Now we see that there was more to New Orleans than topless bars, colorful brass-band funerals and costumed Mardi Gras revelers tossing plastic beads with one hand while guarding a "go-cup" of liquor with the other. It took a hurricane and flood to kill the city, but it was already weak with a powerful sickness.
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, subtle forethought.
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, and I could point out that all that inventory was bound to be written off as lost anyway. 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 the five-finger discount on 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 Defense Secretary 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 may be coming from.
New Orleans is two cities, not one, according to census data -- a relatively affluent, small, achingly 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 cities in the country, now making a bid to reclaim the "murder capital" designation it held for many years.
In the Lower Ninth Ward, an almost all-black neighborhood, only 6 percent of residents are college graduates, according to figures from the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center; the national average is 22 percent. Average household income in that neighborhood is $27,499 a year, not even half the national average of $56,644. One-quarter of the Lower Ninth Ward's households earn less than $10,000 a year.
A map showing where black people live in the city matches almost perfectly with a map showing where poor people live -- and also matches quite well with a map showing the lowest-lying neighborhoods most affected by the flooding. In other words, blacks were less likely than whites to have the means to escape the city before Hurricane 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 that almost all of the multitudes stranded on their roofs, wading aimlessly through flooded streets and huddling in the Superdome are black.
None of this excuses or even explains the looting. But it does make clear, at least to me, that the New Orleans of our imagination -- the birthplace of jazz, the great melting pot, the roguish city where one's only duty was laissez les bons temps rouler -- coexisted with a New Orleans of great anger and resentment.
If you went there for Mardi Gras, you saw nothing but happiness and brotherhood. But Mardi Gras comes just once a year.