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Katrina revives debate about race in America

WASHINGTON—The human suffering from Hurricane Katrina and the images of mostly black hurricane victims and looters have provoked new debates about tough public policy decisions, the nation's troubled racial history and the racial and economic barriers that still separate Americans.

In conversations at restaurants, homes, offices, on talk radio and online, it's clear that many blacks and whites view the tragedy of Katrina very differently.

While no group is monolithic in opinion or emotion, many blacks are outraged that so many of their own were left behind in New Orleans with no evacuation plan and no urgent effort to rescue them.

"Black people are mad because they feel the reason for the slow response is because those people are black and they didn't support George Bush," said Ron Walters, a professor of government and politics at the University of Maryland. "And I don't expect that feeling to go away anytime soon."

No one questions that whites have been moved by the suffering of blacks, and vice versa. But amid images of black looters, some sympathy threatens to give way to anger and disdain.

In Web postings at Knight Ridder's Sun Herald newspaper in Mississippi's storm-ravaged Biloxi, anonymous writers debated the issue.

Said one writer of the looters: "It's one thing to be hungry, but why do you need a DVD player now? ... Where is the Reverend Jesse Jackson and Rev. Al Sharpton now when all this is going on. Of course they won't show up because it just makes them look bad."

Another writer added: "Are you insisting that only African Americans are the ones who are looting? Because I can assure you that they aren't. Of course, the media chooses to focus on the negative images of African Americans."

Still another added: "Make no mistake, the racist element is rubbing their hands in glee over every AP photo of a black person looting and longing to get out there with their guns. (Never mind that whites do it too, AND much more often, AND much more efficiently). Talk about disaster bringing out the worst in people."

While repeated television images of looters can make a strong impression, how people perceive those images comes according to their own preconceptions and beliefs, said Tom Rosenstiel, the director of the Pew Project for Excellence in Journalism In Washington.

"Eight years of media research tells us one thing: The media can tell us what to think about, but it doesn't tell us what to think," Rosenstiel said.

The hurricane's racial conflict took on political overtones on Friday, as a number of black leaders blasted the Bush administration's slow response and openly asked whether race played a part.

The Rev. Jesse Jackson charged that race was "at least a factor" in the slow response.

"We have an amazing tolerance for black pain," Jackson told CNN on Friday. He questioned why the U.S. military couldn't house many of the homeless on unused military airbases, adding that more people will die from starvation and dehydration than from drowning.

Rep. Elijah Cummings, D-Md., stopped short of that, saying that it was the frail, the weak and the sick who were left in need. But in an interview on CNN, Cummings said, "I'm not sure" if racism was partly responsible for the problems.

"All I know is that a number of the faces that I saw were African American," he said.

When asked later if the government would have moved faster if the majority of victims were white, Cummings replied: "I think that that's a pretty good probability."

Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, the most prominent African-American in the Bush administration, downplayed the criticism.

"That Americans would somehow in a color-affected way decide who to help and who not to help—I, I just don't believe it," she said. "...The African American community has obviously been very heavily affected. But people are doing what they can for Americans. Nobody wants to see any American suffer."

Walters, of the University of Maryland, said that the nation's conservative political shift that began more than 40 years ago has meant more suffering for inner-city blacks.

Beginning with the Vietnam war, which drew funds away from President Lyndon Johnson's "War on Poverty" and continuing through the 19770s and `80s, funding for urban initiatives such as job training, housing, education and health care has dwindled, he said. In addition, he said, the flight of middle-class blacks and whites to the suburbs has depleted city tax revenues and made it harder for local governments to fund efforts to improve the lives of the urban poor.

"Those are the people that this hurricane uncovered in New Orleans," Walters said. "These are the people who are trapped. They can't drive to an airport or get on a train and go somewhere and that's what accounts for them being there."


(c) 2005, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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