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Katrina, Conservative Myth-Making and the Media

Framing the Poor

by TIM WISE

During the flooding of New Orleans in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, many a voice praised the media for its supposedly aggressive coverage. The fact that Anderson Cooper cried on camera, or that Geraldo evinced outrage (imagine that), or that even Fox’s Shepard Smith waxed indignant at the suffering in the streets, was taken as evidence of some newfound courage on the part of the press.

Standing up to FEMA’s Mike Brown, and making him appear every bit as incompetent as he was — a task about as difficult as making Paris Hilton look underfed — inspired plaudits for any number of network anchors and reporters in the field. So too, Cooper’s upbraiding of an utterly hapless Mary Landrieu, she of the U.S. Senate, just to show that both parties were fair game in this brave new world of independent media, no longer willing to be led around by the neck on a leash, as it had been with, say, Iraq, for starters.

But just as surely as the media went after those in positions of power, and sought to expose them as witless in all respects, it was even more adept at framing (pun very much intended) low-income black folks in the streets of New Orleans as a collection of deviant criminals. In other words, the more things changed, the more they ultimately stayed the same, with the press presenting images of the desperate and left behind that reinforce negative and racist stereotypes, to the utter exclusion of accuracy and fair-mindedness.

Case in point, the constant repetition of the same five or six video loops of so-called looters. The fact that most of these were taking water, food and medicine didn’t seem to matter to camerapersons or, ultimately, a viewing public quick to condemn what they saw. That the relative paucity of such video suggests theft wasn’t particularly representative of the crowds on Canal Street — after all, if looting had been that common, there would have been more than the same half-dozen clips to present — also mattered not it appears.

An even better case in point, the repetition of unfounded rumors — later proven false — to the effect that Children’s Hospital had been raided by drug addicts looking for a fix; or that gang rapes were occurring in the Superdome or Convention Center, or that babies were being molested and then having their throats slit, only to be stuffed like trash in abandoned freezers and garbage cans. False, false and false; and for none of these stories had there ever been a first hand witness who had actually seen any of the supposed carnage taking place.

Or consider the reports of thugs shooting on first aid helicopters: fact is, there are no first hand witnesses who claim they saw anyone shoot at the helicopters, as if hoping to bring them down or harm relief workers. Rather, those who were actually there, and saw the gunfire in question, report that it was intended to get the attention of the helicopters, which seemed to be repeatedly passing people by, looking at the catastrophic conditions, but refusing to land and save people in most instances. Perhaps those in the air didn’t see those on the ground? Or perhaps they didn’t understand the magnitude of the suffering below them? Either way, the gunfire was a desperate attempt to get people to take things seriously and do their jobs: perhaps not the best way to get attention, but hardly the act of mindless, violent thugs aiming indiscriminately at everyone in sight, as reports made it seem.

Yet the media, feeling no need to find witnesses or to verify claims of black deviance (because, after all, what’s not to believe?) simply went along. The result? Rescue efforts were delayed because rescue workers had been scared for their lives by a press that led them to think New Orleans was a war zone; the Governor and Mayor actually told law enforcement to stop saving lives and start arresting and shooting lawbreakers on sight; and the public, which rarely needs reasons to think the worst of poor black people, found its stereotypes confirmed. Not only whites, it should be pointed out, but black folks too, like Mayor Nagin and his crony police chief Eddie Compass, both of whom apparently think so little of their own people that they too assumed the stories were true, in spite of no evidence, and repeated the charges on national TV.

Within just a few days, urban legends began zipping around the Internet, in the form of e-mails recounting utterly fabricated events, but all of them — however false — fit perfectly within the narrative developed by the media during the catastrophe.

First there was the one about the crack dealer who refused to be evacuated to a hospital because he wouldn’t be able to sell his wares there; then there was the one about the thugs (black and poor of course) who destroyed a rest area on the Louisiana/Texas border, during a stop on the way to Houston, even urinating on the walls to show their disregard for civilized norms of behavior; then there was the one from the guy claiming to have volunteered at the Astrodome to feed and help evacuees, all to be shocked by how ungrateful they were–supposedly demanding beer, liquor, cigarettes and four-star restaurant meals. That hundreds of others refuted these nonsensical claims, and noted how unbelievably gracious the evacuees had been did nothing to damper the enthusiasm with which the lies were circulated.

And in each case, the authors of these fantasies made sure to throw in something about how racist the blacks were (calling white aid workers "crackers" and "honkies" of course), and ending with the admonition that those displaced by Katrina deserved no respect or assistance, seeing as how they were a bunch of spoiled brats who should be left to their own devices. In other words, no need to be compassionate, no need to contribute to relief funds, and certainly no need to challenge one’s already negative views towards the kinds of people left behind in the flood. They had, ultimately, gotten what they deserved.

Though the mainstream media hadn’t created these phony and vicious stories (and indeed, one has to wonder what kind of evil mind and heart would have done so), it is certainly true that they created the conditions that made such tripe believable to a lot of people. Had the media focused less on looters and supposed gang raping murderers, and more on the efforts by thousands to help one another in the midst of hellish conditions — stories that are only trickling out in the corporate press, but which those who lived through them have been trying to get told via their own accounts from the flood zone — it would have been impossible for such vile trash as this to have gained traction. But once the climate had been created and the frame set — one that said, these are bad people, who do bad things — it took no effort at all for racists to concoct lies and peddle those to a willing and gullible public that never seems to challenge stories of black perfidy, so easily do they fit within their pre-existing racist biases in the first place.

Which brings us to the other big lie told about the poor in New Orleans: one that has yet to be addressed in the media, despite how easily it can be disproved by a mere five minutes worth of research. It is one repeated daily for the past eight weeks by conservative talk show hosts and columnists, and one to which I am exposed many times a day in my email inbox, thanks to the efforts of right wing louts without the seeming desire to do their homework. Namely, it is the argument that the reason 130,000 poor black folks were unable to escape the flooding was because they had grown dependent on the government to save them, thanks to the "welfare state," and that was why they lacked the money and cars to get out before disaster struck.

In other words, liberal social policy had rendered the black poor unable or unwilling to work, content to collect a government check, and thus, had made them incapable of saving themselves. This lie — and it is just that, not an exaggeration or simplification or overstatement, but a flat-out falsehood — has been parroted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Shawn Hannity, Bill O’Reilly and Charles Murray (of "Bell Curve" fame), not to mention such viciously self-loathing black conservatives as Star Parker, John McWhorter and the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, all despite the lack of evidence to sustain it, and the amazing amount of evidence, both contemporary and historical, to refute it.

But of course the media, having long ago decided not to challenge the mainstream public’s view of folks on welfare — and indeed to collaborate with the framing of such persons by politicians of both major parties — has done nothing to set the record straight, suggesting either that they are incredibly inept at research, or just as incredibly craven in their attitudes towards the poorest of this nation’s citizens.

But the facts, however unsettling they may be for conservative mythmakers, are clear.

To begin with, as of 2004, according to the Census Bureau, there were only 4600 households in all of New Orleans receiving cash welfare from the nation’s principal aid program, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC). That is not a misprint: 4600 out of a total of 130,000 households in the black community alone. Which means that even if every welfare receiving household in Orleans Parish had been black (which was not in fact the case), this would have represented only a little more than four percent of black households in the city.

According to the same Census data, the average household size in a welfare receiving family in New Orleans is the same as the citywide average for non-recipients: roughly 3.5 persons. So the number of individuals receiving welfare in New Orleans, by the time of Katrina would have been about 16,000.

Thus, even if we assume that all of the 130,000 persons left behind were poor, and that no persons receiving welfare managed to escape before the flooding with friends or family, this would mean that at most, perhaps twelve percent of the persons left behind (and whose faces we may have been seeing on national TV) would have been welfare recipients at all, let alone persons who had been rendered dependent on such benefits for long periods of time.

And speaking of dependence, or the notion that the city’s welfare recipients had grown content to sit back and collect government checks instead of doing for self, this hardly seems likely when you consider that the average annual income received from TANF, for those small numbers actually getting any such benefits at all, was only a little more than $2,800 per year, in New Orleans prior to the catastrophe.

Indeed, such paltry amounts explain why most of the poor in New Orleans, far from being happy to receive so-called handouts, work whenever they can find steady employment, which admittedly, is not often the case.

For example, in the ninety-eight percent black and forty percent poor Lower Ninth Ward, one of the hardest hit communities (and one about which many negative things were said in terms of so-called welfare dependence), seventy-one percent of families prior to the flooding reported income from paid employment, while only eight percent received income from cash welfare. In other words, folks in this community were almost nine times more likely to earn their pay than to receive government benefits. Forty percent of workers from the community worked full-time, and the average commute time for Ninth Ward workers was over 45 minutes each day, suggesting that the work ethic was quite common to the folks who lived there, irrespective of commonly held and utterly false stereotypes.

Even food stamps — a program with much more lenient terms and where even the near poor can often qualify for minimal benefits — were only received by eleven percent of New Orleans households as of last year: hardly indicative of a general mindset of welfare entitlement. As for public housing, far from being the location of residence for most poor blacks in New Orleans — let alone those in the streets in the wake of Katrina — fewer than 20,000 people lived in such units at the time of the flooding: this representing no more than five percent of black New Orleanians. In the Lower Ninth Ward, for example, few lived in public housing and nearly six in ten families owned their own homes.

Even in the city’s poorest communities, like the Iberville or Lafitte housing developments, or parts of Central City, at least a third, and often a majority of households report income from paid employment. What’s more, tenants in the B.W. Cooper development have been managing their own housing for years, teaching job and leadership skills to the persons who live there.

Likewise, in the mid-90s, several public housing developments participated in a national Jobs Program, funded by the Annie B. Casey Foundation: a successful effort that matched low-income black residents with businesses looking for employees. In the former St. Thomas development — the first public housing "project" funded by the federal government under the Roosevelt Administration — residents had started their own coffee shop and bookstore, and had created innovative teen pregnancy prevention and safe sex initiatives.

When St. Thomas was torn down a few years ago, residents were told there would be mixed-use economic development in its place, and although they mourned for the loss of their neighborhood, many looked forward to participating actively in the economic lifeblood of the community. Then the city reneged on its promises and offered the land to Wal-Mart, which then placed a superstore on the property–the very store whose gun supply was looted during the flooding (an ironic turn of events if ever there was one). Poor folks wanted economic opportunity and jobs; the city’s elite (black and white alike) gave them a gun supply shop.

Bottom line: the stereotype of poor blacks in New Orleans (and elsewhere) as lazy and dependent on government is false. In Louisiana, it should be noted that only a very small share of those receiving TANF benefits, and AFDC before that, are able-bodied adults. Indeed, even prior to welfare reform, only eleven percent of those receiving AFDC in the state were able-bodied adults who did no work: the rest were vulnerable children, the elderly, the disabled, or adults who were already working (mostly part-time), but earned too little to come off assistance.

It should also be noted that even when persons do receive so-called welfare, there is still a predicate to doing so: one that is rarely explored, but is simply assumed to be personal incompetence, bad choice-making, laziness or other personal pathologies. So, for example, we are to believe that for those who live in public housing, it was their own lack of initiative or willingness to take personal responsibility for their lives that rendered them so vulnerable to the likes of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the city’s levees.

Yet what this commonly-repeated claim ignores is what came before folks ended up in public housing, in overcrowded communities, with concentrated levels of extreme poverty; and what came before had nothing to do with the welfare state, or liberal social policy more generally. Rather, what happened was the deliberate and calculated destruction of the inner-city in the name of economic "development" (which benefited only the elite) and to meet the needs of middle-class and above whites.

So, for example, consider the Treme (pronounced truh-may): the oldest free black neighborhood in the United States, home to Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park. Located on the outer edge of the French Quarter and Central Business District, the Treme is more than ninety percent black and over half of its residents are poor, when you include those in the Iberville and Lafitte housing developments. Though it had long been a lower-income community, with the attendant issues that often emerge in such spaces, the Treme had also been, for the most part, functional. It was the site of dozens of successful black-owned businesses, and hundreds of stable middle-class families, where few lived in the so-called projects. The same was true for the 7th Ward: the base of the city’s old-line Creole community.

But beginning in the early 1960s, the city of New Orleans, as with every major city in the United States, began taking federal funds to extend interstate highways through their urban centers, which meant the heart of those places black communities. In New Orleans, plans to extend the interstate through the French Quarter met with stiff opposition from affluent (and mostly white) historic preservationists and business owners. Once their political clout was deployed so as to block construction through the main tourist artery, planners opted to take the I-10 through the Treme and 7th Ward, whose lower income and black residents lacked the power to stop their property from being destroyed in the name of progress.

It was a story repeated throughout the U.S. during this time: by the mid-1960s, interstate construction in urban areas was destroying roughly 37,000 residences annually; this, in addition to the 40,000 more that were being torn down each year in the name of "urban renewal," which translated into the building of shopping malls, office parks and parking lots. By 1969, nearly 70,000 homes, mostly occupied by blacks and Latinos, were being destroyed for the interstate program alone, in virtually every medium and large city in the country.

Although some had argued for financial assistance to help relocate the low-income families displaced by this process, rarely did such help materialize. Indeed, less than ten percent of those displaced by urban renewal had new single-resident occupancy housing to go to afterward: instead, they had to double up with relatives in small, crowded apartments, or move into public housing projects, which became something akin to concentration camps for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the nation.

These policies, known euphemistically as "slum clearance" by those who implemented and supported them, actuallycreated slums, in places where previously had been low-income, but largely working class and stable communities. In New Orleans, this also extended to the Central Business District, including the very land where the now infamous Superdome sits.

Beginning in 1971, construction began on the facility, on which ground had previously existed yet another mostly black and largely low-income and working class neighborhood. But in a contest between the needs and lives of those New Orleanians on the one hand, and the mere wants of wealthy developers, concert promoters, the New Orleans Saints and Tulane University boosters on the other (the latter of which wanted to move their pathetic team’s games there, away from the old and decrepit Sugar Bowl), which side can we guess, ultimately prevailed? And so the Dome was completed, in 1975, at a public cost of tens of millions of dollars, and the loss of yet another patch of homesteads for the city’s black majority.

All of this "slum clearance," it should be noted, was done for the benefit of whites, and not only the rich developers. Indeed, the primary reason for the interstate highway program was to help facilitate daily movement from the cities where most people still worked, to the suburbs, where large numbers were beginning to live. But of course, it was only whites who could live there in most cases. Blacks were still subject to regular discrimination in housing (indeed, most types of housing bias weren’t even illegal until 1968), and had been largely unable to take advantage of the government’s FHA and VA home loans for the first 30 years of their existence, thanks to racially discriminatory lending criteria built into this government program.

So while nearly 40 percent of white mortgages were being written on the extremely favorable FHA and VA terms by the early 1960s, (making home ownership possible for some 15-20 million white families who wouldn’t have otherwise been able to own their own place), virtually no blacks had access to this form of economic opportunity. To then tear down black neighborhoods so as to build highways that would help whites get to their new and growing communities (like Bill O’Reilly’s boyhood Levittown), was an especially pernicious and racist combination of anti-black neglect and white racial preference.

Beyond housing issues, even regular "welfare" receipt is something predicated on history: specifically the history of low-wage employment and inadequate job opportunities, particularly in urban centers. One study from Harlem in the 1990s, found that for every job opening in the area, there were as many as fourteen people looking for work. Nationally, data has long suggested that there are between 7-10 people out of work at any given time, for every above-poverty wage job opening. In other words, there is not enough opportunity in the modern American economy, irrespective of the claims made by conservatives and believed by millions.

In fact, it has long been the official monetary policy of the United States, under the leadership of the Federal Reserve, to raise interest rates whenever unemployment drops "too low," and suddenly the nation is faced with having too many people working. The fear is that too many people working will tighten the labor market, thereby pushing up wages, and then causing a spike in prices, to the detriment of economic well being. By raising the cost of borrowing money, the Fed hopes to cool off business expansion (and thus any attendant and related hiring sprees), and thereby, hold inflation in check.

Putting aside the validity (or lack thereof) of this particular theory, the result of such thinking should be obvious, especially when it is regularly employed to maintain unemployment at around four percent by raising interest rates whenever joblessness drops below that level: namely, it means that millions of people will be out of work at any given time, not because they are lazy, and certainly not because government handouts appear so luxurious to them; but rather, because it is desired by the government and the nation’s economic policymakers that they be out of work.

Indeed, since the official unemployment rate fails to count all who are jobless, such as those who have grown so discouraged by their prospects that they’ve simply stopped looking (or those who are near jobless, able to pull down only a few hours of work each week, but who are still considered fully employed for the sake of the data), administering monetary policy this way results in as many as 10-12 million people being out of work or seriously underemployed at any given time. They and their dependents will then be (surprise, surprise) poor, and require some type of assistance so as to survive. None of this is a reflection on the values of the poor themselves, though it speaks volumes about the values of the rich who have supported this kind of policy for decades.

But of course, in a media culture incapable of looking deeper than the next 30-second, 100-word soundbite, none of this matters. Indeed, most reporters, news anchors, or journalists of any stripe would be unlikely to even know any of this in the first place. All that matters is the here and now: no need for context, background, or history. And so they give us poor people, stealing from stores, carless, penniless and homeless: how they became poor and why they stayed that way doesn’t matter, apparently. And by remaining silent on that issue, the mainstream press leaves venal ideologues to fill in the blanks, for an eager public all too willing to believe the worst about people who, for the most part, none of them have ever met.

Thus do we repeatedly plant the seeds for each new round of victim blaming, poor-folks bashing and racism, all the while thinking that just because Anderson Cooper cried on camera and Fox momentarily turned on Bush (but only for a nanosecond), the Earth’s center of gravity moved.

In fact, just as with the aftermath of 9/11, and quite contrary to conventional wisdom, nothing at all has changed.

TIM WISE is the author of two new books: White Like Me: Reflections on Race from a Privileged Son (Soft Skull Press, 2005), and Affirmative Action: Racial Preference in Black and White (Routledge: 2005). He can be reached at: timjwise@msn.com