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Images of the Victims Spark a Racial Debate

Times Staff Writer

The multitude of anguished black faces telecast from New Orleans over the last six days has stirred a national discussion in living rooms, chat rooms and radio talk shows.

The central questions seem to be: Why are most of Hurricane Katrina’s victims black, and does the color of their skin have any bearing on authorities’ response, which has been criticized as slow?

In a radio interview Friday on hundreds of stations across North America, Beverly Wright, director of the Deep South Center for Environmental Justice at Xavier University in New Orleans, summarized the concerns this way:

“I am very angry, and I really, really believe that [the crisis] is driven by race,” Wright said. “People can say what they want, but when you look at who is left behind, it is very disturbing to me.”

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Wright was referring to the thousands of predominantly lower-income blacks still stranded inside New Orleans. Media images have been dominated by scenes of dead, dying and crying blacks, their desperation and pleas for help sometimes laced with anger.

News reports have also described looters and armed gangs. There have been sporadic shootings and physical confrontations among the stranded.

The violence -- and the fear of it -- has slowed efforts to bring aid to the neediest parts of the city.

New Orleans is one of the poorest large cities in the United States.

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Its population is 67% African American, about half of whom live below the poverty line.

Most middle-class blacks, like most white residents, were able to leave the city.

Some say the hurricane has exposed aracial fault line between blacks and whites in America.

In general, whites tend to see the situation one way, blacks another, said David Wellman, sociology professor at UC Santa Cruz and co-author of the book “Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society (University of California Press).

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“Many whites will focus on the lawlessness of what’s going on in New Orleans,” Wellman said. “Many blacks will focus on the desperation of the victims, the fact that they’re being neglected and ignored.”

Wellman said the racial fault line operated the same as a geological fault line: “They’re invisible until there’s an earthquake.”

He said evidence of the racial divide was found in studies that showed 65% of white Americans do not believe that racial discrimination exists, and 75% of black Americans believe it does.

Ward Connerly, chairman of the conservative think tank American Civil Rights Institute, in Sacramento, said it was simply coincidence that most of the hurricane victims on television are black.

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Connerly said the hurricane happened to hit New Orleans, which happens to be predominantly black and poor.

To seek out deeper, more insidious reasons for the crisis in New Orleans is to focus on the wrong thing, Connerly said.

“I wish we were not talking about race at all. It’s a needless distraction,” he said. “We all ought to be praying and crying about the people whose lives have been totally ripped asunder. Those who are misbehaving are doing it out of desperation. It just so happens those who are doing it are black, but the city of New Orleans has a lot of black people.”

Connerly said he was disappointed with those African American leaders and whites who were accusing the government of being lackadaisical in its response. The underlying charge is that the sluggish response is because of racism.

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“The people accusing the government of racism are looking for someone to blame. They can’t blame God, so they’re going to blame the government or the president. Or racism,” Connerly said. “So many blacks have been conditioned to view everything through the prism of race that it’s easy to come to that conclusion. But for the black leaders who are blaming racism, shame on them.”

Damu Smith, executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, said on a Friday broadcast of the “Democracy Now!” radio program that this was the exact time to point fingers -- while the attention of the nation was fixed on the issue.

Smith avoided the word “racism” during the program, but he implied that policy decisions made by state and federal governments opened the way for catastrophe to reach the lives of the region’s poorest people.

“I want to focus on the federal assets because that’s what was needed to be brought to bear in this situation, and they were not brought to bear,” Smith said. “So mostly the poor and black poverty-stricken people of New Orleans and Louisiana and Mississippi are paying the price for our government’s neglect.”

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One blogger, John Bambenek, said in a Friday entry on Blogcritics.orgthat accusing government officials of racism or incompetence steered the search for true answers in the wrong direction. The real blame, he said, lies in something as mundane as bureaucratic ineptitude.

The “Kyoto [climate pact] had nothing to with this. Racism had nothing to do with this. Iraq had nothing to do with this. Federal spending had nothing to do with this,” Bambenek wrote. “Poor and/or nonexistent planning and poor execution had everything to do with this.”

Wellman, the sociology professor, said there was another way to interpret the situation in New Orleans. He said sociologists had found for years that social structures replicated themselves after natural disasters: The most vulnerable people in society are the most vulnerable people during and after a disaster. The issue is whether the government took enough measures to protect the most vulnerable people in society.

Wellman said in this case it appeared the government did not, and some of it had to do with institutional racism.

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Bruce Gordon, president and CEO of the National Assn. for the Advancement of Colored People, said from his Baltimore office that he would very much like to chime in on the discussion of race because he had a lot to say.

But the timing isn’t right.

“Right now, all of our time and energy are going to saving lives of people in New Orleans,” Gordon said. “The race aspect is a little bit of a distraction, but let me say that once we get ourselves square on this, and once our people are safe and secure, there’s no question we’re going to be all over this issue.”


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