Katrina in Black and White

The pictures of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina have been shocking and dismaying in so many ways. The veneer of civilization seems to be so thin. We went from the standard coverage of a storm to a complete loss of law and order—and cowardly hysteria over that loss. Especially dismaying is to see that the thousands of suffering, abandoned, looting, gun-toting, starving, crying, and dying, people were almost all black. I feel outrage at the news stations that played, in a continual loop, a picture of a black woman leaving the grocery story with a couple packs of diapers, as evidence of widespread looting. Diapers? Looting? I thought of Jean Valjean. I feel outrage, too, at reports of people stealing multiple televisions. That does not put me in mind of Les Miserables at all.

I saw a bit of the MSNBC concert for Hurricane Relief and did get to see Mike Meyers, mismatched with Kanye West. Meyers read off the teleprompter, doing his best George W. Bush, but not for laughs. It went something like this: “The. Devastation. In. Louisiana. Mississippi. And. Alabama. Has. Left. Us. All. Very. Concerned.” Then, Kanye West got on. He was a sloppy mess: embarrassingly inarticulate but also genuinely distraught. He spoke with shame about having been shopping before having given and he spoke with resolve about his renewed commitment to give. (Although it was weird and off-putting to hear him talk about consulting his business manager regarding how much he can afford to donate: we just guestimated between the two of us—a bit more than we spend on our mom’s birthday felt like a good start.) Most of all, he spoke with distress at the plight of blacks, and their portrayal in the media. The Times quotes part of his comments today as part of a larger article on the racism of media coverage: "I hate the way they portray us in the media," West said. "You see a black family, it says they're looting. You see a white family, it says they're looking for food." As the comparison between captions of two widely circulated photos attests, West is speaking accurately.

For MSNBC’s part, Matt Lauer got on, a few minutes after West, and read some legal boilerplate about how we’re all very upset but no one of us speaks for the MSNBC corporate heads—they were obviously covering their butts for West going off script. By contrast, when the white singer, Celine Dion, loses it on the CNN broadcast and cries and yells with outrage (why is it, she asked, that it is so easy to send airplanes to another country to drop bombs and kill children, that we cannot seem to drop water, milk and food in our own country to save their lives?), Larry King replays it as an example of moving, emotional eloquence.

Ordinarily, I have little good to say about Larry King’s relentless milking of public emotions. In this case, however, he was right and Matt Lauer was behaving as a cowardly company man. Even in our discussion of media portrayal, we are more ready to accept a weeping woman than a weeping and outraged black man. Shaming days indeed.

As for what to do now: reading these discussions—and the editorials in the Times have been exemplary in my view—has made me even more skeptical than ever of what I hear. Having visited New Orleans twice—once on a magical vacation, once for a conference—I feel for it what anyone who’s been there must feel: a deep, pained grief. I also know that, at one point a week ago, I thought, “Huh. The SuperDome. That’s right by the River. That doesn’t seem like a very good plan.” It makes me inclined to be rather critical of the folks in charge. I liked the interview I heard with the mayor of Hattiesburg. It went something like this:
CNN: Have you heard from anyone at FEMA?
Mayor: I’m sorry, I’m not familiar with that organization.
CNN: Oh boy. The Federal Emergency Management Administration. FEMA.
Mayor: Hmm. FEMA you say? I’m sorry. I haven’t seen anyone from there here. Nope. Never heard of them.

The journalist, ready to believe the worst about the mayor of Hattiesburg was made to squirm as the mayor, with patient outrage, explained what it was to be facetious. You could almost hear him spelling the word out over the phone lines.

More pratically speaking, I expect that you all, like us, sent a bit to the Red Cross. I think I’ll give a bit to Habitat for Humanity next. Ana Maria has a lovely and eloquent response from Colombia that includes some good links. And I think about the Faulkner book shop in the Quarter, and A Confederacy of Dunces, and A Streetcar Named Desire, and the Neville Brothers, the Marsalises, Louis Armstrong, Kate Chopin, the great Creole intellectuals of the 19th century, and even the gripping and silly Interview with a Vampire and pray for the return of a great, great city.