On Our Own

There were a number of white looters involved in the L.A. riots in 1992, a fact ignored or suppressed a decade ago. And so, as a black viewer, I was relieved when Channel 4 News in Britain finally found a white face among the victims of Hurricane Katrina pushing shopping carts through the water. The woman insisted to the camera that it was the police who had told people to go into stores and get what they needed. She hadn’t taken any clothes, she said. She was surviving, not shopping.*

Almost all the other white faces I saw during the television report were those of national guardsmen, pleading officials, and helicopter rescue personnel. I was so busy hoping that the news would get across the commonality created by the emergency that I completely missed the point. There is a reason nearly everyone whom reporters found on the beachfront in Biloxi, Mississippi, was white and in some cases low-income: US-style residential segregation.

And there is a reason why the people left behind in New Orleans were black: they make up the majority of the population within the city limits and among them are the city’s poorest citizens. However, they don’t make up the majority of the greater New Orleans area. Black people are not in the majority in any metropolitan region in the US.

Black people watching in the rest of the country understood right away what was happening. The poor had been left to be washed away—no money, no car, no bus ticket, nowhere to go—then to fend for themselves. Maybe pockets of rich people will be discovered, guarding their possessions, but most likely there will be stories of the poor defending what they had. Those with money, white and black, got out.

A black guy, a volunteer, was filmed using an axe to chop through rooftops to help people escape. They were soaked, and the dread they’d just escaped in those attics of ever-rising water was suggested by the expressions on their faces. The rest of the US could see their fear, but they couldn’t see the country’s fear of them.

In the US, white people are able to conceive of black people who are better than they are or worse than they are, superior or inferior, but they seem to have a hard time imagining black people who are just like them. Officials in the affected areas are having their say about the inadequacy of the measures the federal and state governments had in place to cope with the catastrophe, but maybe one of the reasons the rest of the country sat around and didn’t seem able to take hold right away was their fear of the black people left behind, a fear that comes from racism.

When I heard that Red Cross and other relief workers had been told not to go on the New Orleans streets, I had to ask if they were white. One story quoted a black woman who complained that the truckloads…


This is exclusive content for subscribers only.
Try two months of unlimited access to The New York Review for just $1 a month.

View Offer

Continue reading this article, and thousands more from our complete 55+ year archive, for the low introductory rate of just $1 a month.

If you are already a subscriber, please be sure you are logged in to your nybooks.com account.