Despite strenuous official denials, delays in helping victims of Hurricane Katrina have fed African-American suspicions the government cares more about the lives of wealthy white people than poor blacks.
In a country where a recent survey indicated many blacks were probably predisposed to believe the government was out to get them, many have asked if the race of most of the victims was a factor in the painfully slow relief effort and the lack of preparation to prevent the disaster.
Officials, straining to explain how so much havoc could result from a storm that experts say had been predicted for years, said they were simply taken by surprise by the magnitude of the disaster when Katrina burst the walls holding back Lake Pontchartrain from a city built below sea level.
They have admitted that the poverty of many of the victims, who simply did not have enough money to obey evacuation orders, was a factor in bringing scenes that viewers around the world would more readily have associated with Sierra Leone than the United States.
But, with blacks more likely to be poor, that explanation was not enough for everyone.
“If this hurricane had struck a white, middle-class neighborhood in the Northeast or the Southwest, his (President George W. Bush’s) response would have been a lot stronger,” wrote Calvin Butts, president of the Council of Churches of the City of New York, in the British newspaper The Observer on Sunday.
Rapper Kanye West was more direct in a live outburst during an NBC benefit concert for Katrina victims last week, saying, “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”
Civil rights leader Jesse Jackson drew on some of the most emotive language in the American political vocabulary when he compared the condition of evacuees to “Africans in the hull of a slave ship.”
“The issue of race as a factor will not go away,” he warned.
Despite enormous progress since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s and the growth of a prosperous and well-educated black middle class, many blacks in the United States remain at the bottom of the social pile and suspect society conspires to keep them there.
A survey by researchers from Oregon State University and the Rand Corporation released earlier this year found 16 percent of African-Americans thought AIDS was created by the government to control the black population.
While many would dismiss such beliefs as ridiculous, they arise in a society where almost one in five black men can expect to spend time in prison, compared with just one in 16 white men.
Conspiracy theories also sprouted among Hurricane Katrina evacuees camping out at Houston’s Astrodome. Several told Reuters they suspected black residential areas were flooded purposely in an effort to divert water from white housing.
Among administration officials headed to the disaster zone following criticism of government aid efforts was Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. As a Southern black woman, she is herself a powerful symbol of change in a nation just four decades distant from racial segregation laws.
“I don’t believe for a minute anybody allowed people to suffer because they are African-Americans. I just don’t believe it for a minute,” Rice said.
While the victims were mainly black, the sight of many of them being helped by whites sent a positive message to some.
“Before this whole thing, I had a complex about white people. This thing changed me forever,” said Joseph Brant, 36, a black man who said he escaped New Orleans by hitching a ride in a van carrying white people.
© Reuters 2005