Earlier this month, right-wing pundit John Leo -- columnist for U.S News and World Report, syndicated to newspapers nation-wide -- wrote a piece that would be forgettable if it didn't echo a growing sentiment on the right about Hurricane Katrina and issues of race in America.
In short, the new conservative line is this: all the talk about how Hurricane Katrina hurt African-Americans is wrong, and is just another example of black folks and progressives playing "the race card."
Leo's editorial is a perfect case study of the right's new approach, showing at once how dangerous and utterly flawed it is.
In his January 9 Op Ed, Leo blames the mainstream media for "strumming the racial theme ... relentlessly in the absence of actual information," with statements such as Wolf Blitzer's claim that the Hurricane's victims were "so poor, so black."
Leo also goes after "Racial agitators and entertainers," such as activist and author Randall Robinson's apparently outrageous claim that Katrina constituted a "defining watershed moment in America's racial history" (gasp!).
All of these statements, Leo claims, are wrong. Why? Because, according to a December 18 news story in the Los Angeles Times he cites, "The bodies of New Orleans residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city's poorer districts."
Using that evidence -- and that alone -- Leo dismisses any claim that the impact of Katrina was in any way related to race. Dozens of newspapers took the bait and printed his editorial, to the delight of the right-wing blogosphere.
Let's break down just how ridiculous this is.
First: does a person have to be dead to be a victim? Only 2 of the 11 "agitators" Leo quotes say anything about African-Americans being killed, and none are quoted as believing they were killed disproportionately.
Second, did you notice that Leo's quote from the LA Times never mentions race? Read the story's lead again:
The bodies of New Orleans residents killed by Hurricane Katrina were almost as likely to be recovered from middle-class neighborhoods as from the city's poorer districts, such as the Lower 9th Ward, according to a Times analysis of data released by the state of Louisiana.
In other words, the story is mostly about the income levels -- not the racial makeup-- of the neighborhoods inhabited by the deceased (and not necessarily the economic status of the dead themselves).
In fact, Leo goes to great lengths to ignore the one paragraph that does talk about race, the only one which would be relevant to his Op Ed. After noting that only 380 bodies could be identified by race, the Times noted:
Of those 380, the New Orleans Times-Picayune reports, "33% of the identified victims in the city are white and 67% black."
Doesn't sound like black folks got off too easy to me.
So there you have it -- an entire right-wing narrative about race and Katrina, publicized in media outlets around the country, that is based on 1) a false interpretation of 2) an old and 3) small study that 4) never mentions race, except 5) one paragraph which proves Leo wrong, and 6) only focuses on deaths, not people impacted in other ways.
Pretty astounding, even by right-wing attack media standards.
Fortunately, there was an excellent, updated, and in-depth report that came out this week that sets the story straight:
Study: Katrina hit black areas hardest
Friday, January 27, 2006
By KAREN BROOKS / The Dallas Morning News
The areas of New Orleans that suffered the worst of Hurricane Katrina were home to 80 percent of its black population, university researchers said Thursday - underscoring the difficulties in the city's struggle to rebuild while preserving its cultural and racial heritage. [...]
The study, one of the most concrete profiles of Katrina victims to come out since the storm, cross-referenced the damaged areas with census tracts and found that the damaged areas had higher concentrations of residents who were black, poor, or renting their homes than did the undamaged areas. The results closely match a similar study done recently by the New Orleans Times-Picayune newspaper.
Will this story spread, too?