Katrina Aftermath Raises Questions of Race

The rap star Master P joined other New Orleans musicians today in setting plans for a fundraising concert for hurricane relief. Master P, whose given name is Percy Miller, comes from one of the now-devastated New Orleans neighborhoods where people had already been left behind long before Hurricane Katrina hit.

"Many of them were people without automobiles," explained Mark Morial, former mayor of New Orleans and now the president and chief executive officer of the National Urban League. They were "people who couldn't afford a hotel room, who may have had no choice but to remain. And that means that the people who remain in New Orleans are disproportionately poor people, disproportionately African-American."

Damon Hewitt, a civil rights lawyer who works with the NAACP Legal Defense Fund, agreed: "What was allowed to happen was that folks who we knew were not able to evacuate, who we knew were not evacuating, were not provided for. Folks were able to sit for three days without food, without water."

To Hewitt, this means the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina has turned into a racial story. "It's very difficult to imagine this happening to folks who are not poor, to folks who are not African-American," he continued. "We knew this was going to happen. Yet, it was allowed to occur."

Today, some civil rights leaders joined in questioning whether race played a part in the emphasis being placed on targeting those who have been labeled as looters.

"I think for the most part people have just been trying to stay alive," said Rep. William Jefferson, D-La. "They've been waiting for rescuers. They've been on top of buildings, all the rest of it. They have not been there trying to figure out what to steal. They've been trying to stay alive."

Flash Points

In an exclusive interview with President Bush on Thursday, ABC News' Diane Sawyer also addressed the issue of the looters. "Many of them going in have said, 'We're only going in because we're desperate. We need shoes to walk around in because our feet are being cut. We need for our children.'"

"I think there ought to be zero tolerance of people breaking the law during an emergency such as this," answered the president.

Two photographs, which were distributed this week, also added to the tension surrounding the looters. One, which was distributed by The Associated Press, showed a black man in chest high water and included the phrase, "after looting a grocery store," in its caption.

A second photograph, which was distributed by another agency, showed a white man and woman. Its caption included the words, "after finding bread and soda from a local grocery store." That description has since been changed.

Precedents

The issue of racism is not a new issue in the Louisiana city. During the great flood of 1927, blacks were rounded up at gunpoint and forced to work.

"You actually used black people as sandbags back then," Jefferson recalled from boyhood memories his father had once shared. "They took every dangerous job there was to try and beat the water back."

Following the wrath of Hurricane Betsy in 1965, racial tensions arose once again.

"African-American communities were flooded significantly, and there was some word that there was an intentional breach of the levees," said Morial, the former mayor of New Orleans.

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