September 5, 2005
Katrina response prompts questions of race in U.S
By Jason Webb
HOUSTON (Reuters) - Despite strenuous official denials,
delays in helping victims of Hurricane Katrina have fed
African-American suspicions the government cares more about the
lives of wealthy white people than poor blacks.
In a country where a recent survey indicated many blacks
were probably predisposed to believe the government was out to
get them, many have asked if the race of most of the victims
was a factor in the painfully slow relief effort and the lack
of preparation to prevent the disaster.
Officials, straining to explain how so much havoc could
result from a storm that experts say had been predicted for
years, said they were simply taken by surprise by the magnitude
of the disaster when Katrina burst the walls holding back Lake
Pontchartrain from a city built below sea level.
They have admitted that the poverty of many of the victims,
who simply did not have enough money to obey evacuation orders,
was a factor in bringing scenes that viewers around the world
would more readily have associated with Sierra Leone than the
But, with blacks more likely to be poor, that explanation
was not enough for everyone.
"If this hurricane had struck a white, middle-class
neighborhood in the Northeast or the Southwest, his (President
George W. Bush's) response would have been a lot stronger,"
wrote Calvin Butts, president of the Council of Churches of the
City of New York, in the British newspaper The Observer on
Rapper Kanye West was more direct in a live outburst during
an NBC benefit concert for Katrina victims last week, saying,
"George Bush doesn't care about black people."
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson drew on some of the most
emotive language in the American political vocabulary when he
compared the condition of evacuees to "Africans in the hull of
a slave ship."
"The issue of race as a factor will not go away," he
Despite enormous progress since the civil rights struggles
of the 1960s and the growth of a prosperous and well-educated
black middle class, many blacks in the United States remain at
the bottom of the social pile and suspect society conspires to
keep them there.
A survey by researchers from Oregon State University and
the Rand Corporation released earlier this year found 16
percent of African-Americans thought AIDS was created by the
government to control the black population.
While many would dismiss such beliefs as ridiculous, they
arise in a society where almost one in five black men can
expect to spend time in prison, compared with just one in 16
Conspiracy theories also sprouted among Hurricane Katrina
evacuees camping out at Houston's Astrodome. Several told
Reuters they suspected black residential areas were flooded
purposely in an effort to divert water from white housing.
Among administration officials headed to the disaster zone
following criticism of government aid efforts was Secretary of
State Condoleezza Rice. As a Southern black woman, she is
herself a powerful symbol of change in a nation just four
decades distant from racial segregation laws.
"I don't believe for a minute anybody allowed people to
suffer because they are African-Americans. I just don't believe
it for a minute," Rice said.
While the victims were mainly black, the sight of many of
them being helped by whites sent a positive message to some.
"Before this whole thing, I had a complex about white
people. This thing changed me forever," said Joseph Brant, 36,
a black man who said he escaped New Orleans by hitching a ride
in a van carrying white people.