Read an Excerpt
The Race Card
How Bluffing About Bias Makes Race Relations Worse
By Richard Thompson Ford
Picador Copyright © 2009 Richard Thompson Ford
All rights reserved.
RACISM WITHOUT RACISTS
We all saw the footage of the looters: thugs rioting through Wal-Mart and sporting goods stores, grabbing fancy basketball shoes, jewelry, plasma televisions. Plasma televisions for chrisssake! Where are they going to plug them in? The whole damn city is underwater and these jokers are stealing flat screen plasma televisions. No wonder they didn't have the sense to get out before the storm hit.
Professor Boyce Watkins, author of What if George Bush Were a Black Man?, is the guest on Fox News. And the Fox News anchor wants to know what the professor has to say about these black hooligans helping themselves to Wal-Mart's plasma TVs, taking advantage of a national tragedy for selfish gain: "Let's talk about this issue of looting ... If you're going to go and take water or food to feed your family, I see that very differently than taking a plasma television. Do you see those those are two very different things, Professor?"
Professor Watkins starts with the sociological context — or what the Fox News audience might call the usual liberal excuses: poverty, failing schools, unemployment. The anchor is having none of it: "What about taking televisions? What about taking things that you can't even plug them in?"
Professor Watkins blusters, in response, "Well, if you define looting as going into someone else's territory and taking something that doesn't belong to you, you can argue that we're looting in Iraq right now." Iraq! He has to reach all the way to Mesopotamia to avoid the issue! Liberating a country from a genocidal dictator is the same as stealing a plasma TV? These liberals will say anything.
The anchor stays on message: "Is it okay to take a plasma television?"
"When you are struggling to help your family, whether it's to get whatever they need or whatever the case may be, the fact is that the line between legality and morality suddenly changes."
Or whatever the case may be? C'mon professor, the case was that they were stealing television sets. "I'm talking about the line between necessities and luxury items," insists the anchor.
"Luxury items? I think that if you're going to focus on the problems of society, you want to focus on the big looters ... I don't see any point in picking on the poor and downtrodden." And so it goes.
The second Fox News anchor chimes in — they're double-teaming him now. A black looter told an Associated Press reporter that looting was a way of getting back at society. Does the professor agree with that?
So as a leader of the black community, you defend the stealing of television sets?
He's flailing now: "But there are looters in Iraq ... looters at Enron. Why not focus on them?" Because a hurricane just destroyed New Orleans two days ago and now a bunch of thugs are using the opportunity to loot and steal, remember, Professor?
No one talked about race at first. After the levees failed, it took a day or two for the shock to wear off. At first, all anyone could talk about was the sheer scope of the catastrophe, the biblical, Cecil B. DeMille proportions of the destruction. An entire city submerged. A hurricane big enough to drown a city (who could deny the effects of global warming now?). Then the sharper eyes began to regain their focus. It wasn't the entire city. Most of the French Quarter — what everyone who doesn't live there thinks of as "New Orleans" anyway — was spared. And it wasn't the storm that flooded the city; it was the lake and the Mississippi River. What was really astounding was that it didn't happen sooner. Much of the city was basically a lake bed, with the Mississippi River on one side and Lake Pontchartrain on the other, each suspended several feet above the city by one of the largest levee systems in the world.
After senses and sensibilities recovered, it was hard not to notice that almost all of the stranded victims of Katrina were black. Black people huddled in the Convention Center and the Superdome after their houses and apartments were destroyed. Black people on buses to Houston, Atlanta, and Albuquerque, where they would wait for the recovery or, more likely, stay and start afresh. Black people on rooftops and in the upper floors of apartments, stubbornly refusing to leave their homes behind or desperately waiting for help in escaping the aftermath of a storm they had gambled wouldn't be so bad. Black people "stealing" loaves of bread, fresh water, baby formula. Black people happening upon plasma TVs and platinum watches in abandoned stores. Black people as far as the eye could see.
The footage looked like some third world country, some UNESCO famine relief commercial. The sheer scope of the devastation, the inadequacy of the relief efforts, the violence filling the void left by the absence of effective law enforcement, the scale of human suffering. It couldn't be the United States. We have a government that works and can help people in need, but here it was two, three days, even a week after the flood, and the government, like some banana republic, still hadn't gotten fresh water, food, and medical supplies — the basics — to many of the victims. There were reports, later repudiated, of cannibalism among the victims. Was this urban fable a subliminal reference to the Donner Party of the American frontier, a reflection, however bizarre, of some sense of national identification with the victims as archetypically American survivors? Or was its inspiration the stereotypical bone-through-the-nose savages of the Dark Continent?
Then came the photo captions. There couldn't have been much time even to fact-check those captions, much less vet them for political correctness. But there they were, two pictures, two captions, on the same day no less: August 30, 2005, the day after the levees broke. Both front and center on Yahoo News. One shows a black man wading through the water carrying a sack: "A young man walks through chest-deep floodwater after looting a grocery store in New Orleans on Tuesday." The other one shows a white couple wading through the water; the woman is carrying a sack: "Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store ..."
The black guy is a looter, a gangbanger, a stone-cold Crip out for an easy score. Isn't that a boom box in his hand? Oh, wait, it's a pack of diapers. The white couple: Jeannie and Jean Valjean, driven by adversity to take a loaf of bread, no doubt to feed their small children who are, unfortunately, just outside the frame. I bet they even left their names and telephone numbers and a note apologizing.
It's all over the Internet later that day. Post-Katrina racism. Yahoo News was just a dramatic symbol for a much larger issue. People started asking questions that were barely veiled accusations. Why was the federal response so slow and inadequate? Why did President Bush stay in Texas on vacation two days into the catastrophe? If those victims had been white Floridians rather than black Louisianans, would Bush have cut his vacation short? People thought they knew the answer, because a year earlier a hurricane struck white communities in south Florida. The response was rapid and, by one account "generous to the point of profligacy." Bush delivered relief checks personally. Local officials praised the generosity and efficiency of the Federal Emergency Management Agency.
Katrina hit the Gulf Coast on Monday; the levees failed on Tuesday. By Saturday, on national television, rapper Kanye West called the president of the United States a racist. West was a host for a benefit concert for the Red Cross — one of those heartwarming yet wrenching events in which celebrities do their part to help, soliciting donations, singing appropriately inspirational songs, and reading prepared scripts in front of monitors that run footage of the disaster and its unfortunate victims. West was paired with Mike Myers, the comedian best known for his role in Austin Powers: International Man of Mystery. Myers didn't yuck it up that Saturday. The atmosphere was grave and earnest. He stuck to his script: "The landscape of the city has changed dramatically, tragically, and perhaps irreversibly. There is now over twenty-five feet of water where there was once city streets and thriving neighborhoods."
West was equally earnest, but he spoke extemporaneously: "I hate the way they portray us in the media. You see a black family, it says, 'They're looting.' You see a white family, it says, 'They're looking for food.' And, you know, it's been five days because most of the people are black ... with the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible ..."
Myers looked like a deer caught in the headlights of a speeding bus. He stammered through the next part of the prepared script: "The destruction of the spirit of the people of southern Louisiana and Mississippi may end up being the most tragic loss of all ..." He trailed off, looking pale and shaken, perhaps by the plight of the Katrina victims, but more likely by West's unexpected political commentary.
West grabbed the opening to offer a parting observation: "George Bush doesn't care about black people!"
"Doctor Brown, I hope you will tell President Bush how much we appreciated ... to know that our federal government will step in and give us the kind of assistance we need," enthused Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco on Monday, August 28, 2005, the day before the levees broke. "We are indeed fortunate to have an able and experienced director of FEMA," added Louisiana senator Mary Landrieu. Things were going well for Michael Brown, the director of the Federal Emergency Management Agency. Brown was experienced, but as it turned out, not at disaster relief. He was a politically connected Beltway lawyer. His deputy chief of staff had been a campaign strategist for Bush. When Brown was appointed to run FEMA, some complained that "seasoned staff members are being pushed aside to make room for inexperienced novices," but the critics were being proved wrong. The eye of the storm missed major population centers, and like the Gulf Coast itself, FEMA had weathered the storm. Brown basked in the praise: "What I've seen here today is a team that is very tight-knit, working closely together ... and in my humble opinion, making the right calls."
Then the levees gave way. Suddenly the tight-knit, right-calls Katrina relief efforts were plagued by mishap, incompetence, and carelessness at every level. Federal, state, and local officials failed to coordinate their efforts and clashed over control. Supplies ordered and anxiously awaited by one group of officials were turned away as unneeded by another. Some victims received multiple payments for the same losses while other waited weeks for relief. Waste and graft were the rule, efficiency and fair dealing the exceptions. Now no one was claiming that FEMA had made the right calls.
Thousands of people — the sick and elderly along with the young and predatory — were evacuated to the nearby "refuges of last resort": the Superdome and the Convention Center. Storm winds ripped the roof off of the Superdome, leaving the twenty-four thousand evacuees without electricity — meaning without light or air-conditioning in a windowless dome. Temperatures inside the Superdome rose to over 100 degrees. Conditions were no better in the Convention Center. There, too, power and plumbing failed, leaving the building a stifling cavern of darkness, the air heavy with the stench of sweat, human waste, and fear. The Louisiana National Guard was stretched thin because of deployments overseas and flooded barracks. Without a military presence to keep order, police found themselves overwhelmed. Asked to venture into a fetid void, illuminated only by the regular flash of gunpowder, several officers quit on the Spot.
The state scrambled to assemble buses to evacuate the people who had not yet left the city, but the rumors of mayhem and chaos — looting, robbery, and even rape — had started to spread. Local bus drivers refused to go to New Orleans. FEMA was supposed to step in to provide transportation, but "the logistics of wrangling up enough buses to get the people out ... took ... three days," according to the Louisiana Office of Homeland Security and Emergency Preparedness.
Less than a week after the governor and senator praised FEMA's team spirit and professionalism, Aaron Broussard, the president of Jefferson Parish — which includes suburban New Orleans — appeared on national television, excoriating FEMA's highhanded incompetence. Not only wasn't FEMA helping, he said, but their incompetent intermeddling was hindering local relief efforts. He had arranged for Wal-Mart to send desperately needed drinking water to the parish, but FEMA turned the trucks back. The Coast Guard had promised to provide diesel fuel; FEMA ordered them not to release it. To dramatize the plight of his parish, Broussard told a poignant story involving the parish's director of emergency services: "His mother was trapped ... and every day, she called him and said, 'Are you coming, son? Is somebody coming?' And he said, 'Yeah, Mama, somebody's coming to get you. Somebody's coming to get you on Tuesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Wednesday. Somebody's coming to get you on Thursday. Somebody's coming to get you on Friday.' And she drowned Friday night. Nobody's coming to get us ..." It was a devastating interview. The story illustrated everything that was wrong with the Katrina relief efforts: the helplessness of local government faced with a disaster of such proportions, the incompetence and callousness of federal officials, the endless waiting, the human suffering. There was only one problem. It wasn't true. The director's mother had drowned, but the rest of the story, Broussard's staff later clarified, was based on a "misunderstanding."
Katrina was, if not a perfect storm, a perfect catastrophe. When the levees broke, help was thin on the ground. The volunteer military was stretched dangerously thin. Worse than fighting a war on two fronts, the United States military was fighting two separate wars. In Iraq, American forces easily toppled the government in Baghdad, but Saddam Hussein's supporters had dispersed into the countryside to mount an increasingly vicious guerrilla campaign. American forces were also engaged in Afghanistan. For years during the 1980s Afghan warlords had held the world's other superpower, the Soviet Union, at bay, miring their forces in the nation's notoriously difficult terrain with a ruthless guerrilla campaign. They were now threatening to do the same to the United States. The Bush administration called up thousands of reserve troops and deployed members of the National Guard to support the foreign occupations. Those troops weren't available to help the victims of Katrina, and the relief effort suffered as a result.
Many said the demise of New Orleans was a testament to modern hubris, a symbol of the limitations of technology, an "iceberg-proof" Titanic for the new millennium. But the truth was more prosaic: the tragedy of New Orleans was not the arrogance of modern science, but rather the inertia of post-modern bureaucracy. The levees failed because they were improperly maintained and never designed to withstand a Katrina-size storm. Their engineers were not overconfident — they had insisted for years that the New Orleans levee system would not survive a major hurricane. The White House had cut budget requests from the Army Corps of Engineers for levee maintenance. Lack of political will — not lack of foresight — doomed New Orleans.
George Bush doesn't care about black people. Somehow Kanye West's closing thought didn't make the West Coast rebroadcast. But the sentiment found its way around the world. Polls taken several weeks after the disaster show that 85 percent of blacks thought the Bush administration was negligent in handling the relief efforts. I. V Hilliard, a New Orleans minister, alluded to the deployment of American forces overseas, complaining, "Are you telling me we can coordinate a relief effort on the other side of the world and we can't do it here? I'm not saying they didn't care. I'm saying they didn't care enough. I can't help but think race has something to do with it." Meanwhile, in the Middle East, Iranian television featured politicians and pundits commenting with concern on America's racial divide. The influential news outlet Al Jazeera ran stories about the hurricane and American racism. One article editorialized: "Poor black Americans ... are now suffering third world conditions in the most advanced nation in the world. It's not as though the Bush administration couldn't have done more ... they chose not to ... [Given what they've done in the Middle East] it's not so surprising to see this administration rape their own people and leave them stranded." Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney insisted, "The world saw American-style racism in the drama ... [of] the Katrina survivors." Katrina was proving to be an international public relations disaster as well as a natural catastrophe.
Excerpted from The Race Card by Richard Thompson Ford. Copyright © 2009 Richard Thompson Ford. Excerpted by permission of Picador.
All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.
Excerpts are provided by Dial-A-Book Inc. solely for the personal use of visitors to this web site.