WireTap

Racism or Relief?

It's time to focus scarce relief resources on saving the lives of Katrina survivors rather than protecting property from alleged "looters."
It seems that Katrina has not only uprooted homes and trees, but also uncovered the stark truth about race in America. Racial injustice in New Orleans is on fire. Federal incompetence is fueling the inferno. And the news coverage of Katrina is fanning the flames.

Katrina has been called a disaster of biblical proportions. And it is. But the disaster is not confined to weather. The loss of life is being compounded by the frightening political decision to withhold rescue services from survivors and instead focus on "fighting crime."

Over one million people with the means to leave fled before the storm, but nearly 150,000 were left behind, trapped by poverty and neglected by disaster plans. Those who got out were mostly affluent and white. Those left behind were not. They represented the poorest 15-20 percent of New Orleans' population and were predominately black. This is not simply the result of a natural disaster. This is the consequence of human decisions about who deserves to live and who should be left to die.

Emergency systems and disaster protocol must put life above law. And yet, when it comes to the lives of blacks and poor people in the aftermath of Katrina, "looting" is the leading headline.

President Bush has declared "zero tolerance" and pledged more troops to police the area. Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco has prioritized "law and order" over search and rescue. Exacting punishment instead of providing for basic needs is compounded by this disaster and the inhumanity of policies guided by this belief are laid bare. Black and poor residents of New Orleans are paying for this decision with their lives.

While the decision to arrest people for trying to survive seems misplaced, it could have something to do with the news coverage of Katrina. It has been saturated with descriptions of blacks chest-deep in water "looting" food, while referring to whites in virtually the same circumstances as survivors "finding" food.

Or perhaps it is because news stories of structural racism in the relief effort are few and far between. And almost none have raised critical life-and-death questions about how the evacuation process, search and rescue operations, relief distribution, law enforcement decisions and disaster policy are being determined by race.

Where were the resources and political will that would have prevented this tragedy from reaching such deadly proportions? In the aftermath of this devastating natural disaster, how can the media expose the racism in the relief efforts and help to prevent the man-made disaster at hand? Even CBS reported that in one neighborhood the police helped homeless survivors carry stolen supplies from Walmart to another area that had been hit harder.

Across the country concerned communities are demanding that the arrests for so-called "looting" should cease and search and rescue efforts should continue unhindered, that all resources should be used to evacuate survivors immediately, and that people should be provided with clean water and food. Obviously, everyone doesn't agree that your race and your income should determine whether you survive the storm.
Malkia A. Cyril is director of Oakland-based Youth Media Council.
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