Saturday, September 03, 2005

Race and the Response to Katrina?

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

That's why the Associated Press news photos that came out on Tuesday are so offensive and so telling. One photo shows an African-American wading through flood waters in New Orleans holding a bag containing food that the accompanying caption tells us, he "looted" from a grocery store. Another shows two white Americans who have "found food" in a grocery store.

Three people. One black. Two white. All did the same thing. But the black person looted, while the white people found food.

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

But are members of the Democratic Black congressional caucus right in asserting that racism accounts for the seeming lack of a federal response in the first days after Katrina hit?

Let's look at the facts.

There is a large black underclass in America. That includes New Orleans. Much of that has its roots in America's institutionalized racism, to be sure. And it may be a measure of a lack of compassion on the part of the white middle- and upper-class citizens of that city that they got out after the federal government told people to evacuate before Katrina made landfall. But many poor African-Americans didn't have access to transportation out of the city and were stranded.

Besides, as President Clinton pointed out in a joint interview that he and former President Bush gave to CNN in New Orleans, the city government there had encouraged those unable to evacuate to go to the Super Dome where, they assured folks, they could ride out the storm. Then, when the levee broke, thousands were stranded.

Unaccountably, the New Orleans city government failed to commandeer mass transit buses or local school buses to help the poor to evacuate the city before Katrina hit.

After the storm hit, the response of the Federal Emergency Management Administration (FEMA) was, undoubtedly, slowed by the unexpected levee breaks. But it still seemed excruciatingly slow to move, a result perhaps, of the "reorganization" that put the agency under the Homeland Security Department, confusing the lines of authority.

Racism is a sin and it's endemic to America.

You can blame city and FEMA officials for incompetence perhaps. But I don't think that they're guilty of racism.

UPDATE: If you look at Mark Congdon's comments below, you'll see that I was misinformed regarding the sources of the two photographs. I apologize for not doing a better job of tracking things down. I decided to nonetheless keep the post up because I think that the larger points I wanted to make--racism is real and the inadequate initial response was not racially-driven--remain valid.


Mark Congdon said...


Since that second photo, and its caption, were from a French news source (not the AP), it seems a bit hard to say that the captions, when put together, show American racism. In fact, since they are from completely different news organizations, in completely different countries, with completely different standards and rules, it seems strange to me to even compare them at all.


Mark Daniels said...

You are right and feel terrible that I failed to be more observant!

purple_kangaroo said...

Another thing about the photos, Mark D.: Both news organizations have now made statements regarding them.

The captions were actually written by the photographers, who obviously had more context to work from.

One saw the guy coming out of the store laden with stuff he'd taken. But the photographer who took the picture of the couple who "found" the items said that people were just picking up food etc. from the water as they floated out the door of a doorless store. now has a post dealing with this issue. Follow the links and read around a bit--

IMHO it's rather ridiculous to jump to conclusions about this sort of thing. Would it hurt to give the photographers the benefit of the doubt and assume that, yes, they know more about the situation than we do? Why assume the reason for the different captions is racism or some other bad motive?

purple_kangaroo said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
purple_kangaroo said...

A lot of bloggers and others have made a very strong judgement and accusation against the press organizations and the photographers, which was completely without basis. I think that's sad--and wrong. I think that kind of judgement is the type talked about in the "judge not lest ye be judged" passages. Yes, we should call sin sin . . . but we'd better be very sure of the facts before we do.

You know that I have great respect for you in general, Mark. But I think this discussion of the two photos is one example of people getting carried away by baseless gossip and, frankly, sinning against innocent people by making these accusations publicly.

Who is going to apoligize to the photographers and the news organizations for plastering these false accusations of racism all over the internet?

Mark Daniels said...

Thank you for your comments and especially, for couching them so graciously. I appreciate that!

In my response to Mark Congdon's comments above, I do acknowledge and apologize that I wasn't fair to the AP. I looked before I leapt and I regret that.

I do think that racism is endemic to our culture and in saying that, if I am pointing an accusatory finger, it lands on me as well.

But, as I tried to say, perhaps ineffectively, in the original post, I don't believe that racism lay behind what seemed like delays in response to Hurricane Katrina. It seems facile and unfair to even imply that. The unexpected breaching of levees, yes. Incompetence, maybe. Unclear lines of authority, probably. But I'm confident that racism had nothing to do with the delayed help arriving in New Orleans.

Thank you very much for caring enough to write. God bless you!


purple_kangaroo said...

Mark, you're right that racism is a sin and is all too common--not just in our culture, but worldwide. And I agree with you that racism, at least in the broad picture, had nothing to do with the response or lack thereof in NO. I agree with your general points.

It was just the use of that AP photo as an example of racism and calling it "offensive and telling" that I was objecting to.

I really feel sorry for the photographers Chris Graythen and Dave Martin, who are being singled out and being accused of racism all over the internet. They are real, individual people. They have names. They have feelings. And they don't appreciate being accused of being racist, just like I wouldn't in their situation.

But I guess I should stop complaining about it on your blog and write a post on my own. :)

Mark Daniels said...

I was unaware of the photographers' identitites and certainly I wouldn't suggest that they were in any way responsible for the captions associated with their pictures.

Frankly, I think that you and I are in agreement on all of this stuff. I look forward to reading your blog post on this subject.


purple_kangaroo said...

I just finished my post about the photos/racism issue, Mark. I'd value your feedback if you have the time and the inclination.