The real racism exposed by Hurricane Katrina
by Marvin Olasky
Posted on Monday, August 31, 2015, at 12:02 pm
Ten years ago today, the presidency of George W. Bush took a fatal hit. Yes, the bog-down in Iraq hurt, but the most devastating single photo of his administration showed him looking out the window as his plane flew over Katrina-flooded New Orleans as he returned to Washington after vacationing at his ranch in Texas. Bush should have been on the ground, as he was in New York City soon after Sept. 11, 2001.
Left-wing mediacrats made that photo their poster for rich people not caring about poor people, or whites not caring about blacks. At a congressional hearing later in 2005, many New Orleans residents charged that racism caused delays in Katrina relief and rescue. They were right, but they misidentified the culprit.
Delays came partly because some politicians and journalists painted a portrait of impoverished, overwhelmingly African-American masses of flood victims resorting to utter depravity, randomly attacking each other as well as police and rescue workers dispatched to protect and save them. Black politicians denigrated black residents: New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin spoke of “hundreds of armed gang members killing and raping people” inside the Superdome and said many of his constituents were in an “almost animalistic state.” Police Chief Eddie Compass spoke of “little babies getting raped.” Political organizer Randall Robinson said the “thousands of blacks in New Orleans … have begun eating corpses to survive.”
Even those who see cannibalism as benign don’t think it happens after four days. It didn’t take that long for media hysteria to spread. CNN’s Paula Zahn spoke of “literally, people walking around in feces” and “bands of rapists going block to block.” Her colleague, Chris Lawrence, raved about “mothers with their babies literally living in raw sewage … helicopters are literally just completely surrounded the city … people are literally dying at the Convention Center. … There have literally been groups of young men roaming the city, shooting at people.”
These stories, at best metaphorical but largely mendacious, literally led to good ratings. Facts had a hard time catching up. Orleans Parish District Attorney Eddie Jordan later said four murders had occurred in the entire city during the week after Katrina hit, which made it an average week, but from press reports he thought “at least 40 or 50 murders had occurred.” New Orleans Times-Picayune editor Jim Amoss later complained about “classic urban myth” and said that if media had been speculating about the behavior of “middle-class white people its hard to believe that these kinds of myths would have sprung up so readily.”
When Wolf Blitzer on CNN at the end of Katrina week said, “Had this happened in a predominantly white community, the federal government would have responded much more quickly,” he was probably right. Had politicians and reporters not made racist, false assumptions about black behavior, rescuers would not have thought their operations demanded military precaution rather than humanitarian speed. Had commanders not seen the need to arrive at the Convention Center with overwhelming force, in the media-driven expectation that residents would shoot at them, they would have been able to evacuate people from there a day earlier.
The New York Times was one of the exaggerators, but at least on Sept. 29, 2005, it reported that “the most alarming stories that coursed through the city appear to be little more than figments of frightened imaginations.” Hype was not a victimless crime. It slowed down rescue work. Two patients died while waiting for evacuation helicopters grounded for a day by false reports of sniper fire. And yet, instead of emphasizing the need for accurate reporting, NBC’s Brian Williams told his national audience that the hurricane would “necessitate a national discussion on race, oil, politics, class, infrastructure, the environment, and more.”
George W. Bush came to New Orleans this past weekend. He’s said that he could have done better a decade ago. Many reporters have not been so honest. If you’re interested in more on this subject, you can read a book of mine that Thomas Nelson published a year after the hurricane hit: The Politics of Disaster: Katrina, Big Government, and a New Strategy for Future Crisis.
Marvin is editor in chief of WORLD and dean of World Journalism Institute. He joined WORLD in 1992 and has also been a university professor and provost. He has written more than 20 books, including Reforming Journalism. Marvin resides with his wife, Susan, in Austin, Texas. Follow him on Twitter @MarvinOlasky.