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Tuesday, October 04, 2005

Racist backlash after Katrina reflects ugly historical trend

President Bush marked the end of the Hurricane Katrina disaster -- and the beginning of the flood as metaphor -- when he addressed the nation from New Orleans' Jackson Square on Sept. 15. The president's purpose was to sell the public a dream of a brighter future. Having already flooded the region with hugs, ex-presidents and bottled water, Bush promised a torrent of tax-free enterprise zones and ATM cards. The flood had made possible a new New Orleans, reborn in the image of America's democratic ideals. The biblical metaphor of rebirth after the flood must not make the public forget about the issues of race and poverty. While the media focused on "black-on-black violence" in the Superdome and convention center, anybody with a historical memory might have anticipated that the mass flight of black evacuees would incite a backlash among whites. Three days after Katrina hit, hundreds of desperate African-Americans attempted to cross the Mississippi River Bridge and reach for a friendly hand on the other side in Gretna, La., a largely white suburb. Armed police met them and turned them back into the chaos of flooding New Orleans. The Gretna City Council then passed a resolution supporting this hostile action. If Bush had been less concerned with painting pictures of the future, he could have denounced Gretna's actions. Like the breached levee, the backlash was predictable. American history has proven time and again that racism makes natural disasters more dangerous for blacks than for whites. In 1793 in Philadelphia, then the U.S. capital, a plague of yellow fever killed about 4,000 people and caused about 20,000 others to flee the city. Unsure of the cause, citizens tried to protect themselves from the invisible killer by purifying the air. They soaked their clothes in vinegar, wore garlic necklaces, smoked cigars and exploded gunpowder inside their boarded-up homes. As disease swept through the city, congressmen, religious ministers, city officials and others with money and transportation escaped to the country. African-Americans, trapped in menial labor positions and disproportionately poor, were left to die. During the chaos, a remarkable union occurred. Whites who stayed behind turned for aid to two African-American leaders, Absalom Jones and Richard Allen. Jones and Allen distributed food and medical supplies to the poor and the sick, enlisted black volunteers to remove decaying corpses and bury the dead, and sent black nurses to care for sick and dying whites. The efforts of Philadelphia's black population helped to save the city, a fact that didn't stop whites from attacking them. Hostility increased until an emergency law was passed to prevent racist attacks against African-Americans, since it hindered the relief effort. During the epidemic and long afterward, whites accused African-Americans of looting abandoned homes, spreading the fever and extorting money from the sick and dying. When it comes to racial issues in America, history has a way repeating itself. Novelist Ralph Ellison called this the "boomerang effect." The horrors of yellow fever exacerbated Philadelphia's racial tensions. As yellow fever outbreaks increased throughout the 1790s, many outlying towns and villages barred African-Americans from entering and finding refuge. More than 200 years later, in Gretna, La., the same spirit was displayed. Race has everything to do with why Bush converted the flood into a metaphor of a new beginning. The metaphor deflects attention from the horrible images of African-Americans abandoned on rooftops and from multiplying charges of the administration's racism. In a stunning reversal, Bush referred in his speech to poverty's "roots in a history of racial discrimination." It was a brilliant bait-and-switch. Many commentators applauded the president's belated awakening to issues of race and poverty. But the comment was nothing more than political opportunism. According to the Bush administration's logic, poverty and race are no longer related. Racial discrimination is history, while class is the real issue that persists into the 21st century. With the "bold action" of billions of dollars, President Bush promised to eliminate it once and for all. While images of looting and violence dominated the media's coverage of the tragedy, we might keep an eye out for the boomerang tossed in Gretna. If history is any teacher, the story of rebuilding will disappear, washed away in a flood of indifference. Andy Doolen is a professor of American studies at the University of Kentucky. E-mail him at


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