Katrina: The Black & White of It All
by Michelle Rene (e-mail: MRene@liberator.net) [September 3rd, 2005]

Four days into the Hurricane Katrina tragedy and our TVs are flooded with images so awful and overwhelming we find ourselves comparing them with other recent tragedies that proved beyond our comprehension: September 11, the Tsunami earlier this year, the devastating earthquake in southern California 11 years ago.

“We seem to be witnessing the beginning of a sort of Lord of the Flies attempt at survival, and it’s live, in color and 24 hours a day.”

And now here we are again, those of us who are not directly involved, imagining what it must be like to not know where a family member is, if they're okay. Trying to comprehend what its like to have a place to lay your head, eat your meals, laugh, talk, rest, one day and have absolutely nothing the next.

The cable news coverage is of course non-stop, overhead shots of houses with water up to their roofs. Piles of wood and debris that all together used to comprise neighborhoods. Throngs of people trying to make their way to hospitals, shelters. The Superdome. And to the Astrodome. Hour upon hour of coverage that you have to escape from every now and then lest it engulf you.

But in between all that, beneath it, away from the estimates of property damage, the figures on the inevitable loss of life, the predictions about what’s to come is something equally disturbing.

According to the 2000 census 67% of the population of New Orleans is black. And of the some 500,000 people who live there, 27.9% of them live in poverty. These are the people who couldn’t escape.

They were not stubborn, they were not filled with misplaced bravado, and they were not storm chasers seeking a cheap and foolhardy thrill. They were, quite simply too poor to leave. Now they are drifting helpless through a wasteland of a city. In a perfect world this is what the camera would see, this is what it would capture and this is all that it would capture but we don’t live in a perfect world.

Consider this posting at the DrudgeReport by Carl Brutaninadilewski on 2005-09-01 06:40 PM: “I wonder if the behavior of the African looters and black savages is affecting people's charity donations. I'm having second thoughts about donating because I don’t want my money going to help the raping, marauding hoards of Africans. I don’t want the savages to get one bottle of water of one slice of bread on my dime.” [Possibly removed from DrudgeReport]

An idiot, obviously, possibly even a troll simply posting something so inflammatory is certain to get a response. But it does worry me that this may actually be what some are subconsciously thinking fueled by the footage of mobs of black people making off with unarguably unnecessary goods.

Here’s another example. Two pictures found on Yahoo! news, one from the AP another from the Agence France Press. One shows two people, a man and a woman [removed from Yahoo News Photo] another shows a young black male. The caption of the former reads in short: Two people wade through water after “finding bread and water from a local grocery store”. The caption beneath the other picture says; A young man walks through chest deep water after “looting a grocery store”. These two photographs have caused so much controversy that Yahoo! was forced to issue a statement.

In essence they passed the buck saying that they rely on what is provided by the wire service and that any racist undertones were not intended and regrettable. The explanation of the photographer raises its own questions of believability.

He said "I wrote the caption about the two people who 'found' the items. I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not 'looted' them in the definition of the word... we were right near a grocery store that had 5+ feet of water in it... They picked up bread and cokes that were floating in the water. They would have floated away anyhow.”

Understandably this wasn’t a suitable response for a good deal of readers and has triggered a number of blog posts and message board chatter under the title “Black People Loot, White People Find”.

In spite of that gaffe and others like it, be they intentional or otherwise I’m actually not blaming the media on this one, at least not most of them and not yet. They’re there; they’re intrusive, kinetic, and hyper in their coverage as always. But we all expect that now, we’re quite used to calm newscasters voices as they report from devastated areas with their rain slickers, clichés and their grim, sympathetic faces. All they’re capturing for us is the human face of this tragedy; the problem is this may not be the face the American public as a whole is comfortable with seeing.

As the situation gets worse so do the images. There is a sea of mostly black faces, understandably tired, understandably dirty and hungry and irritable and frightened and angry. There are children, screaming with tears pouring down their faces, people in torn, tattered, soaking wet clothes, babies in nothing but diapers. There are also other people, cameras catching kids throwing up gang signs, breaking into stores and not just Walmart for a DVD player or four or five pairs of shoes, but gun stores.

There are reports of roving gangs of looters, fighting, women being raped, people have been killed. And each hour as we learn more about what’s happening these people are being told less. They are isolated, they are cut off from society and they are trapped or like the Reverend Issac Clark said as he stood in the middle of the filth and the dead, “We are out here like pure animals," and unfortunately that is what I fear the American public is starting to see on TV Animals.

We seem to be witnessing the beginning of a sort of Lord of the Flies attempt at survival, and it’s live, in color and 24 hours a day. What I fear is that nothing could be more detrimental to the citizens of New Orleans and Mississippi getting aid than the actions of some and the skin color of most of the people who need it.

I don’t defend the behavior of someone who breaks into a jewelry case or searches an abandoned store for a pair of Nikes in their size, and I also feel there is no kinship between stealing luxuries and taking bread and diapers. I like to think I wouldn’t do something like that in a similar situation. But then again I have a home, warm when I require it, air conditioned when I don’t, dry, comfortable.

I have food and I know where my next meal is coming from, I have countless sources for the latest news and information about what is going on in my city. I still have my property, I wasn’t trapped in the fetid heat of the Superdome and I am not at the moment trudging up to my knees or my neck through water that is filled with alligators, cottonmouth snakes, oil, and muck, and feces and disease and corpses.

I would like to think that somehow through all that I would maintain an air of civility and dignity, and that I would behave with the same decency, consideration and consciousness of right and wrong that I know possess. But somehow I think if I were placed in that situation, suddenly, I might find my moral compass more than a bit askew.

What is worrying me is the fact that the American psyche can unfortunately lean more toward Caucasian concerns, with the blonde and the blue eyed earning the most sympathy. In a nation that is filled with concerned and swamped with coverage for the Natalee Holloways’ but knows and cares very little about the LaToyia Figueroas’.

Can this coverage be good for the cause? Why is it that when disaster strikes a town with more Caucasian residents does the news coverage seems a bit more gentle, less abrasive, less condescendingly disappointed with the survivors, more palatable, perhaps even more relatable. I find myself wondering is it really necessary to put a non-ethnic face to a tragedy, to get the appropriate response and amount of sympathy. The mayor of New Orleans has expressed over and over again that the action of some criminals is not indicative of how his city behaves, but that these are citizens pushed past their breaking point I wonder if anyone is listening.

My hope is that I’m wrong; my hope is that the best in all of us wants only to help others in need. My hope is that this will bring out nothing but the best and most charitable of spirits in people. My hope is that the better angels of our nature will win out as this country grasps that we cannot forget these people who need us so desperately.

My hope is that my fellow Americans will be giving and gracious in money, time and prayers, not just for the moment but for the long haul and in doing so, live up to the ideals we hold dear, those that represent what we can be. My fear is that we will give a little and forget quickly, living up only to the fickle legacy and lip service of the past, a nation with a short memory that offers gifts with strings attached.

Further Study

  • Yahoo News Photo: Young Man in Water
  • Yahoo News: Photo Statement
  • FOX 2 KASA: Frustration mounts in New Orleans
  • CBS 3 KYW: Details In Latoyia Figueroa's Death Released
  • Google News: Hurricane Katrina

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