Seeing Black America in Crisis on TV

Commentator Leon Wynter observes that the nation has seen more poor black people on television in the last week on the news — struggling to escape a hurricane and flooding — than in the past five years. The picture, he says, has not been pretty.

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

Commentator Leon Wynter has been watching television all week, looking at images of the disaster in New Orleans, and he's certain that he's not the only one who's noticed something: that there are more poor black people on TV in the last four days than there have been in the last five years.

LEON WYNTER:

There's this one fat black woman who keeps wading across my TV screen, or maybe there's a hundred of her. She drags her belongings in a gym bag through chest-deep oily water. Her arms are as fat as thighs. Her thighs are churning all that's foul beneath the surface. And then there's the brother. He's a do-ragged unshaven gangster from Central Casting with a case of beer on his shoulder. Maybe he's her nephew. He doesn't have a record deal yet, but he does have a nasty hard-core looting and shooting video out on cable news right now. Auntie and nephew are the worst possible stereotypes of black America. America sees them playing on an endless loop on TV this week. All I can see are metaphors blowing in the wind from Katrina, the perfect storm.

Last Sunday's official evacuation looked like nothing more than the start of a very long weekend: people with available credit, mostly white, stuck in traffic. Or was that the '60s' white flight to the suburbs? No, no. It was the stampede of white Dixiecrats into the party of small government and big oil after they got to the suburbs. But where is that video? Instead, we've got talking heads. The FEMA director, insisting to CNN that he makes no judgment as to the reason why auntie and nephew stayed sadly behind. That's a euphemism for saying that they had no good reason at all.

Someone said the unplugged black folks in the streets in New Orleans have no idea that the whole world is watching them do whatever it is we think we see them doing. I saw auntie and her nephew on a roof, desperately moving her mouth up to the air at a news helicopter shooting video down. But, of course, I didn't hear a thing. Her nephew has been reported shooting back at a helicopter. Great. Now we're in Somalia, or is it Baghdad? There just aren't enough boots on the ground to do the job. Soon, the soldiers may be outgunned by a growing insurgency. Nah, it couldn't be. Still, I wonder what a black Louisiana National Guardsman in dusty Iraq is making of this.

In my metaphor, what we are seeing is the SS Deep Dixie. It has been gored by an iceberg that everyone saw coming. Its poorest, blackest passengers are trapped in the steerage of political minority, going down slowly, but not without putting up a dirty fight. And sometimes they come up, treading water like rats in an oil-slicked sea. My auntie. If she were not poor and black, this would not be happening to her.

Today, the president finally toured the area. All it took was an act of God to get him and FOX News together to look my auntie in the eye. When she looks back, I hope she shoves her soggy shoe wherever she thinks they should put their metaphors.

SIEGEL: Writer and teacher Leon Wynter. His blog is called The American Race.

NPR listeners from the Gulf Coast and the country share their experiences after Hurricane Katrina, and you can read some of their e-mails at our Web site, npr.org.

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