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Racial Differences Responding to Katrina

ED GORDON, host:

People often invoke the name of God when disaster strikes. While at a Nashville restaurant recently, commentator Tim Wise overheard some statements about God, Hurricane Katrina and New Orleanians to which he felt compelled to respond.


This is for the man behind me at lunch last week; you, who I watched hold hands and pray with your table mates, thanking God for the food you were about to eat and for your safety, far from the catastrophe in New Orleans. You blessed your chimichanga in the name of Jesus and then spent the better part of your meal scolding the people of that devastated city for not leaving before disaster struck. Then you attacked them, all of them, without distinction, for so-called looting. I watched you nod agreement to the statement of one of your friends, her hair and makeup flawless. When you asked why people were more decent amid the tragedy of 9/11 as compared to the aftermath of Katrina, she offered her response. `Well,' Buffy(ph) explained, `in New Orleans, it seems to be mostly poor people and, you know, they just don't have the same regard.' She then said police should shoot looters to show theft would not be tolerated. You, who had just thanked Jesus for your guacamole, agreed they should be shot. Praise the Lord.

Your God is one with whom I am not familiar. Have you even been to New Orleans? And by that, I don't mean the New Orleans of your company's sales conference. I mean the New Orleans that is buried like Atlantis, like the lower Ninth Ward, 98 percent black, 40 percent poor, where bodies are floating down the street. Have you met the people from that New Orleans? I doubt it, but I have.

The God to whom you prayed today is one with whom I am not familiar. Your God is one who you think actually cares about your lunch, one who blesses you while letting thousands of people watch their homes be destroyed and die for lack of water or food. But just how evil would such a God have to be to take care of you while letting babies and old folks perish at the foot of Canal Street? No, it isn't God who's evil here, Skip or Brad or Braxton or whatever your name is.

Why didn't they evacuate? Are you serious? There are 100,000 people in that city too poor to own cars. Why did they loot? Are you kidding? People are dying on live TV and you're begrudging them candy bars, diapers and water. If anything, the poor of New Orleans have exercised restraint. Can you imagine what would happen if it were well-off white folks stranded like this, people who complain about estate taxes. I know, the mere thought of it is absurd, but try to envision what would happen if the corporate class had to sit in the hot sun for five days without a margarita to comfort them. And yes, I know I'm stereotyping you. I've assumed, based on your words, what kind of person you are; though I could be wrong.

But I'm not wrong, am I? I meet people like you all the time, people looking for any chance to ratify their pre-existing prejudices toward poor black folks. Well, it's a free country, so you have the right to continue lecturing the poor in between checking your BlackBerry and dropping the kids off at soccer, but let's leave God out of it, shall we? Your God is one with whom I am not familiar and I'd prefer to keep it that way.

GORDON: Tim Wise is a former New Orleans resident and author of "White Like Me: Reflections On Race from a Privileged Son."

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Tim Wise