The ongoing human tragedy in New Orleans created by Hurricane Katrina has generated an interesting and important debate about the underlying causes of Black suffering and oppression.
In its most simple form, the question being debated is whether race and racism were fundamentally responsible for the Katrina crisis that has disrupted the lives of hundreds of thousands of African Americans, or whether class and poverty were more important.
In the initial days after Katrina struck and New Orleans' levies collapsed, flooding most of the city, African American politicians and the civil rights establishment were slow to attribute the federal government's delayed response to racism.
For example, after meeting with Louisiana officials on Sept. 1, 2005, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said that "many Black people feel that their race, their property conditions and their voting patterns have been a factor in the response. I'm not saying that myself, but what's self-evident is that you have many poor people without a way out."
On the Internet, however, many African Americans almost immediately began referring to Katrina as "our tsunami" and bitterly contrasted the massive humanitarian response by the U.S. government to the 2004 Asian tragedy to that of New Orleans. As images of bloated Black corpses floating in flooded streets were broadcast worldwide, and media misinformation about "Black looters and rapists" began to proliferate, it became apparent that racist stereotypes about African Americans were being used to explain away government inaction.
The conservative media led the way in deliberately hyping lurid tales of Blacks committing widespread murders, sexual assaults and shootings at rescue workers. FOX News anchor John Gibson informed viewers, "All kinds of reports of looting, fires and violence. Thugs shooting at rescue crews." MSNBC commentator Tucker Carlson, during a televised interview of the Rev. Al Sharpton, pontificated, "People are being raped. People are being murdered. People are being shot. Police officers are being shot."
Law enforcement officials quickly manipulated the same racial stereotypes and media misinformation to explain away their ineptitude and inaction. On Sept. 5, 2005, New Orleans Police Chief Eddie Compass told the London Guardian, "We don't have any substantiated rapes." Yet on Sept. 6, appearing on "Oprah," Compass referred to the Superdome as a chaotic site: "We had little babies in there, some of the little babies getting raped."
Liberals responded to these racial stereotypes by charging that the Bush administration's lethargic response to the New Orleans crisis was, to a great extent, racially motivated. New York Times columnist Paul Krugman, for example, bluntly stated: "The administration's lethally inept response to Hurricane Katrina had a lot to do with race. For race is the biggest reason the United States, uniquely among advanced countries, is ruled by a political movement that is hostile to the idea of helping citizens in need."
In terms of poverty, New Orleans — a city that was nearly 70 percent African American — had 30 percent of its residents living below the federal poverty line. In the flood-devastated Ninth Ward, with a 98 percent Black population, the poverty rate exceeded 40 percent. About 40 percent of working-age adults were unemployed. Thousands were living in dilapidated, substandard housing even before the hurricane struck.
As the evidence of racial inequality mounted, even President George W. Bush was pressured to acknowledge the reality of discrimination. In a nationally televised address from New Orleans, Bush admitted that poverty "has its roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America."
To New York Times columnist Bob Herbert, Bush's newfound revelation was hollow rhetoric. "This president has had zero interest in attacking poverty," Herbert said.
"His reference to racism and poverty was just another opportunistic Karl Rove moment, never to be acted upon."
Manning Marable is a professor of history and African American studies at Columbia University.