Nov 1 2005

‘Saying What They’ve Been Thinking’

Racial stereotypes in Katrina commentary

As columnist Dawn Turner Trice remarked (Chicago Tribune, 9/12/05), Hurricane Katrina “shed a light” on the often unspoken racist assumptions of many Americans. In particular, she noted, many of the elite have, through their comments about the tragedy, “unwittingly reveal[ed] themselves” and their fundamental prejudices.

Of course, many pundits attacked the idea that racism had anything to do with Katrina at all. To suggest race affected the response to the hurricane, Reason magazine’s Cathy Young (Boston Globe, 9/12/05) charged, was “irresponsible.” Jeff Jacoby decried in the Boston Globe (9/14/05) the invocation after Katrina of the “America-as-lethally-racist theme” that “is as factually dishonest as it is morally grotesque.” Agreeing with Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice that charges of racism were false, Kathleen Parker lamented in the Orlando Sentinel (9/11/05) that “the race message has . . . polluted the mainstream.”

Such denials, however, often embraced the very stereotypes commonly used in mainstream media to ridicule and misrepresent progressive black leaders (Extra! 3-4/03). Trotting out the caricature of progressive African-American leaders as attention-hungry, syndicated columnist Cal Thomas (Tribune Media Services, 9/8/05) mocked Randall Robinson as a “now-obscure ‘civil rights leader’” and Jesse Jackson Sr. as a “fading, but not yet obscure ‘civil rights leader’”—thereby dismissing their criticisms of the government’s response to the hurricane.

Parker (Orlando Sentinel, 9/11/05) expressed surprise that an African-American woman told her “matter-of-factly” that “Bush doesn’t care about people who look like me” because the woman was “an elegant professional woman clearly not of the Al Sharpton school of reactionary politics.”

Pundits attacked rapper Kanye West for declaring in a September 2 NBC telethon that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” John Gibson, as guest host of Fox NewsO’Reilly Factor (9/9/05), and Tucker Carlson on MSNBC’s The Situation With Tucker Carlson (9/15/05) both misquoted West, proposing that he said Bush “hates black people.” (Gibson and Carlson were quickly corrected by their guests, professor Michael Eric Dyson and rapper Chuck D, respectively.)

These commentators perpetuate the stereotype that African-Americans who question the white establishment are self-promoting, unreasonable and non-credible. The irony here—that these dismissals of racism themselves echo racist stereotypes—points to the way Americans’ denial of their prejudices can perpetuate the very bigotry they disavow.

Racial stereotyping was also painfully on display in various descriptions of New Orleans Mayor C. Ray Nagin. Fox News’ John Gibson pronounced on (9/8/05) that Nagin “is best suited for leading the preservation hall clarinet and coronet band at an old-fashioned funeral.” While it is of course legitimate to examine the responses of all officials to the hurricane, it’s unhelpful to base these evaluations on stereotypes and innuendo.

Similarly, much commentary about African-Americans hit by the hurricane revealed a blame-the-victim mentality that heavily depended upon stereotypes of poor blacks. For some pundits, it seems that any event involving the topics of race and class is an opportunity to replay old arguments about how the behavior of poor people contributes to their plight.

Fox’s Bill O’Reilly declared in the Ft. Lauderdale, Fla. Sun-Sentinel (9/10/05) that “the suffering” of “the poor in New Orleans” should be a lesson: “Connect the dots and wise up. Educate yourself, work hard and be honest. . . . If you don’t . . . the odds are that you will be desperately standing on a symbolic rooftop someday yourself. And trust me, help will not be quick in coming.” And in O’Reilly’s view, help should not necessarily be offered (O’Reilly Factor, 9/12/05): “The white American taxpayers are saying, ‘How much more do we have to give here?’” (The identification of taxpayers as “white” surfaced in the media coverage of the reparations issue as well—Extra!, 5-6/02.)

New York Times columnist David Brooks (9/8/05) invoked stereotypes as well as he held African-Americans responsible for the poverty that doomed many in the wake of the hurricane: “Most of the ambitious and organized people abandoned the inner-city areas of New Orleans long ago.” The notion that the bulk of New Orleans residents were helplessly dependent on the government was well-rebutted by Tim Wise in CounterPunch (10/29/05), who pointed out that in a city of almost half a million people, only 16,000 in New Orleans were receiving cash welfare, only 20,000 lived in public housing and just 11 percent received food stamps.

The Washington Post’s George F. Will (9/13/05) proposed that “it is a safe surmise that more than 80 percent of African-American births in inner-city New Orleans . . . were to women without husbands,” whose “lightly parented” sons would bring “chaos . . . come rain or come shine.” National Review editor Rich Lowry opined (National Review Online, 9/2/05) that “the breakdown of the family” was what left people poor and vulnerable in the aftermath of Katrina, suggesting “a grand right-left bargain that includes greater attention to out-of-wedlock births from the left in exchange for the right’s support for more urban spending.” (Lowry did not suggest that spending money on urban problems would actually be desirable, but argued that “anything is worth addressing the problem of fatherlessness.”) Never mind that, as author Ishmael Reed noted in the San Francisco Chronicle (9/9/05), statistics demonstrate that “out-of-wedlock births among black teenagers have plummeted more than those of any ethnic group.”

For some members of the media, the victims of the hurricane were seemingly foreign—or perhaps not quite human. Allen Breed’s New Orleans report for the Cincinnati Post (9/3/05) described “naked babies wail[ing] for food as men get drunk on stolen liquor” and a crowd whose “almost feral intensity” prevented delivery of water to victims by helicopter. (Breed did include a quote from a man who indicated that the decision to airdrop food was “insulting, demeaning.”)

The New York Daily News (9/2/05) proclaimed officials “must do whatever it takes to curb the hardcore, armed, violent felons who are making it impossible to save the city,” who are “a very different breed from desperate citizens who are trying to get food and water.” Given that this “different breed” was largely a figment of media imaginations—later investigations showed that there was no more violence in New Orleans after Katrina than in any typical week (Seattle Times, 9/26/05; see page 9)—this kind of editorializing suggested that it is, in fact, the regular residents of the city who are inherently “other”—foreign, primitive and dangerous. As the Daily News put it: “Anarchy, Mogadishu-style, is just around the corner if they’re not stopped.”

Other pundits dehumanized the inner-city victims of the hurricane. Writing in the National Review Online blog the Corner (8/29/05), Jonah Goldberg advised those in the Superdome (which he described as a “Mad Max/Thunderdome/Waterworld/Lord of the Flies horror show”) on how to survive: “Hoard weapons, grow gills and learn to communicate with serpents,” “find the biggest guy you can and when he’s not expecting it beat him senseless,” and “protect any female who agrees to participate without question in your plans to repopulate the Earth with a race of gilled supermen.”

Goldberg offered lukewarm, defensive and contradictory apologies after receiving criticism for his remarks; in the following day’s Corner (8/30/05), he initially conceded he “probably could have waited longer for the levity,” while in another post that afternoon, after apologizing to “those offended,” he remarked that his comments came not “after the death toll and damage were known, but before.”

With victims cast as less than human, some commentators proposed shocking actions. “I hope the looters are shot,” Peggy Noonan pronounced on the Wall Street Journal’s (9/1/05). On the Situation with Tucker Carlson (9/15/05), Carlson remarked, “Maybe [the National Guard] should have shot people but they didn’t.” Sitting in for Sean Hannity on Fox’s Hannity & Colmes (9/9/05), Rich Lowry asked author Simon Winchester about the “shoot to kill order” in the 1906 California Earthquake. After “about an hour,” Winchester related, the looting “stopped.” “Doesn’t surprise me,” Lowry returned, adding that “it seems as though no one was really waiting for bureaucratic approval or worrying about the legalities or . . . possible lawsuit[s].”

Of course, not all of the victims of the hurricane were African-Americans, but the media responded quite differently to actions of blacks and whites. It was not just the explicit racism demonstrated by the well-publicized Yahoo! News posting of two captioned photos of survivors with food, in which a black man was described as “looting” while a white couple was “finding” provisions. (See cover.)

Most mainstream outlets did not approve this disparity, although Goldberg was predictably defensive in the Corner (9/3/05). Although he admitted “it probably is an example of racial bias,” Goldberg mused, “I don’t know what’s in the giant bag the black guy is tugging along behind him. Perhaps he really did loot the grocery store for more than mere essentials? The white couple found the bread and soda ‘from’ a local grocery store. Did they go in it?”

There was also a more subtle racism at work in much of the coverage of the actions taken by whites and African-Americans after the hurricane. As noted earlier, the response of the poor black victims was consistently portrayed as at best selfish, and at worst antisocial and criminal. Commentators were much more generous in their assessments of non-blacks. The Atlanta Journal-Constitution (9/1/05) and the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette (9/13/05), for instance, portrayed residents and business owners from Metairie, Louisiana, a mostly white suburb of New Orleans, as grateful, enterprising and generous.

No doubt many people in the suburbs acted commendably, yet the contrast between the attitude of this coverage and that of the inner-city residents is troubling. It is hard to imagine a reporter praising the general population of New Orleans as heartily as did Kris Axtman of the Christian Science Monitor (9/16/05) when she declared that she discovered among those in the New Orleans suburbs “no shortage of enthusiasm and heart.”

In fact, one might discover in Axtman’s article a suburb that did show a “shortage of enthusiasm and heart.” The police force in the mostly white community of Gretna turned away people fleeing New Orleans, sending them back by bus and even firing warning shots at residents trying to flee their drowned city (New York Times, 9/10/05; it’s striking how little coverage this actual shooting received compared to the apocryphal shooting at rescue helicopters—Knight Ridder, 10/2/05).

Even though the mayor of Gretna received some criticism, his response was presented in a generally positive light in Axtman’s article as well as in the Grand Rapids Press (9/17/05), St. Petersburg Times (9/17/05) and Houston Chronicle (9/18/05), all of which noted residents’ gratitude and their fears of violence from New Orleans evacuees. But why, one might wonder, is turning one’s neighbors away when they are in need—even physically threatening them—not deemed selfish, antisocial behavior?

As Eugene Kane aptly put it in a column in the Milwaukee Journal Sentinel (9/18/05): “If a local police force can enforce its own Jim Crow style of justice during a national emergency . . . [they] were guilty of a social breakdown far worse than looting. They betrayed their own sworn duties to protect people in a time of crisis.” Why did many in the media avoid condemning these acts, when, as Kane remarks, the lack of police action and protection was “more troubling than individual acts of greed or incompetence during the hurricane’s aftermath”? The answer appears to be that this happened in a white community rather than in a black one.

In her Chicago Tribune (9/12/05) editorial, Dawn Turner Trice suggested that remarks made after the hurricane allow us to see the powerful in our society for “who they are.” “I’m not mad at members of the elite,” she drolly pointed out. “They’re merely saying aloud what they’ve been thinking.”

Hurricane Katrina has, indeed, led many media reporters and commentators to, in Trice’s words, “reveal themselves.” It has blown away the façade that we are a “colorblind” society and that Americans have shed their prejudices—myths that too many in the media have accepted and perpetuated.

Perhaps in this moment of exposure and revelation, we can begin to demand responsibility in the media. Perhaps we can demand that they not shy away from racial issues—including attention to poverty, health and education in our struggling inner cities—and that journalists have the courage to address the partiality of many of their colleagues. If this media infection is not treated, any gain in the public conversation about race in this country is liable to be gone with the wind.

Jacqueline Bacon is the author of The Humblest May Stand Forth: Rhetoric, Empowerment and Abolition ( University of South Carolina Press), and has written articles on African-American rhetoric and history for various publications.