Disaster brings race, class to forefront

Black leaders ask for fair, fast response for victims of storm

Katrina's Wake

September 03, 2005|By Kelly Brewington | Kelly Brewington,SUN STAFF

When the levees in New Orleans broke, something other than water spilled out: long-simmering racial tensions.

Certainly, Katrina has devastated people of all backgrounds and income levels, and diverse people the world over have empathized with the tragedy. But the devastation of New Orleans - which is nearly 70 percent black, where the gulf between the poor and rich is as wide as the Mississippi River - has brought to the forefront issues of race and class.

"This isn't very complicated, except for this is America," said Ronald Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland, College Park. "So there is a radicalized context. You have some white people saying, `It's black people; they loot all the time.' I would hope to see the same humanitarian outpouring that we saw during the tsunami. But I don't think so. I wish people would stop the race-baiting."

The race-baiting, he said, is in images of looting African-Americans and commentary by television anchors who have condemned the chaos that has erupted in New Orleans. While violence and looting aren't acceptable behavior, he said, it's only one piece of the picture.

The issue has gotten notice from black leaders. Yesterday, a group of representatives from organizations such as the Congressional Black Caucus and the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People expressed anger at federal response to Katrina, begging for a fair, fast response to the suffering. Bruce Gordon, president and CEO of the NAACP, is visiting Biloxi, Miss., today and New Orleans tomorrow.

"Many of these Americans who now are struggling to survive are Americans of color," said U.S. Rep. Elijah E. Cummings. "Their cries for assistance confront America with a test of our moral compass as a nation. We cannot allow it to be said by history that the difference between those who lived and those who died in the great storm and flood of 2005 was nothing more than poverty, age or skin color."

The images have had a profound effect on many, especially, it seems, African-Americans. Associated Black Charities has set up a relief fund encouraging blacks to donate.

"Everyone you talk to says, `I got friends there; I went to school there; we have people down there,'" said Donna Fisher-Lewis, the group's chief development officer. "It's not that we are not sensitive to all the other people who are suffering; we want to help everybody. But it hits home to us in a different way."

Sharon Richardson sees an added layer of tragedy in the New Orleans catastrophe, an unsettling feeling to which many Baltimore residents can relate.

"I looked and all I saw was poor black people, and my heart just went out to them," said Richardson, who was raised in Baltimore but lives in Columbia.

Her feelings extend beyond empathy. The images of angry, lawless looters - overwhelmingly black - reinforce a stereotype that strikes her very core.

"All you see on TV is African-Americans looting. They portray them in a negative light," she said. "But if people are desperate - black, white, yellow, green - they are going to seek what they can find."

On urban radio stations, in chat rooms and in workplace conversations, some wondered aloud whether racism was at play: If the hurricane had struck a predominantly wealthy white community, would people be dying needlessly?

Most of New Orleans' refugees are poor people who did not have the means to get out before Katrina hit, sociologists say.

Some blame officials for botching the evacuation plan for the city's poor.

"This disaster has really uncovered their poverty," Walters said. "It has also uncovered the fact that we have administrations and a Congress that has not had sufficient and effective approaches to urban poverty in a couple of decades."

New Orleans is almost 70 percent black, the largest percentage nationwide of an area its size, according to new U.S. Census data. Ranking right behind are Prince George's County and Baltimore City, each about 67 percent black. Like Baltimore, New Orleans has many poor residents - nearly 23 percent of its residents live in poverty. Baltimore's poverty rate is about 24 percent, according to recent U.S. Census statistics.

Poverty also disproportionately affects blacks in New Orleans, according to an analysis of census data by the Urban Institute. More than one-third of blacks living in New Orleans are poor, and of the poor families in the city, more than 9 out of 10 are black.

"The people who were left behind in the evacuation were the very people left behind in education, jobs and housing," said Roderick J. Harrison, a demographer at the Joint Center for Political and Economic Studies, a think tank on black issues.

The looting is out of desperation not only in the current situation - days without food or water surrounded by dead and demoralized fellow storm victims - but also anguish based on years of neglect, he said.

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