Tuesday, November 01, 2005

How the Mainstream Media Reinforced Racist Stereotypes After Hurricane Katrina

During the days immediately after Hurricane Katrina I was glued to the television as I watched those horrific scenes from downtown New Orleans. My response: grief and anger.

There was a reason I felt a special bond with the people who were suffering. In the early 1960s I arrived in Louisiana as a young man who had come directly from Ireland. Louisiana would be my home for more than a decade. After seven years in the ministry I joined the anti-poverty program in Baton Rouge. That was when I discovered "the other America." The group of VISTA volunteers I supervised worked in low-income black neighborhoods not unlike the Lower Ninth Ward in New Orleans.

There was something about the portrait of poor black people presented on television in the aftermath of Katrina that I found unsettling. The coverage reinforced racist stereotypes that I had first encountered more than 30 years ago.

For weeks I've been trying to clarify the distortions and misrepresentations that I saw on my television screen. Some clarification was provided by an article in Counterpunch by Tim Wise.
According to Wise, one of the myths that was reinforced by mainstream media coverage during the days after Hurricane Katrina was that poor blacks are bad people and they got what they deserved. And he provides data to support his contention.

Remember the constant repetition of the same five or six video clips of so-called looters. It reminded me of the way cable television replayed numerous times that clip of Howard Dean's scream. The fact that most people caught on camera were in desperate straits and were taking water, food and medicine was not mentioned. You were left to conclude that poor black people in New Orleans were just a bunch of looters.

All kinds of racist rumors were reported as facts. Remember those stories about tugs shooting at helicopters attempting to bring aid. Not one witness was produced to support the claim that they saw criminals shoot at helicopters. We now know these shots were fired by desperate people trying to attract attention.

And of course there was the story about the drug addicts raiding Children's Hospital. There were stories about gang rapes in the Superdome and the Convention Center. We heard about babies that were molested and then had their throats slit. There were stories of crime victims stuffed into refrigerators.

We now know that all of these stories were false. Not one first hand witness was produced who had actually seen the supposed carnage taking place.

Which brings me to the other big lie told about the poor in New Orleans. I am referring to the argument that the reason 130,000 poor black folks were unable to escape the flooding was because they had grown dependent on the government to save them, thanks to the "welfare state," and that was why they lacked the money and cars to get out before disaster struck.

Tim Wise, in his article, provides data to demolish the myth that the victims of Hurricane Katrina were somehow responsible for their own misfortune. Here are a few statistics that he provides.

As of 2004, according to the Census Bureau, there were only 4600 households in all of New Orleans receiving cash welfare from the nation's principal aid program, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families). That's 4600 out of a total of 130,000 households in the black community. About four percent of black households in the city. Wise points out that the number of individuals receiving welfare in New Orleans by the time of Katrina would have been about 16,000.

What we were not told in the national television coverage is that most poor blacks in New Orleans look out for themselves. For example, in the ninety-eight percent black and forty percent poor Lower Ninth Ward seventy-one percent of families prior to the flooding reported income from paid employment, while only eight percent received income from cash welfare.

As for public housing, far from being the location of residence for most poor blacks in New Orleans - let alone those in the streets in the wake of Katrina - fewer than 20,000 people lived in such units at the time of the flooding. In the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, few lived in public housing and nearly six in ten families owned their own homes.

It will be clear to the reader that the facts on the ground in New Orleans were different than the stereotypes that were presented in the media.

This brings me to the main point I want to make. The huddled masses of homeless people that you saw on your television screen during the days after Katrina inhabit what Michael Harrington years ago referred to as "the other America." It continues to be a world not very well understood by outsiders. Consider the post-Katrina suggestion by Bill Bennett that the problem of crime in the black community could be resolvod by reducing the birthrate. Or the advice by George Will that black girls not have babies until they are twenty.

We heard a lot of gibberish from the pundits during the days following Katrina.

The people I encountered in the poor black neighborhoods in Baton Rouge more than 30 years ago were hard-working people trying to do the best for themselves and their families. Most aspired to a better life. I believe the same can be said today about poor blacks in New Orleans. Of course there is crime in these neighborhoods but that goes with the turf.

One thing that has not changed over the past three decades. Those who live outside "the other America" are still blaming the victims. This may be one of the most salutary lessons of Hurricane Katrina.


I'll be reporting on a planned visit to New Orleans later this month. The visit is in connection with a personal memoir on the years spent in Louisiana.


Have you wondered what has happened to all of those people left homeless by Katrina? According to this article in USA Today, thousands of evacuees face eviction. Other Katrina victims are homeless because of aid problems.