Yesterday, a panel of New Orleans-based journalists discussed their experiences reporting before, during and after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf. Toward the end of their discussion, they were asked if they felt any responsibility to be mindful of language used while covering the storm and aftermath.
Words matter, and most of the time connotations matter even more than definitions. So when the media started using language dehumanizing New Orleanians, specifically Black people, it helped create a narrative, curiosity and stigma that remain. Consider CNN’s Wolf Blitzer. While commentating on Katrina coverage, he noted, “Almost all of them that we see are so poor, and they are so Black.” But how, exactly, can you tell a person’s economic status when everyone at that point—moneyed or not—went days without having basic needs met?
Tax-paying American citizens were constantly referred to as refugees. And while the Merriam-Webster Dictionary defines “refugee” as “one that flees; especially: a person who flees to a foreign country or power to escape danger or persecution,” most of yesterday’s panelists felt the term was appropriate to describe New Orleans residents. Only Camille Whitworth, the Black anchor for New Orleans NBC affiliate WDSU, flat out said, “We were not refugees.” She went on to say how the term was recently used during a broadcast, and that the station was compelled to apologize in response to some pushback.
To refer to those displaced because of Katrina as refugees is to “other” them. Instead of providing sharp political commentary, it separated them from fellow Americans. It lessens the blow from the reality that, in the 21st century, Americans could be treated so poorly in America by their own government. The ongoing narrative that Black is innately bad or not quite human enough has longstanding consequences. That narrative is why unarmed Black men are described as subhuman monsters by the officers who kill them. Those distorted images consistently devalue Black life and criminalize mere Black existence, and it’s why Black women’s lives being stolen is rarely acknowledged by the masses.
Sometimes the bias is subtle, other times it’s blatant. Color of Change co-founder Van Jones pointed out this bias in Katrina coverage. Jones shared two pictures of people doing the same thing, wading through chest-deep water after finding food. The caption of the first picture noted the people were doing just that. The second picture’s caption said the subject looted a grocery store. The only difference between the two pictures, the ones labeled as merely finding food were White, while the one accused of looting was Black.
If your only perception of New Orleans was based on Hurricane Katrina coverage, you could easily believe the city was solely comprised of extremely poor Black people low on morale and high on deplorable activity. Former New Orleans Police Department Chief Eddie Compass helped form this opinion by sharing with the media disastrous and unfounded rumors. Former Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco doubled down on the dehumanization by stating at a press conference: “I have one message for these hoodlums. These troops know how to shoot and kill, and they are more than willing to do so if necessary, and I expect they will.”
The weeks following Hurricane Katrina’s Gulf landfall was full of misinformation and miscommunication. The disconnect between federal, state and local leaders and reality caused death and unnecessary suffering. Was everyone on their best behavior? No. Did some people break the law? Yes. But why was it so easy to strip these people of their humanity? Why was it so easy to dismiss these people trapped in New Orleans for a week without resources as hoodlums? Why has the narrative about the Lower Ninth Ward always been about poverty instead of the majority of working-class people who owned their property?
Words matter. Context matters. While there was consistent mention of people unable to afford evacuation, very few discussed what that actually meant. America is a country of working poor. America is where you can be middle class and live paycheck to paycheck at the same time. Evacuating costs money, lots of money. Because hurricanes only give a short (and often unreliable) heads up regarding trajectory, it’s not something you can really save for over time. Either you have means to evacuate or you don’t. America has a tendency to villainize the poor for being poor; so when so much Katrina coverage made a point of suggesting that every person who didn’t evacuate was poor, they in essence blamed these people for their horrific experiences.
Why was so much energy focused on painting New Orleanians in the worst possible light instead of blaming the government for one of the most blatant examples of utter incompetency in American history? Why are Black people maligned and discredited in response to being harmed? Why was the nation talking about refugees and looters instead of expressing anger as they witnessed people completely deserted and neglected by their government?
Katrina L. Rogers is the founder and principal of Kalaro Media, a communications firm specializing in public relations, messaging and political communications. She earned her stripes as a journalist, organizer and consultant on a number of political and legislative campaigns. You can reach her on Twitter at @KatrinaLRogers.