So-called black leaders and other assorted entertainers and racial activists were quick to use Hurricane Katrina and its resulting flood as supposed proof that America's tragic racist personality had suddenly resurfaced. "Genocide" was the way the morning show hosts of New York's no. 1 rap station, Hot 97, described it. The real racial tragedy, however, is not a lack of respect or compassion but the giant distance by which these spokesmen have been left behind by America's steadily advancing society.
One point that was seized upon with disturbing zeal was the canard claiming that newscasters were labeling white looters as "just looking for food" while only their black counterparts were described as "looters." The rumor was spawned after two photos from two separate wire services described two separate incidents, using different words in the two separate captions -- the result being that a black person was identified as having just "looted" while a white person was identified as having just "found" food.
Both cameramen stick by their captions. Chris Graythen, the Agence France-Presse photographer, said, "I believed in my opinion, that they did simply find them, and not 'looted' them in the definition of the word. The people were swimming in chest deep water, and there were other people in the water, both white and black." Aaron Kinney, the Associated Press photographer, said he slugged the photo with the word "loot" because he had just seen his subject loot a store.
No matter. The pictures ricocheted around the Internet and anyone with a bit of sensitivity was soon denouncing the blatantly unfair way the media was treating Katrina's minority victims. Kanye West, the producer-cum-rapper, was one such myth perpetuator. In a now-notorious appearance on NBC's "A Concert for Hurricane Relief," Mr. West said:
I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they're looting. See a white family, it says they're looking for food. And you know that it's been five days, because most of the people are black ...
America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well off as slow as possible ...
They've given them permission to go down and shoot us ...
George Bush doesn't care about black people.
Days later the determinedly unrepentant Mr. West described President Bush's failure to prepare levees for Category 5 hurricanes as evidence of his ill-will toward black America, saying, "They have been trying to sweep us [African-Americans] under the kitchen sink and it was so in people's faces and so on TV ... that they couldn't even hide it any more."
"If these people hadn't been poor and black," said Rep. William Jefferson, a black Democrat who represents most of New Orleans, "they wouldn't have been left in New Orleans in the first place."
Deploring what he called racially insensitive news coverage, the Rev. Jesse Jackson said, "The Red Cross will not go in there because it is too dangerous. The rescue has been slow because some see us as foreigners and 2/3 human."
The Reverend Al Sharpton visited the Houston Astrodome and labeled the relief effort "inexcusable," saying race had played a factor.
Author of "The Debt -- What America Owes to Blacks," Randall Robinson, blogged on the Huffington Post:
Four days after the storm, thousands of blacks in New Orleans are dying like dogs. No one has come to help them.
I am a sixty-four year old African-American. New Orleans marks the end of the America I strove for.
I am hopeless. I am sad. I am angry against my country for doing nothing when it mattered.
This is what we have come to. This defining watershed moment in America's racial history...
On the John Gambling talk radio show on ABC, it was reported that, in the days following the disaster, a rumor circulated the Astrodome that the levees had been intentionally blown up so that Louisiana could engage in a bit of "ethnic cleansing." Hot 97's "Ms. Jones in the Morning" show bought into this theory, suggesting that the inadequate relief effort was the product of a plot by rich white businessmen to purge the area's impoverished blacks so that the city could be more profitably redeveloped.
In the bleak days of yore, such paranoia could be justified. Today, it is ridiculous. There has yet to be a report of a single newscaster using racial considerations when making "looters" versus "looking for food" rhetorical decisions -- yet the rumor has, to a large degree, been unquestionably accepted. Likewise, the Hot 97 morning show hosts were seemingly unconcerned that they had zero evidence to back up their claim that this was all part of some racially sinister, capitalist plot. However, in the real world, the outpouring of relief and the offering of homes have been unprecedented only in its magnanimity.
This recent outbreak of unfounded suspicion is just the latest in a long line of popular black skepticism of whites and the government. Earlier this year a study was jointly published by the Rand Corp. and Oregon State University that found that almost half of all black Americans believe the AIDS virus is man-made; 12% believe it was created and spread by the CIA; and a majority believes a cure is being withheld from the public. Fifteen percent said AIDS is a form of genocide against black people.
In the early 1990s, San Jose's Mercury News printed a series of articles that speculated there might be some relationship between Sandinista drug dealers, the CIA, and the spreading crack endemic in California cities. While the connection was never proven to be anything greater than a bout of conspiracy and irresponsible journalism, many blacks -- led, in part, by Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters -- nonetheless bought into the theory that the CIA was selling crack to inner-city blacks to both ruin their communities as well as to raise money to fight communists in South America.
To understand where such fanciful paranoia originates is to appreciate the true effects of the victimist ideology these proselytizers peddle. Na'im Akbar, a Florida State University professor of psychology who specializes in "African American behavior," said in response to the AIDS study, "This is not a bunch of crazy people running around saying they're out to get us. [The belief] comes from the reality of 300 years of slavery and 100 years of post-slavery exploitation."
Jamal Watson, executive editor of the New York Amsterdam News, a black newspaper, asked (somewhat incorrectly): "Why are all of the poor people living in the city of New Orleans black?" Instead of looking for cultural indicators within the black community, Mr. Watson immediately pronounces "slavery" as the culprit. "The legal and social tradition of mistreating blacks started with American slavery and has continued uninterrupted ever since." Uninterrupted? Like far too many, Mr. Watson can't see a difference between America in 1860 and 2005.
If the best these professional race activists can muster to justify this ingrained skepticism is a tired yet sanctimonious invocation of slavery, it shows just how detached they've become. Resultantly, black Americans' worst fears are being taken advantage of and a healthier American society falls by the wayside. By indulging in conspiracy theories and blame-anyone-but-yourself psychotherapy, the emphasis on personal responsibility that can make social equality possible is injuriously neglected.
While Hurricane Katrina has unearthed many previously underappreciated American deficiencies, racial intolerance was not one of them. Instead, we've learned that many prominent black activists are no more reliable as leaders than the levees were as protectors for New Orleans's impoverished blacks.
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