As the infrastructure of New Orleans washed away, and the social contract collapsed, one American institution withstood the forces of flooding, death, and violence: the taboo of race. Even as numerous reporters from CNN's Anderson Cooper to Fox's Geraldo Rivera broke down on television and refused to put a positive spin on the abandonment of New Orleans' residents—and even as images of black people stranded, starving, and dying dominated news coverage—the American media could not bring itself to acknowledge the fact that the profound suffering of Hurricane Katrina was meted out unequally. And it certainly could not bring itself to ask if there was any connection between the race of the victims and the incredible lag time in federal response. Not until Kanye West, that is.
On Friday night during a live NBC broadcast of A Concert for Hurricane Relief, West deviated from the teleprompter script and challenged America. ''I hate the way they portray us in the media,'' he began. ''You see a black family, it says they're looting. You see a white family, it says they're looking for food.'' This comment references photos that surfaced on Yahoo News late last week and promptly set the blogshpere on fire. One showed a white couple carrying food, and was captioned: " Two residents wade through chest-deep water after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." The second showed a black man lugging a case of soda and a bag. The caption read: "A young man walks through chest deep flood water after looting a grocery store."
West noted that "many people who could have helped are fighting a war." He also said that "they have been given permission to go down there and shoot us," apparently referring to the shoot-to-kill orders that had been given to the National Guard.
The rapper went on to charge that America is set up to help poor people and black people last, and then stated: "George Bush doesn't care about black people."
West has a point. As the world watched horrified, poverty-stricken black residents unable to evacuate were stranded in attics and on roofs and highways without food, water, or security. They were left to fend for themselves against the sweltering heat, the rising floodwaters rank with corpses and human waste, the rats and alligators, and the roving bands of armed men that had lost their minds. Women were raped. Babies died from dehydration. Elderly people perished without essential medicine. The Superdome descended into hell. A major metropolis in the United States of America looked worse than any Third World country.
And how did Washington respond? Day after day, the Bush administration did nothing. They claimed that New Orleans was unreachable. But, as the New Orleans Times Picayune pointed out in an open letter to Bush, journalists were able to get in and out of the city, as was celebrity Harry Connick Jr., who delivered aid on Thursday morning, and was televised doing so. Wal-Mart was able to get 13 of its trucks to the city to deliver relief supplies.
Now the line from Homeland Security Secretary Michael Chertoff is that he and Federal Emergency Management Agency chief Michael Brown were not kept informed by local officials. Perhaps they missed Mayor Ray Nagin's WWL-AM radio appearance, during which he cursed and yelled, begging for help. The mayor noted he had approached the governor, Homeland Security, and FEMA, and expressed outrage that help hadn't arrived.
Kanye West said what nobody else in the news media had been willing to say: that this disaster was all about race and class. That New Orleans was an abandoned city well before Katrina hit. That the disaster could have been averted if the government had focused on its domestic duties—i.e. maintaining levees—as opposed to fighting foreign wars. That the hundreds of thousands of people that did not evacuate didn't have the financial means to do so. And that African-Americans, one more time, were forced to suffer inhumane conditions at the hands of their government. West shattered a profound silence in the American mainstream, forcing both the media and the public to examine the role that race has played in this tragedy. His comments pushed Larry King and others to ask, "! is West right?"
Not surprisingly, the backlash against West has already begun. NBC distanced itself from the controversy immediately, stating that " it would be most unfortunate if the efforts of the artists who participated and the millions of Americans who are helping those in need are overshadowed by one person's personal opinion." The Associated Press reminded readers that West had previously had an "emotional outburst at the American Music Awards after he was snubbed for an award." Fox News' Saturday morning show slammed West for inappropriate timing. On-line, things were much worse. Posters on www.redstate.org called West "deranged," a "racist," and "an ignorant young man," and opined that he was "probably high." Conservative op-ed columnist Sher Zieve wrote on her website that West's comments prove that "le! ftists have raised a generation of ignorant, malicious and increasingly incompetent-to-comment-on-virtually-anything 'adults'."
People will likely call West many more things in the ensuing weeks. But nobody will call him a coward.
Tara Henley is a music journalist with The Georgia Straight, Canada's largest urban weekly. Learn more about her, and contact her at www.TaraHenley.com