Spreading the Poison of Bigotry

Howard Witt, Chicago Tribune, Sept. 4

BATON ROUGE, La.—They locked down the entrance doors Thursday at the Baton Rouge hotel where I’m staying alongside hundreds of New Orleans residents driven from their homes by Hurricane Katrina.

“Because of the riots,” the hotel managers explained. Armed Gunmen from New Orleans were headed this way, they had heard.

“It’s the blacks,” whispered one white woman in the elevator. “We always worried this would happen.”

Something else gave way last week besides the levees that had protected New Orleans from the waters surrounding it. The thin veneer of civility and practiced cordiality that in normal times masks the prejudices and bigotries held by many whites in this region of Deep South Louisiana was heavily battered as well.

All it took to set the rumor mills in motion were the first TV pictures broadcast Tuesday showing some looters—many of them black—smashing store windows in downtown New Orleans. Reports later in the week of sporadic violence and shootings among the desperate throngs outside the Superdome clamoring to be rescued only added to the panic.

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But all of it played directly into the darkest prejudices long held against the hundreds of thousands of impoverished blacks who live “down there,” in New Orleans, that other world regarded by many white suburbanites—indeed, many people across the rest of the state—as a dangerous urban no-go area.

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Baton Rouge Mayor-President Kip Holden, himself an African-American, blamed the state for sending “New Orleans thugs” to be sheltered in Baton Rouge and promptly slapped a dusk-to-dawn curfew on the main River Center shelter, which held 5,000 refugees from the storm.

“We do not want to inherit the looting and all the other foolishness that went on in New Orleans,” Holden was quoted as telling the Baton Rouge Advocate in Thursday’s edition. “We do not want to inherit that breed that seeks to prey on other people.”

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