After the flood, racial issues rise to surface

Bryan Wroten

BUS, Pan-African professors sound off on Hurricane Katrina’s controversial aftermath

Racism doesn’t exist in America.

At least, that’s how Mwatabu Okantah said the country acts until disasters like Hurricane Katrina show the opposite. When people do see the issues arise, he said they act surprised it’s still a problem.

“There’s nothing new in pictures of black people suffering in America,” he said.

Okantah, assistant professor and director of the Center for Pan-African Culture, said the stories and pictures he has seen of Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath haven’t surprised him.

“The reality is most of the people we see in the news in New Orleans were living in abject poverty before the hurricane,” he said. “No job offers, no collections taken up, no sympathy for them.”

Controversial captions

The event that sparked the current controversy was the pictures of white and black people wading through flood waters and carrying supplies. The captions of some pictures showing white people said they found the food. Captions for some pictures of black people said they were looting food.

“My reaction is it seemed like blatant disrespect,” said Matthew Cox, president of Black United Students. “Why are these people considered finding? The blacks are trying to survive this whole ordeal too.”

He said the media needs to make sure its coverage is fair to those involved.

“If one person is a looter, make everyone a looter,” Cox said.

Okantah said the problem comes from news editors who, though good people, still labeled the photographs the way they did without wondering what influenced their decisions. He said the reason is because there is a lack of sensitivity of what it is like to be black. For example, he said people in the news compared the devastation of the area to that of a Third World African country.

“Don’t they hear what they’re saying?” he asked. “That means when all the white people leave New Orleans, all that’s left is a poor African village.”

However, this doesn’t mean he believes the situation is hopeless. He said people need to learn from black experiences.

“It’s hard to be sensitive to a people’s experience if you don’t know their stories,” he said. “If the average white person knew these stories, they’d be more understanding and less surprised by these things.”

Cox said it’s important to remember everyone is human and must live together.

Pan-African Studies professor George Garrison drove down to Louisiana and Mississippi to observe hurricane relief in the areas. He said the hurricane was not a racial or class issue; it was a human disaster.

“White, Black, Asian, Creole – it affected all of them,” Garrison said.

In a report he wrote, titled Kent State University Hurricane Relief Effort Report, he said he visited small shelters because they were helping those who fell through the cracks.

Regardless of race or class, he said the church shelters were “responding to the need.”

But he doesn’t want to give the impression that the overall need is being met. It’s just too overwhelming.

Future of New Orleans

A large concern for Garrison is the rebuilding process for New Orleans. With all of the Congressional bills passing to give aid to the area, he said American businesses are positioning themselves to take advantage of the situation.

He said he thinks the businesses will end up with no-bid contracts, such as the ones in the controversy surrounding Haliburton and other businesses’ contracts with the government.

“There is no reason for us to assume they are going to do anything else,” he said.

Another fear is the reversal of the “white flight.” During the 1960s and 1970s, white families left the cities and moved to the suburbs, Garrison said. The cities became concentrated with people of lower socioeconomic standings.

“For gentrification, young yuppies are moving back into the cities,” he said, “buying up property, renovating them and raising prices for the lower economic groups living there.”

Okantah questioned where they will live after the city is rebuilt. He said he wondered if the city would “rebuild the projects.”

Garrison said that when New Orleans is rebuilt, it will be a very modern city. He said it would be a crime if the upper-middle class and wealthy move in and push the lower classes out.

“The culture that has come out of that city is all of our people’s,” he said. “We should all have an interest in preserving that as a national treasure of this country.”

Contact religion and minority affairs reporter Bryan Wroten at [email protected].