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Race and Katrina

  Katrina has become a story about race in America. Most affluent and semi-affluent Americans rarely see poor people -- they live on the other side of town. The poor of the Deep South, largely black, haven't been front and center in American consciousness since the 1960s. Katrina has changed that. Even though it's a painful and rancorous issue, maybe some good will come out of it (predictable upbeat happy note). [A minute ago I caught myself on the verge of using the phrase "well-meaning whites" and had a Dave B. thought: "The Well-Meaning Whites" would make a great name for a rock band.]

    There are many types of racism, including the type that says there's no racism in America anymore, and the situation would be precisely the same if the victims all looked like Macauley Culkin. Then there's institutional racism: We have to ask whether the government would have been better prepared for this sort of situation in New Orleans if the most vulnerable communities hadn't been, for the most part, black neighborhoods. (Like, were the levees considered good enough for "the black part of town?") [The Chicago Tribune ran a graphic showing elevation and demographics in New Orleans; to a striking degree the areas below sea level are predominantly African American.] This will likely wind up in congressional hearings -- full-blown postmortems, with testimony from folks high and low, the rescuers and the not-quickly-rescued, that will be far more dramatic than the Supreme Court confirmation hearings (now plural).

    In the meantime, there are a couple of good stories in The Post today on the racial dimension of Katrina and the slow response by the government. One is by Wil Haygood, who has been filing daily from the scene of the disaster, and who explains today why so many poor people didn't evacuate before the storm hit. The second is an essay by Lynne Duke and Teresa Wiltz in the Style section, and one passage jumps out:

    "In the Chicago Fire of 1871, the Galveston Hurricane of 1900 and the San Francisco Earthquake of 1906, minority groups (Germans, African Americans and Chinese) were rumored to be preying on white women by chewing on their fingers to steal their jewelry. It's not such a stretch to see parallels in the unconfirmed reports of roving bands of rapists in New Orleans."

    In Japan, at the Memorial Hall for the Great Kanto Earthquake of 1923, there is a separate monument to the Koreans who were killed because of rumors that they had caused the quake and were poisoning the water supply. There was no truth to it, of course. But in times of crisis, people turn on minorities. It will be interesting to see if some of the early news reports about gangs of armed thugs, about people shooting on rescue helicopters, hold up. Rumors are thick in a whirlwind.

By Joel Achenbach  |  September 4, 2005; 7:50 AM ET
 
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