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Add to Katrina's toll race-tinged rhetoric

By ERIC DEGGANS
Published September 14, 2005


This is where the blame game gets ugly.

"So every American kid should be required to watch videotape of the poor in New Orleans and see how they suffered (after Hurricane Katrina), because they couldn't get out of town," said Fox News Channel pundit Bill O'Reilly last week on his show, The O'Reilly Factor .

"And then, every teacher should tell the students, "If you refuse to learn, if you refuse to work hard, if you become addicted, if you live a gangsta-life, you will be poor and powerless just like many of those in New Orleans."'

This was how O'Reilly chose to deflect criticism of the federal government after the horrific delays in hurricane relief. Government is fallible, he argued. So why expect it to save you?

The larger implications of his words also are obvious. These often poor, often black hurricane victims brought all this misery and death on themselves, because they weren't motivated enough to succeed in America.

In the same way that live coverage of the aftermath exposed the fissure between haves and have-nots when disaster strikes, the subsequent reaction of some pundits has unearthed the race-tinged rhetoric they often use to justify their arguments.

Conservative radio personality Rush Limbaugh was more explicit, saying New Orleans (which has a black mayor and many black officials) had a "welfare state mentality" that kept some residents from earning enough to handle the disaster.

"The nonblack population was just as devastated, but apparently they were able to get out," Limbaugh, who is white, said on his show Sept. 1. "Race, in this circumstance, is a poisonous weapon, and it's why the liberals are now gravitating to it."

A synopsis on the Web site for evangelist Pat Robertson's 700 Club show outlined a recent appearance by conservative black minister Wellington Boone, who talked about "the culture of those people stranded in New Orleans" and how it led to their fate.

"The looting of property, the trashing of property, etc. speaks to the basic character of the people," read the recap of Boone's appearance on CBN.com. "These people who have gone through slavery, segregation and the Voting Rights Act are doing this to themselves. They look like a developing nation."

Imagine the headlines nationally if Robertson, who is white, had made that "developing nation" crack instead of a black minister.

Gangsta lifestyle. Welfare mentality. Developing nation. All code words often used as unflattering, veiled references to people of color.

"My encouragement to journalists is to not use labels," said Aly Colon, an instructor on ethics and diversity issues at the Poynter Institute for Media Studies, which owns the St. Petersburg Times . "As you see picture after picture of people who you understand to be poor and you see to be black, if you know nothing else about New Orleans, that becomes New Orleans. You have no sense of context."

Indeed, the images of looting and violence were horrific, as a ruthless contingent of lawbreakers stole unneeded items, shot at police officers and worse.

But such actions also helped some commentators push their own punitive political perspective, lumping innocent victims together with aggressive criminals in their own backward "blame game."

Colon noted race and class stereotypes evoked in such media coverage are particularly important, if only because they can soothe the sensibilities of those already hoping to see most hurricane victims as somehow deserving of their desperate fate.

Another radio personality, former Tampa talker Glenn Beck, made a similar point Friday in detailing how he's beginning to hate the hurricane victims in New Orleans, because they wouldn't line up in an orderly fashion to get $2,000 ATM cards.

"Those are the only ones we're seeing on television are the scumbags," said Beck, who now broadcasts from Philadelphia.

"It's just a small percentage of those who were left in New Orleans, or who decided to stay in New Orleans, and they're getting all the attention."

As America tackles public policy changes in the wake of Katrina, how will the stereotypes created by pundits such as Beck, O'Reilly and Limbaugh affect the debate? At a time when unity is so important, the words of those who profit by keeping us apart are the last we should heed.

--Eric Deggans can be reached at 727 893-8521 or deggans@sptimes.com