Eugene Robinson is a columnist for the Washington Post. In this article for
the Toronto Star, he throws light on the reality of New Orleans that was so
far hidden behind the glamour of Mardi Grass and the title of Big Easy.
In explaining the looting, Robinson uses a quote from Donald Rumsfield who,
when asked about looting in Baghdad said: "While no one condones looting, on
the other hand, one can understand the pent-up feelings that may result from
decades of repression ..."
Read and reflect.
Sep. 2, 2005. 01:00 AM
Katrina exposes the `other' New Orleans
Strip away the Mardi Gras revelry and you'll find a mostly black, dirt-poor
By Eugene Robinson
The Toronto Star
Now we see that there was more to New Orleans than topless bars, colourful
brass-band funerals and costumed Mardi Gras revellers. It took a hurricane
and flood to kill the city, but it was already weak with a powerful
A city is much more than its buildings and topography, more even than just
its people. It is also a network of relationships that weave a unique,
place-specific social fabric and in New Orleans that fabric has shredded
like so much cheap gauze.
What could be going through the minds of people who survive an almost
biblical tragedy, find themselves in a hellscape of the dead and the
dispossessed and promptly decide to go looting? Obviously, not much:
Stealing a rack of fancy clothes when there's no place to wear them or a
television when there's no electricity does not suggest a lot of deep,
That I have to watch black people emerging from half-flooded stores with
armloads of expensive sneakers is heartbreaking. Yes, I could come up with
caveats. I could point out that these outrages are being perpetrated by a
small minority. I could make a case that the looting has been overplayed.
But it's still heartbreaking and the fact that looters also emptied
pharmacies and gun stores is downright frightening.
I won't make excuses, because while these idiots are taking luxury goods,
they are occupying the attention of police and guardsmen who ought to be out
looking for victims poor, black victims still stuck on roofs or in
attics. But I do want to understand how people could live in a city all
their lives and have so little sense of civic responsibility, how "We're all
in the same boat" can be so completely obliterated by "I'm getting mine."
And so I'll start with a bit of hyperbole, a quote from Secretary of Defence
Donald Rumsfeld: "While no one condones looting, on the other hand, one can
understand the pent-up feelings that may result from decades of repression
That's hyperbole because Rumsfeld was speaking, in April 2003, of the
looting that followed the toppling of Saddam Hussein in Baghdad. No one in
New Orleans was brutalized the way that Iraqis were under the murderous
dictator. But I do take his point that "pent-up feelings" might provide some
insight, so here's where such feelings might be coming from.
New Orleans is two cities, according to census data: a relatively affluent,
small, lovely city that's mostly white, and a poor, big, unlovely city
that's almost all black. Overall, the city is two-thirds African American;
it ranks as the ninth-poorest big city in the nation. It is also one of the
most violent, now making a bid to reclaim the "murder capital" designation
it held for many years.
In the Lower 9th Ward, an almost all-black neighbourhood, only 6 per cent of
residents are college graduates, according to figures from the Greater New
Orleans Community Data Center; the national average is 22 per cent. Average
household income in that neighbourhood is $27,499 a year, not even half the
national average of $56,644. One-quarter of the Lower 9th Ward's households
earn less than $10,000 a year.
A map showing where black people live in the city agrees almost perfectly
with a map showing where poor people live and also agrees quite well with
a map showing the lowest-lying neighbourhoods most affected by the flooding.
In other words, blacks were less likely than whites to have the means to
escape the city before Katrina hit less likely, even, to have the
education to fully understand what was about to happen and more likely to
live in areas that would be inundated.
No wonder the multitudes stranded on roofs, wading aimlessly through flooded
streets and huddling in the Superdome are almost all black.
None of this excuses or even explains the looting. But it does make clear
that the New Orleans of our imagination the birthplace of jazz, the great
melting pot, the roguish city coexisted with a New Orleans of great anger
If you went there for Mardi Gras, you saw nothing but happiness and
brotherhood. But Mardi Gras comes just once a year.
Eugene Robinson is a Washington Post columnist.