This week, Slate is publishing three exclusive excerpts from The Race Card: How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse, by Richard Thompson Ford, published by Farrar, Straus & Giroux (2008).Ford examines the claims of bias that pervade modern American discourse in an attempt to understand why a growing number of people claim to be victims of bigotry in a country with fewer and fewer real bigots. In today’s selection, drawn from the first chapter, Ford explores the claim that racism on the part of the Bush administration animated its shoddy response to Hurricane Katrina.
No one talked about race at first. After senses and sensibilities recovered, it was hard not to notice that almost all of the stranded victims of Katrina were black. Black people huddled in the Convention Center and the Superdome after their houses and apartments were destroyed. Black people on buses to Houston, Atlanta, and Albuquerque, where they would wait for the recovery or, more likely, stay and start afresh. Black people on rooftops and in the upper floors of apartments, stubbornly refusing to leave their homes behind or desperately waiting for help in escaping the aftermath of a storm they had gambled wouldn’t be so bad. Black people “stealing” loaves of bread, fresh water, baby formula. Black people happening upon plasma TVs and platinum watches in abandoned stores. Black people as far as the eye could see.
Then came the photo captions. There couldn’t have been much time even to fact-check those captions, much less vet them for political correctness. But there they were, two pictures, two captions, on the same day no less: August 30, 2005, the day after the levees broke. Both front and center on Yahoo News.
One shows a black man wading through the water carrying a sack: “A young man walks through chest-deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday.” The other one shows a white couple wading through the water; the woman is carrying a sack: “Two residents wade through chestdeep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store. …”
The black guy is a looter, a gangbanger, a stone-cold Crip out for an easy score. Isn’t that a boom box in his hand? Oh, wait, it’s a pack of diapers. The white couple: Jeannie and Jean Valjean, driven by adversity to take a loaf of bread, no doubt to feed their small children who are, unfortunately, just outside the frame. I bet they even left their names and telephone numbers and anote apologizing.
It’s all over the Internet later that day. Post-Katrina racism. Yahoo News was just a dramatic symbol for a much larger issue. People started asking questions that were barely veiled accusations. Why was the federal response so slow and inadequate? Why did President Bush stay in Texas on vacation two days into the catastrophe? If those victims had been white Floridians rather than black Louisianans, would Bush have cut his vacation short? People thought they knew the answer, because a year earlier a hurricane struck white communities in south Florida. The response was rapid and, by one account “generous to the point of profligacy.” Bush delivered relief checks personally. Local officials praised the generosity and efficiency of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Monday; the levees failed on Tuesday. By Saturday, on national television, rapper Kanye West called the president of the United States a racist. West was a host for a benefit concert for the Red Cross—one of those heart-warming yet wrenching events in which celebrities do their part to help, soliciting donations, singing appropriately inspirational songs, and reading prepared scripts in front of monitors that run footage of the disaster and its unfortunate victims. West was paired with Mike Myers, the comedian best known for his role in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Myers didn’t yuck it up that Saturday. The atmosphere was grave and earnest. He stuck to his script: “The landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically, and perhaps irreversibly. There is now over twenty-five feet of water where there was once city streets and thriving neighborhoods.”
West was equally earnest, but he spoke extemporaneously: “I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, ‘They’re looting.’ You see a white family, it says, ‘They’re looking for food.’ And, you know, it’s been five days because most of the people are black. … [W]ith the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible. …” Myers looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding bus. He stammered through the next part of the prepared script: “The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all. …” He trailed off, looking pale and shaken, perhaps by the plight of the Katrina victims, but more likely by West’s unexpected political commentary.
West grabbed the opening to offer a parting observation: “George Bush doesn’t care about black people!”
Somehow Kanye West’s closing thought didn’t make the West Coast rebroadcast. But the sentiment found its way around the world. Polls taken several weeks after the disaster show that 85 percent of blacks thought the Bush administration was negligent in handling the relief efforts. I. V. Hilliard, a New Orleans minister, alluded to the deployment of American forces overseas, complaining, “Are you telling me we can coordinate a relief effort on the other side of the world and we can’t do it here? I’m not saying they didn’t care. I’m saying they didn’t care enough. I can’t help but think race has something to do with it.” Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Iranian television featured politicians and pundits commenting with concern on America’s racial divide. The influential news outlet Al Jazeera ran stories about the hurricane and American racism. One article editorialized: “Poor black Americans … are now suffering third world conditions in the most advanced nation in the world. It’s not as though the Bush administration couldn’t have done more. … [T]hey chose not to. … [Given what they’ve done in the Middle East] it’s not so surprising to see this administration rape their own people and leave them stranded.” Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney insisted, “The world saw American-style racism in the drama … [of] the Katrina survivors.” Katrina was proving to be an international public relations disaster as well as a natural catastrophe.
During a congressional hearing several months after the disaster, Republicans were desperate to defend the performance of the Republican administration, FEMA, and its top brass. They struggled to respond to victims diplomatically but still rebut charges of racism. “I don’t want to be offensive when you’ve gone through such incredible challenges,” Representative Christopher Shays began warily, before telling a Katrina survivor that he didn’t believe her account of police brutality. “You believe what you want,” the survivor snapped angrily. Earlier, the Reverend Jesse Jackson had compared the temporary shelters in the New Orleans Superdome to the hull of a slave ship. Victims at the hearing compared the conditions in temporary shelters to Nazi concentration camps. The best response Republicans could muster was that no one in New Orleans had been marched into a gas chamber.
Racism didn’t flood the black neighborhoods of New Orleans, but racism established and enforced the residential patterns that made those neighborhoods black. Residential segregation took hold of our nation’s cities generations ago, when no one denies that overt racism was the norm.
But is there a group of living racists who are directly responsible for the injuries suffered by the Katrina victims? Contrary to Kanye West’s assertion, there is little evidence that George Bush cares less about poor black people than about poor whites. The conservative Bush administration was ideologically predisposed to be contemptuous of social programs and the agencies that administered them. That included FEMA, which the administration staffed with political hacks rather than experienced professionals and placed under the Department of Homeland Security, where its disaster relief mandate was diluted by the counterterrorism agenda. These were, in retrospect, very bad decisions, but they weren’t racist. FEMA mismanagement could as easily have left white San Franciscans huddled in inadequate shelters for days after a major earthquake.
Katrina is a prime example of a racial injury without racists. Like most American cities, New Orleans is racially segregated. Its black residents are disproportionately poor, and they live in the least desirable, most dangerous areas of the city, so they suffered the most in the wake of Katrina. Their homes were disproportionately located in the areas that flooded. They were disproportionately without cars to move themselves and their belongings to higher ground, and therefore they were disproportionately among those unable to leave town before the storm hit. New Orleans’s black residents suffered as a result of racism—the racism that established black segregation and a crippling cycle of poverty. They also suffered because of the shortsightedness, neglect, and government incompetence that made the aftermath of Katrina worse than it had to be. It’s natural to want to hold the available blameworthy parties responsible for all of these evils. But most of the racists responsible for the distinctly racial cast of the Katrina disaster are dead and gone.