Did New Orleans blacks
die at a higher rate than whites in the wake of Hurricane Katrina?
On the evidence so far, the answer is no. Of the 1,100 bodies
recovered in Louisiana after Katrina, 836 were found in New Orleans,
and the state has released data on 568 of those that were judged
to be storm-related. As of last week, blacks, who were 67.2 percent
of the pre-storm population of New Orleans, account for 50.9 percent
of the city victims so far identified by race. It was New Orleans
whites who died way out of proportion to their numbers: 28 percent
of the population, 45.6 percent of the city's known Katrina deaths
This is far from the
impression that the media have managed to leave, both during the
crisis and in the months since. It's possible, though unlikely,
that these percentages may change in the final figures. Louisiana
is not releasing any information on the rest of the dead until
they are identified and their families notified.
In the chaos of Katrina,
the press was hardly in a position to know that whites were dying
as fast as blacks. But it was responsible for strumming the racial
theme so relentlessly in the absence of actual information. A
mix of factors was operating: Faces shown on TV were mostly black,
quotable black spokesmen kept insisting that racism was at work,
and national reporters on the scene may have thought that since
this was the South, blacks were probably being victimized in some
way. This hardened into a narrative line for New Orleans that
stressed race, and to lesser extent, class.
of Slate.com said, "(We) in the media are ignoring that fact
that almost all the victims in New Orleans are black and poor."
Wolf Blitzer said the victims were "so poor, so black."
The Washington Post, reflecting the resentment of its
majority-black city, pumped up the racial theme. A questionable
Page One story headlined "To Me, It Just Seems Like Black
People Are Marked." An unusually gassy essay in the Style
section talked about the sins of mainstream America and it's "tattered
racial legacy." A story on the decline of Bush's approval
rating kept the racial theme aloft with the subhead "He Says
Race Didn't Affect Efforts; Blacks in Poll Disagree." As
Bob Somerby of The Daily Howler said in a different context,
"When the press corps reaches an overall judgment, they often
start looking for easy-to-tell stories to illustrate their global
Racial agitators and
entertainers played a big role. Randall Robinson, the former head
of TransAfrica, said: "This is what we have come to. This
defining watershed moment in America's racial history." Jesse
Jackson said, "Today I saw 5,000 African-Americans desperate,
perishing, dehydrated, babies dying." (That would be 5,000
blacks dying out of a total of 1,349 known dead of all races in
all Gulf States combined.)
The morning-show host
of a New York City rap station saw the New Orleans situation as
"genocide." Robert Parham of the Baptist Center for
Ethics said Katrina "disclosed our racism in multiple ways."
Comedian and activist Dick Gregory saw an anti-black conspiracy
in New Orleans. And rapper Kanye West offered the opinion that
"America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the
less well-off, as slow as possible," adding his soon-to-be-famous
accusation, "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
The media carried all the race chatter without much in the way
or caution or evidence.
mainstream media have done little to set the record straight.
The numbers and percentages of death by race are easy to find
among bloggers, very hard to find in mainstream reporting. On
Dec. 18, three days after the state of Louisiana delivered a breakdown
of deaths by race, The New York Times ran a long analysis
of Katrina that omitted the racial breakdown from the state report.
the Los Angeles Times ran an excellent article, also
on Dec. 18, that began this way: "The bodies of New Orleans
residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to
be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city's
poorer districts, such as the Lower 9th Ward." The paper
reported that its own analysis "contradicts what swiftly
became conventional wisdom in the days after the storm hit --
that it was the city's poorest African-American residents who
bore the brunt of the hurricane."
Good journalism. Will
the rest of the media catch on?
2005 John Leo
by Universal Press Syndicate