captions were taken everywhere as evidence of racism. An editor in Kenya thought they were.
The looting caption may have been unfair, but the constant citing of it merely reflects resentment of racism without presenting any real evidence of racist behavior.
The Washington Post ran a Page 1 story, "To Me, It Just Seems Like Black People Are Marked." The story was basically harmless, but the headline probably did some damage, confirming for many readers that blacks have been singled out for unfair treatment.
An essay on Katrina in the Post Style section used campus diversity jargon referring to blacks as "the Other," saying, "Mainstream America too often demonizes the Other because, well, we've been conditioned to do so." No explanation of why mainstream America, so woefully conditioned and addicted to demonizing, has donated over $750 million to mostly black hurricane victims.
Heather MacDonald writes on the City Journal website, "That people are giving so feverishly in spite of the competing images of looting by the flood victims and the reports of murder and rape is even stronger proof that racism has lost its grip on the American mind: The givers are refusing the bigot's reaction of impugning an entire race by the loathsome behavior of a few."
The media have been reporting on two tracks. One stresses the empathy and generosity of mainstream America, as reflected in the astonishing donations, the thousands of volunteers who poured into the area, the collection and shipping of tons of food and clothing, and the extraordinary efforts made by rescuers, often at the risk of their own lives. The other features the usual bitter denunciations of racist America. Which do you suppose is a better indication of where the nation wants to go?
This story appears in the September 26, 2005 print edition of U.S. News & World Report.