Two of every kind—well, not every kind
George W. Bush has yet to dip his toes into the raging flood of water and criticism in and around New Orleans.
He’s on his way down there today, but you couldn’t describe it as a “race” to the scene. That word is reserved for another context of the astonishing tragedy of Hurricane Katrina, where explosions and fires have added to the misery.
This morning’s New York Times promises to address the subjects of race and class to try to explain the non-response of the U.S. government to the chaos and suffering on the Gulf Coast.
But the snooty establishment paper cops out, making it seem that the criticism of Bush’s ignoring the plight of the Gulf Coast’s black poor is a “black thing.” This passage from David Gonzalez‘s Times story, “From Margins of Society to Center of the Tragedy” is what I mean:
In the days since neighborhoods and towns along the Gulf Coast were wiped out by the winds and water, there has been a growing sense that race and class are the unspoken markers of who got out and who got stuck. Just as in developing countries where the failures of rural development policies become glaringly clear at times of natural disasters like floods or drought, many national leaders said, some of the United States’ poorest cities have been left vulnerable by federal policies.
“No one would have checked on a lot of the black people in these parishes while the sun shined,” said Mayor Milton D. Tutwiler of Winstonville, Miss. “So am I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No.”
The subject is roiling black-oriented Web sites and message boards, and many black officials say it is a prime subject of conversation around the country. Some African-Americans have described the devastation wrought by Hurricane Katrina as “our tsunami,” while noting that there has yet to be a response equal to that which followed the Asian tragedy.
Well, it’s “roiling” more than “black-oriented Web sites and message boards.” Go to the BBC this morning for a sampling from the press around the globe. Here’s how the presumably not “black-oriented” German newspaper Der Tageszeitung sees the shameful response:
The fast and safe evacuation was white, leaving behind poor black people, as if time had stood still between the racial unrest of the sixties and today.
But you don’t have to go overseas or to “black-oriented Web sites.” Slate‘s Jack Shafer, a big ol’ white, middle-aged guy, the last time I checked, brought up the subject on the afternoon of August 31 in his piece “Lost in the Flood: Why No Mention of Race or Class in TV’s Katrina Coverage?”:
When disaster strikes, Americans — especially journalists — like to pretend that no matter who gets hit, no matter what race, color, creed, or socioeconomic level they hail from, we’re all in it together. This spirit informs the 1997 disaster flick Volcano, in which a “can’t we all just get along” moment arrives at the film’s end: Volcanic ash covers every face in the big crowd scene, and everybody realizes that we’re all members of one united race.
But we aren’t one united race, we aren’t one united class, and Katrina didn’t hit all folks equally. By failing to acknowledge upfront that black New Orleanians — and perhaps black Mississippians — suffered more from Katrina than whites, the TV talkers may escape potential accusations that they’re racist. But by ignoring race and class, they boot the journalistic opportunity to bring attention to the disenfranchisement of a whole definable segment of the population. What I wouldn’t pay to hear a Fox anchor ask, “Say, Bob, why are these African-Americans so poor to begin with?”
Shafer suggests that media types tiptoe around the subject of race because they don’t want to say something out of ignorance — as veteran baseball man Al Campanis did several years ago — that’s also racist:
Race remains largely untouchable for TV because broadcasters sense that they can’t make an error without destroying careers. That’s a true pity. If the subject were a little less taboo, one of [Tuesday] night’s anchors could have asked a reporter, “Can you explain to our viewers, who by now have surely noticed, why 99 percent of the New Orleans evacuees we’re seeing are African-American? I suppose our viewers have noticed, too, that the provocative looting footage we’re airing and re-airing seems to depict mostly African-Americans.”
If the reporter on the ground couldn’t answer the questions, a researcher could have Nexised the New Orleans Times-Picayune five-parter from 2002, “Washing Away,” which reported that the city’s 100,000 residents without private transportation were likely to be stranded by a big storm. In other words, what’s happening is what was expected to happen: The poor didn’t get out in time.
To the question of looting, an informed reporter or anchor might have pointed out that anybody — even one of the 500 Nordic blondes working in broadcast news — would loot food from a shuttered shop if they found themselves trapped by a flood and had no idea when help would come. However sympathetic I might be to people liberating necessities during a disaster in order to survive, I can’t muster the same tolerance for those caught on camera helping themselves in a leisurely fashion to dry goods at Wal-Mart. Those people weren’t looting as much as they were shopping for good stuff to steal. MSNBC’s anchor Rita Cosby, who blurted an outraged if inarticulate harrumph when she aired the Wal-Mart heist footage, deserves more respect than the broadcasters who gave the tape the sort of nonjudgmental commentary they might deliver if they were watching the perps vacuum the carpets at home.
No surprise that the New York Times doesn’t get this. It’s building a new headquarters that’s heavily subsidized by public money, yet the paper has decided to basically shut out the unwashed masses from the shiny new 52-story building, as my colleague Paul Moses recently pointed out in “Times to Commoners: Go Elsewhere.” No doctors, dentists, clinics, tacos, or employment offices (except for “executive-search” firms), but we’re pretty sure you’ll be able to buy a latte any way you want it.
So it’s not exactly shocking that this morning’s Times story quotes a white professor of African American studies at Fordham as saying “in cyberspace” something that’s intuitively obvious:
“If Sept. 11 showed the power of a nation united in response to a devastating attack, Hurricane Katrina reveals the fault lines of a region and a nation, rent by profound social divisions.”
Gee, you think so? And it’s certainly no shock that the Times followed with this paragraph:
That sentiment was shared by members of other minority groups who understand the bizarre equality of poverty.
By including that paragraph, the Times merely marginalized “that sentiment” as something that only people in “minority groups” understand. That’s simply not true. Isn’t it about time that white Americans in the media realize that on an increasingly interdependent planet, they are the minority?
The Fordham professor is right, of course, but what he says is a given. It’s the starting point for discussion and action, not some sort of final analysis.
You don’t have to be Frantz Fanon to believe that issues of race, class, and colonialism resonate around the globe.
Right here in the U.S., in fact, we once officially had slavery. Remember? A hundred years after slavery was supposedly abolished, openly racist policies were still being used to make the economy hum. People who live in this country know that, even if their elite media don’t.
Before Hurricane Katrina drowned them, blacks were blasted by water from the fire hoses of people like Eugene “Bull” Connor, “public safety” commissioner of Birmingham, Alabama. Connor’s repression of black Americans wasn’t aberrant; it was part of a system of economic repression endorsed by the less openly racist bidness establishment. This is not an interpretation but a fact, as Jolanta Juszkiewicz pointed out in 1992 in a review of William Nunnelly‘s biography of Connor:
Connor’s popularity, as demonstrated by his six victories in city commission races, came from white voters — workers and corporate leaders alike. His reputation among the rank-and-file was that of an honest, albeit colorful man who maintained “his willingness to keep blacks ‘in their place'” and his membership in the telegrapher’s union. He was one of them, born into a working class family and whose career prior to his public service was that of telegrapher and radio sports announcer.
Connor had the backing of the local corporate elite in spite of his declarations of being free of outside influence. Connor helped the industrial elite by “controlling strikes … silencing radicals … . Connor was exactly what companies that controlled Birmingham were looking for … .” He was counted on to keep the status quo. Connor “stayed on the good side of the business leaders … [and was] always receptive to corporate suggestions.” His preaching about economy in government and no new taxes reflected the influence of Birmingham’s industrial and financial interests, who “always insisted in cheap government with only bare essential services.”
Not that Northern cities also aren’t racially repressive, but that is what Southern cities — like New Orleans — were like in the ’60s. And racism, with all of its economic components, hasn’t magically vanished. Why do you think New Orleans had so many poor black people who were trapped by Katrina?
Beyond that, race is a social construct. Which means that for everyone but the likes of Bull Connor and Theodore Bilbo, it’s not immutable. So it can be deconstructed. But not if, as the Times would have it, the racial component of the Katrina disaster is marginalized into a “black thing.”
This article from the Village Voice Archive was posted on September 2, 2005