Cultural myths behind Katrina whispers

Hurricane Katrina dramatically reminds us that rumor in times of crisis serves as a barometer of the social health of a community. Those brutal winds uncovered not only engineering limitations, but communal divides as well. As the weeks pass since the winds hit, racial rumors are flying with equal force.

Katrina brings home a sour reality of a society in which blacks and whites, who draw upon different pools of knowledge, are predisposed to believe rumors, sometimes outrageous, about each other. Whites often see the African-American community as consumed by paranoia, while blacks claim that rumors spread by whites reveal thinly veiled racism, as we documented in our 2001 book, "Whispers on the Color Line: Rumor and Race in America."

News reports of New Orleans convention center evacuees claiming that whites were removed ahead of blacks from that noxious environment certainly seemed plausible to black Louisianans who need only recall the popularity of David Duke, the former Grand Wizard of the Ku Klux Klan. In the late 1980s and throughout the '90s, he garnered significant support in his runs for public office.

Reports also show that black evacuees speculated the flooding in the Ninth Ward and other black areas of the city was intentionally triggered by public works officials to protect the elegant white dominated Garden District. Were we able to interview locals about why they believed this, we probably would have heard of the exploitation their parents and grandparents suffered in building the levees.

When legitimate information sources are unavailable, people accept improvised news, weaving what they hear with beliefs from their cultural past. This is dangerous enough when we are one community, but when we are a society that is divided by race and class, the boundaries can be toxic, bolstering chronic suspicion.

In general, white citizens are less troubled by systematic discriminatory actions of political institutions, although they often point to massive incompetence. In contrast, many emphasize the personal failings of poor and minority residents and then make generalizations about the entire community - whether individuals of that group are poor or not.

Whites heard that helicopters were being fired upon by well-armed bands, that debit cards were being used for luxurious purchases, that babies had their throats cut, that the walls of the Superdome were smeared with blood, and that armed New Orleans gangs were rampaging through Baton Rouge, looking for white girls to rape. Many whites claimed that postdisaster New Orleans looked like a "third-world city" or that residents were "living like animals."

Incidents of violence and dishonesty, of course, did occur, but the rumors suggest that they were greatly inflated to generalize black behavior. For example, African-American activist Randall Robinson wrote in the widely read blog, The Huffington Post, "It is reported that black hurricane victims in New Orleans have begun eating corpses to survive." He soon retracted the claim, but the damage had been done. Even though Robinson intended to show the callousness of the Bush administration, for many whites the claim seemed entirely plausible and has spread throughout the Internet with heated debates on how likely cannibalism might be. That the claim was originally publicized by a black leader meant that spreading it could not be criticized as a racist act.

As the federal government finally is gearing up to rebuild the Gulf Coast, a social rebuilding is demanded as well. As with racial incidents over the decades - the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment, the riots in Watts and South Central, the brutal murders of Emmett Till and James Byrd, the O.J. trial - America continually is reminded that the color line cannot easily be erased.

What stories will prevail about Katrina? Unless forward-looking and optimistic politicians and business and church leaders tackle rumors already in the making as well as derail those likely to emerge, many of the survivors of Katrina - black and white - will tell their grandchildren stories in which tenacious race and class discord will be foregrounded.

Will those who prefer an uplifting American saga of pluckiness and ingenuity undermine the tales of intractable status systems rooted in class and race? Much of the damage occurred even before Katrina hit. The evidence that this region is home to a disproportionate number of underprivileged persons and that white supremacist ideology has been more prevalent there than elsewhere is indisputable. The region lacked the requisite political clout to ensure timely government aid in the face of an emergency.

Yet, rebuilding the Gulf Coast offers more opportunities for shaping the narrative progressively. If conspicuous and sincere endeavors are made to increase social justice, these efforts will ultimately shape some of the stories yet to come.

Gary Alan Fine is a fellow at the Russell Sage Foundation in New York and a professor of sociology at Northwestern University. Patricia A. Turner, interim dean of humanities, arts, and cultural studies is a professor of African-American studies at the University of California at Davis.

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