Noting Disparities in Flood Aid
FARAI CHIDEYA, host:
Images from the coverage of Hurricane Katrina's aftermath raised unsettling parallels for commentator Amy Alexander.
The year was 1989 and I was on the streets of San Francisco covering the aftermath of another natural disaster. The Loma Prieta earthquake had devastated large parts of my hometown and the surrounding Bay area, crumpling bridges, destroying homes and businesses, crushing dozens of people under tons of rubble. Throughout that first week after the October quake, I noticed that the millions of dollars in relief support were not being distributed equally around San Francisco. At a makeshift shelter not far from the city's SoMa district, an historically black neighborhood, donated water, clothing and food were in short supply. In one community center, the third day after the quake, I spoke with a black man and his girlfriend. They told me that they had fled their shattered apartment complex and made their way to the center only to find few resources there.
They were sweaty, tired and not a little bit in shock. I felt from them, more than anything, a great disappointment in their government officials. They felt abandoned and I understood why. Yet in the largely white and affluent Marina district, crate upon crate of clothing, food and water appeared within hours after the quake, and on an elementary school playground not far from the ruins of a neighborhood that had been burned, massage therapists had set up their tables. As I watched one evening, my notepad in hand, for the stories I'd file with the San Francisco Examiner, a small line of white people waited patiently for volunteers to rub their backs. Was it just me, I wondered, or was there something desperately wrong with this picture?
Now, of course, I am much less naive about such things. And as I watched the footage of the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, the endless loop of videotape of thousands of black New Orleanians struggling to find the basics, I know that America's priorities haven't changed. The have-nots in New Orleans, like those in San Francisco, have long been black and brown citizens. Even as New Orleans and San Francisco pride themselves on being liberal, wide-open, fun-time cities, they are not immune to the same levels of institutional and societal racism as any other large American city.
To my colleagues in the press, the hordes of reporters currently slogging through the muck to chronicle this latest disaster, I make a plea: Follow the money. Better yet, follow it all the way back to the pre-Katrina conditions of the Ninth Ward and other predominantly poor neighborhoods in the Big Easy. Tell American readers and viewers exactly how it is that all the images we see of flood victims being airlifted or weeping or breaking into retail stores happen to be black. It is no accident that they are. And it won't be an accident either, when the relief money and goods finally do arrive, if somehow those same black New Orleanians find themselves high and dry in the worst possible way.
CHIDEYA: Amy Alexander is an author and media critic from Silver Spring, Maryland.
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