Monday, March 27, 2006

Fists of Ham

Billy and I have been swapping emails recently, lamenting the frequently ham-fisted treatment by the national media of race in New Orleans. Recently he sent a link to this article in The Nation. Among various misleading claims, it makes the following statement:
In greater New Orleans about 125,000 homes remain damaged and unoccupied, a vast ghost city that rots in darkness while les bon temps return to a guilty strip of unflooded and mostly affluent neighborhoods near the river.
The clear implication in the context of the article is that the city's white elite has emerged from the storm largely unscathed while the burden of suffering falls on the city's black population. But as Billy aptly responds, "the areas along the river, that he calls affluent, have poverty rates of about 30% and incomes about 40% less than the national average." Meanwhile, "the ghost city that rots in the darkness" encompasses large expanses of white and mixed-race neighborhoods including Lakeview, one of the richest, whitest, and hardest hit parts of the city.

And this article is not alone. Immediately after the storm there was a shocked outcry along the lines of "race and poverty are still an issue in America!" How anyone could have forgotten this, I don't know, but in the subsequent months news organizations, often with the best of intentions, have zoomed in on the subject. Some of the reporting has been excellent (in particular, I've been consistently impressed with NPR's ongoing coverage), but others, when confronted with the bewildering tangle of racial issues here, have resorted to lazy, broadstroked, and misleading overstatements.

The flooding did disproportionately affect the city's black population (the Times-Picayune had an excellent story tallying percentages of the white and black populations whose homes flooded, although at the moment, unfortunately, I can't find the link), but it was a difference of degree, not extremes. If you are black you are somewhat more likely to have a flooded home, but both populations experienced huge losses.

And there is a tendency to portray New Orleans now, six months later, as a city populated by the fortunate and white. Again a kernel of truth has been stretched until the resulting picture is fundamentally false. The city now is whiter than before, but it is still a very mixed city. I find this error particularly infuriating because it is so easily corrected by a one hour drive through all the various neighborhoods around town. It is immediately, obviously false.

The citizens of our city black, white, flooded, dry, at home, or trying to make it home, we're all trying to make this thing work, make our city whole again. The issues of race and poverty in the story of Katrina are huge and they require no exaggeration. What they do need are attention to detail, nuance, and honest reporting.


  1. I cited that article in my blog and then added what you've said as a p.s. Good point.
    I also linked to you for the Link Think NO thingy. Yesterday's post.
    You take great pix.

  2. You should DEFINITELY write a letter to The Nation. They need to get their facts straight, especially as they are one of the only truly progressive periodicals we have as a resource.

  3. Unfortunately we are living through a political, and national, culture that is not engaged on the subject of helping the underpriviledged. Not the majority anyway. The Collective American Memory gets shorter and shorter, and so much of the media we see and read is in search of "market share." For the smaller, and certainly progressive, outlets, they are struggling to survive. I am sure financial life at The Nation -- not to excuse their bad reporting, errors and erroneous generalizing -- is not easy these days. The media has indeed often failed to tell us the whole story, and keep us focused on the facts. And without reminders, the public's attention fades, moves on to the next headline, or American Idol, depending...

    Those who have not followed the Katrina story closely come away thinking the affluent residents were on high ground, therefore dry. Black and poor were on low and destroyed. Thanks Slim for telling the larger reality.

    I wish a major outlet would publish a true, week by week progress report, about how there truly is much, multi-racial progress in your great city. It is hard to know, in fact.

    Newsweek a couple weeks back published a short report on NOLA, saying things are truly getting better, and the folks down there are trying to rebuild and improve a dysfunctional political climate. And that, this was a great point for the magazine to make, what NOLA needs from the readers is, "YOU!" ie. go visit, spend some money, be a part of it in that way, it will help!

    And I plan to do so.
    Scott Clugstone, NYC

  4. And let me make clear it's not my intention to pick on The Nation in particular. This article just happened to be the straw that broke the camel's back. They have plenty of company.

    Well, actually I suppose I did find their error mork irksome simply because I expect more. When Rush Limbaugh gets the facts wrong, I think "Yeah, well...", but when I'm fundamentally sympathetic to the point of view, I find the misstatements more frustrating. There is no shortage of legitimate issues. We don't need to make cheap potshots that belittle the complexities of the situation.

  5. You aren't picking on the Nation, that's clear.

    I just know from talking to various people with connections to the magazine (one of my coworker's husband writes for them) that the really do care about NOLA and want to cover the story as best they can... so I think they would be happy to hear from someone in the area.

  6. Anonymous12:37 PM

    Excellent comments

  7. Anonymous1:54 PM

    Its certainly not about the Nation. I have been writing for the Nation about New Orleans and the hurricane and the editors have gone out of their way to remain focused on these issues. In part, they have run my work because I actually live here and they see the value in local voices.

    The bottom line is that the issues going on here are hard to confront and make sense of especially if you are not familiar with the nuances of the city. (The Mike Davis piece even got wrong which bank of the Mississippi New Orleans is on.) However, the conversation about the city must be a national dialogue, especially among political progressives, if the things that happened here are not to be repeated again among the poorest and most vulnerable people in our society. So it is worth it if folks at the Nation, or the NY Times, or anywhere, get things wrong so long as their work brings home some of the reality of what is happening here and prevents the suffering that occurred here from being completely in vain.