It now appears that press reports on the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina exaggerated the mayhem in the New Orleans Convention Center and at the Superdome. Although the totals are not yet final, state officials say 10 people died at the Superdome, and 24 in and around the Convention Center. The autopsies are not all finished, but so far one person at each place is known to have been shot. Police cannot confirm many accounts of rape.
What accounts for what now appears to have been considerable exaggeration? The first factor is human nature. In any emergency or catastrophe, rumors become facts and facts multiply into myth. People love to claim to have seen extraordinary things or to have endured extraordinary hardship.
What is more important is that virtually everyone—even reporters from the most liberal papers—passed on gruesome accounts as entirely plausible. Would they have done this if disaster had struck New Hampshire or Iowa? No. They did in New Orleans because everyone knew the Superdome and the Convention Center were filled with blacks. In their bones, even writers for the New York Times believe crowds of blacks can easily descend into anarchy.
Blacks—and they should know best—believe it, too. On Sept. 6, Police Chief Eddie Compass told the Oprah Winfrey program that “some of the little babies (are) getting raped” in the Superdome. Mayor Ray Nagin told the same program about “hundreds of armed gang members” killing and raping inside the Superdome, and said the crowd had reverted to an “almost animalistic state.” The two blacks who presumably know the city best found these accounts believable.
It is good news if the people at the Convention Center and the Superdome were not as badly behaved as everyone thought, but that does not change the lessons to be learned from Katrina. The Center and the Dome were stripped clean by looters. There were robberies and intimidation. The small number of whites in these places were subject to terrifying abuse. There was widespread looting in the city. Two hundred police officers—mostly black—deserted. The Louisiana Attorney General is investigating the department on looting charges. Would conditions have been different if the city were white rather than black? Yes, and by accepting reports about backs they would have rejected about whites, the press implicitly agrees.
We will never know the complete truth about attacks on rescue boats, shots fired at helicopters, hijacked ambulances, and looted hospitals. Some of this—maybe most of it—probably happened as it was originally reported. But whatever happened in New Orleans, both the events themselves and the country’s willingness to believe the worst, make a mockery of the official view that race does not matter, and that all groups are equal.