Aftermath of Ugly
a column from the Chicago Sun-Times that has had a
top spot on Google News headlines for a couple days running.
It’s a column about how Hurricane Katrina brought out the
best in people, and details all the many people who headed
there to help or organized clothing drives, fund-raisers etc.
It then ends with a bizarre hairpin turn to tell people to
stop criticizing Bush’s recovery plan because it’s all about
I imagine that it has retained its top place in a forum that
updates itself every 15 minutes, because the many people out
there like me who are desperate to hear some good news, who
want to get back to the “We all pulled together in the face
of disaster” storyline in the face of the paralysis and chaos
that we heard about in the week following the hurricane.
It’s good to remember that storyline—it’s true. There are
thousands of people who jumped in and did, or tried to do,
what needed to be done, and their praises should be sung to
the heavens. There were also thousands of survivors who sacrificed
to help each other, staying behind, going back, letting the
sick get out first, etc.
But (you knew there was a but, didn’t you. I’m sorry. I really
am), as much as I want to go there and stay there, as much
as I want to let the poor battered subject alone, there is
one of the uglier aspects of Katrina that I can’t leave without
Katrina exposed the depths to which America has not cured
itself of racism, and those depths were frightening to look
at. A report by media reporter David Carr of The New
York Times on Monday, Sept. 19, examined how along with
its newfound willingness to question people in positions of
authority, the media were also a little too willing to pass
on unsubstantiated accounts of murders and especially rapes.
This followed close on the heels of the Associated Press’s
publishing of a picture of a black teenager with some food,
with a caption calling him a looter and a nearly identical
picture (from AFP) of a white couple saying they “found” food
“in a grocery store.”
While it is clear that New Orleans post-Katrina was not entirely
a model of law and order and politeness, the press’ confirmation
and amplification of the usual urban-legends rumor mill added
fuel to the fire of surrounding communities’ fears about an
influx of refugees.
It’s hard to find an easy way to argue with those who see
racism embedded in the lack of a disaster plan, and the lack
of a quick mobilization. But it’s personal as well as systemic.
One of the stories that Carr says was confirmed is
that the police in Gretna, La., turned back hundreds of fleeing
refugees trying to walk across a bridge. The paramedics who
wrote up that story told of being sent to that bridge (where
the Gretna sheriffs fired guns at them) by the New Orleans
police who claimed, nay promised, that buses would be waiting
for them there. After being turned back, the group of hundreds
camped on the freeway. “Just as dusk set in, a Gretna Sheriff
showed up, jumped out of his patrol vehicle, aimed his gun
at our faces, screaming, ‘Get off the fucking freeway,’ ”
wrote Larry Bradshaw and Lorrie Beth Slonsky. “A helicopter
arrived and used the wind from its blades to blow away our
flimsy structures. As we retreated, the sheriff loaded up
his truck with our food and water.”
Other first-person accounts of what happened once people did
get out is just as disturbing. One person who tried to deliver
donated food to a refugee camp in Oklahoma was told that the
people coming wouldn’t be allowed to use the kitchens because
they could start fires, and she couldn’t leave apples and
milk because “It could cause a riot. You don’t understand
the type of people that are about to come here. . . . ” A
FEMA official has since rebutted that they were accepting
food only in sealed packages for safety reasons—but that doesn’t
negate what the person on the ground told the people trying
to offer food.
Other news stories told of citizens in Baton Rouge making
a run on gun stores, and businesses deciding to only accept
Having refugees—traumatized, penniless and adrift—pouring
into your community is often a little frightening. Civil wars
have started over it in other parts of the world. My own family
had a long and somewhat nerve-wracking discussion about our
limits and our safety before posting an offer for temporary
housing on one of the sites coordinating such offers.
But as Michael Tisserand, editor of New Orleans’ Gambit
Weekly, has written in a column for the Association of
Alternative Newsweeklies, there is a split—“house refugees,”
i.e., people who found someone to stay with, are primarily
white. Shelter refugees are primarily black. And for a segregated,
suburbanized nation that still too closely associates race
with a range of perceived or real urban ills, the reaction
to the arrival of people dispersed from a very black, very
poor city has shades of school-busing backlash about it.
I hope that the racism was “only” in a government we already
know to be interested exclusively in the needs of the elite,
and “only” in a few wigged-out sheriffs and sheltered citizens.
That would be ugly enough.
But I think the most practical thing to hope for is that just
like the media have discovered poverty again in Katrina’s
wake, that the baldness of the government’s lack of urgency
about saving those who couldn’t leave and the depth of people’s
distrust across racial lines will help the country shake off
the notion that it has achieved color-blindness and get back