The Ugly Side of Disaster: Racism and the Calculus of Comparative Suffering
By Tim Wise
June 18, 2008
Disasters bring out the best and worst in people.
On the one hand, millions of folks respond to the suffering of their fellow human beings with compassion, concern, and even significant financial assistance when needed. Be it a hurricane, an earthquake, tornadoes or the recent massive flooding in the Midwestern United States, the hearts, minds, and often wallets of large numbers of the nation's people are with those in need.
And then there's Rush Limbaugh, who has decided to use the flooding in Iowa not to demonstrate compassion, but as an opportunity to make derogatory statements about poor black folks: specifically those caught by the flooding in New Orleans after Katrina in 2005.
This week, as Iowans and some in Illinois watched flood waters rise ever higher, Limbaugh took to the air to contrast these supposedly good and decent people, who have joined forces to help each other, with the presumably evil, lazy and violent folks of New Orleans, who we are told, did nothing but foment criminality, and wait for the government to save them during flooding there in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.
Thus, we have his statement of a few days ago, in which he noted that in the midst of the devastation in the Midwest:
"I see people working together. I see people trying to save their property...I don't see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters. I don't see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don't see a bunch of people raping people on the street...I see the heartland of America. When I look at Iowa and when I look at Illinois, I see the backbone of America."
Sadly it isn't only Limbaugh who has been making these kinds of comparisons. Millions of us have also been subjected to the e-blast missives making the rounds, which seek to contrast the law-abiding, God-fearing, and let us not forget mostly white farming folks of the Midwest to the black, urban, and congenitally defective folks of the Big Easy. If you haven't received something like this from a friend, relative or co-worker yet, just wait, you probably will soon.
But what all of these like-minded rants indicate--whether spewed to 20 million pliant sheep via the airwaves, or posted on a pathetic little blog read by no one--is the dishonesty of those offering them up. Either that, or the fundamental ineptitude of the same when it comes to doing basic research, fact-checking, or merely paying attention to the fundamental differences between the flooding of New Orleans and that of rural and small town Iowa communities.
Among the differences that should be readily apparent to almost anyone, consider:
In New Orleans, residents were kept from escaping, literally forced back into the city by armed police from a neighboring community. Nothing like this has happened in Iowa.
In New Orleans, relief agencies like the Red Cross were prohibited from entering the city, thanks to an order from the Department of Homeland Security, which feared that the provision of relief would delay evacuation. In other words, the suffering was heightened deliberately by government order, as noted on the Red Cross website, as early as September 2, 2005. Nothing like this has happened in Iowa.
In New Orleans, those stuck in the flood zone (tens of thousands in all) were herded into the Superdome and Convention Center, where there was no air conditioning (at the hottest time of the year in that city), no food, and little or no water. When those who were trapped (and who would wait for three full days before any serious assistance arrived) tried to get to the food in the pantries of the Convention Center (food that would have gone bad or been written off anyway), they were met by guns, pointed at them by members of the National Guard, who warned them to "step away from the food or we'll blow your fucking heads off." Nothing like this has happened in Iowa.
In New Orleans, there are very few escape routes out of the city, as anyone who has spent much time there can attest. The only artery capable of handling a significant number of vehicles is Interstate 10, heading west or east. In the Midwestern flood zones, there are far more escape routes, far fewer people to get evacuated, and the flooding was a slow and steady process, unlike the rapid inundation in New Orleans, which happened quickly after the overtopping of inadequately constructed levees.
In New Orleans, according to data in the 2004 and 2006 American Community Surveys, conducted by the Census Bureau, residents were about four times as likely as their Iowa counterparts not to have access to a vehicle that could facilitate their escape from the flood zone. Whereas more than 21 percent of New Orleanians were without access to a car at the time of Katrina, only 6 percent of folks in Black Hawk County (home to hard-hit Cedar Falls, Iowa) and 5 percent of those in Linn County (home to flooded Cedar Rapids-the biggest city affected by the latest deluge) were carless. To put the importance of not having a vehicle in stark terms, 38,000 households in New Orleans, comprising approximately 100,000 people, were without a car, and thus, unable to flee on their own.
But perhaps the most disturbing aspect of the Limbaugh and like-minded screeds has been the speed with which they have descended into the barrel of racist myth in order to bash the people of New Orleans once again, much as they were doing in August and September of 2005. To wit the repeated references to looting, rapes, murder, shooting at helicopters and other assorted mayhem by New Orleans' black folks, nearly all of which have been discredited as utterly false, almost from the time they were first concocted.
So consider Limbaugh's formulation, where he says, "I don't see a bunch of people running around waving guns at helicopters, I don't see a bunch of people running shooting cops. I don't see a bunch of people raping people on the street."
Fair enough. Those things aren't happening in Iowa. Yet, according to multiple post-Katrina investigations, and stories written up by the Associated Press, the Los Angeles Times, the New Orleans Times Picayune, the London Guardian, the New York Times, Popular Mechanics, Reason Magazine and the American Journalism Review, reports of shooting at helicopters or rapes or murders were almost entirely false. There were, in fact, no murders in the evacuation centers, few if any sexual assaults, no helicopters fired on, and no police officers shot by residents. Yes, there was looting, although by a distinct minority of persons trapped in the city, and overwhelmingly for necessities like food, medicine, water, and clothing to replace the rotting, soaked rags people were wearing after wading through waist-deep water. And according to persons on the ground in the flood zone, even the luxury items taken were typically used as barter chips, to get rides out of the city for oneself and one's family when it became obvious that large scale assistance wasn't going to arrive any time soon. In other words, reports of widespread thuggery in New Orleans during the flooding have been greatly exaggerated, if not entirely fabricated, and have only remained believable to millions because of the race and class biases which allow people to believe the worst about poor black folks even without a shred of actual evidence.
And while Limbaugh and others praise Midwesterners for pulling together in a spirit of cooperation--as opposed to the animalistic chaos we are to envision when thinking of New Orleanians during Katrina--the fact is there were innumerable acts of kindness in the streets of New Orleans as well. Those who personally brought supplies to the thousands trapped downtown reported little if any fighting or anger amongst the assembled; rather, they saw persons trying to shade the elderly, and make sure that old folks and the very young had first dibs on what little relief supplies were dribbling in. But the media focused on none of that, choosing instead to highlight reports--false as it turned out--of mass violence.
Then of course have been the suggestions, especially common in the e-blasts and blog postings to the effect that Iowans, unlike New Orleanians, have helped themselves, because while the latter had grown dependent on government to solve their problems, Midwesterners in the "heart of America" still value the importance of self-reliance. But the fact is, Iowans are no less likely to receive government assistance than those in New Orleans were prior to Hurricane Katrina, according to the Census Bureau's American Community Surveys, taken in 2006 (the most recent year available) and 2004 (the last data collected for New Orleans before the flooding of that city).
In hard-hit Linn County, Iowa, 2400 households receive cash public assistance, out of 85,000 total households, meaning that 2.8 percent of all households in the County receive cash welfare. In New Orleans, prior to Katrina, and contrary to popular belief, only 2.6 percent of households received cash welfare (4600 households out of 180,000). So in truth, a slightly higher percentage of Linn Countians were on the dole than New Orleanians! In Black Hawk County (also hard hit by the recent deluge), 2.5 percent of all households receive cash assistance: again, suggesting no real difference between the mostly white and rural folks there, and the mostly black and urban folks in Orleans Parish at the time of Katrina.
And it should be noted, the average amount of welfare received in the Iowa counties was higher than that for recipients in New Orleans. So whereas the average annual amount of cash assistance received in New Orleans prior to Katrina was only $2800, in Linn County it's $3200 and in Black Hawk County, the average amount received is over $4600. Bottom line: those supposedly harder-working, more self-reliant white folks in the heartland are just as likely to receive public assistance as black folks in New Orleans, and when they do, they actually get more than the latter in raw dollar terms.
As with cash, food stamp participation is roughly the same in the hard hit Iowa counties as in New Orleans before Katrina. In 2004, about 11 percent of New Orleans households received food stamps, as did 8 percent of Linn County households and 10 percent of Black Hawk County households in 2006.
In addition to traditional government assistance, let it also be remembered that Iowans are quite dependent on another form of public handout: agricultural subsidies. Indeed, Iowa--that place of hard working, self-reliant folks who are now being contrasted with the supposedly government-dependent laggards in New Orleans--receives the second highest amount of agricultural crop subsidies of any state in the country, according to data compiled by the Environmental Working Group. From 1995-2006, Iowa farmers raked in $16 billion in subsidies, with 7 in 10 farmers in the state receiving some form of subsidy from the federal government. Even those small family farmers at the bottom of the subsidy pile, who receive far less than the large corporate giants who take a disproportionate amount of the loot, still received a little more than $2000 per household: not much less than the amount received in cash welfare by those in New Orleans, prior to Katrina, who received such assistance.
To put the amounts received from government in perspective, in Black Hawk County, farmers get about $15 million in crop subsidies, while in Linn County the annual take is about $17 million. In New Orleans, prior to Katrina, residents there were receiving about $13 million per year in cash assistance under the program for dependent children and their mothers. So putting aside the cash welfare received by Iowans, which as noted above was actually more, per household, than that received by New Orleanians, crop subsidies indicate that Iowans were and are more government dependent than the residents of New Orleans, no matter what the racist and classist perceptions of the general public may be.
And so here we are: a nation potentially on the precipice of electing a man of color as president, being told by media pundits and others that this fact demonstrates above all else how Americans have "transcended race," and put aside the old animosities and bigotries of the past. Yet, at the first opportunity, we see right-wing windbags striving to perpetuate the stereotypes, the false urban legends, and the deceptive rhetoric of racism to score points with their readers and listeners. And if the speed with which such venal propaganda is making its way around the web is any indication, the smear campaign seems to be working.
Just one more piece of evidence that this nation has transcended nothing when it comes to race and racism. Just one more clear indication that the success of Barack Obama says little in terms of what millions of white folks still believe about the majority of black folks with whom we share a nation. So long as entire communities can be pathologized in the minds of the masses, thanks to the efforts of unresearched gasbags like Rush, the ability of individuals of color to rise to positions of authority will say virtually nothing about the larger illness of racism and its continued salience.
Only when white folks stand up to the Limbaughs of the world--only when we see challenging white racism as our burden, our responsibility, and as a fundamental part of what we need to do in the realm of that vaunted "self-help" we're always preaching to others--will things likely change. We've been silent too long, and our silence implicates us, just as much as Rush's bombast indicts him, in the spread of this sickness known as racism. It is well past time to leave collaboration behind.