Outrage over Red Cross–why the surprise?

In our culture, learning what is going on in the nation and in the world is simply not a priority, and even when people do learn, their memories tend to be very short.

In Louisiana, citizens are extremely frustrated over some of the treatment they have received from the American Red Cross. When they called, they were on hold for hours, only to get a recorded message telling them to hang up and call another number–which took them back to where they had started. Instead of installing more phone lines, the Red Cross–5 weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit– opened service centers, but so few that people have had to camp out in their cars all night to have any hope of getting in. Many people had trouble learning where the centers were located, and the Red Cross has admitted to being purposefully vague in giving directions. In New Orleans, there were no Red Cross workers to be seen until 10 days after Katrina’s landing.

Despite the fact that the Red Cross is a volunteer agency, and that, in many cases, its efforts were obstructed by FEMA, the organization stil did not adequately meet the needs of hurricane victims. What is interesting is that people are surprised. The American Red Cross, despite doing a lot of good work, has a history of inefficiency and scandal that just doesn’t seem to penetrate the American consciousness, no matter what.

When the September 11 money collected by the Red Cross was diverted to other causes, people became angry, but again, that shouldn’t have been a surprise. The organization has had to deal with numerous financial scandals, most of them at the chapter level, for a long time. The 2001 New Jersey debacle was a prime example, as was the 2001 Michigan case. A situation similar to the September 11 one also occurred during the aftermath of a northern California earthquake. Charges of inefficiency and lack of planning were also directed at the Red Cross during Hurricane Hugo.

Perhaps nothing the Red Cross has done is quite as alarming as what happened in the 1980’s. During the peak of the AIDS crisis, the Red Cross, along with the American Association and the Council of Community Blood Centers, issued a joint statement decrying fears about poison blood. They were aided by then-Secretary of Health and Human Services Margaret Heckler, who assured the nation that the blood supply was “100% safe.” Later, afer several people had died of AIDS from blood transfusions, the Red Cross simply changed it tactic to say that only those who needed excessive amounts of blood were at risk. In And the Band Played On, Randy Shilts wrote that in 1984, the American Red Cross continued to oppose hepatitis core antibody testing for people with hemophilia. One Red Cross spokeswoman said she thought Bay Area blood banks had been bullied into testing because of “political pressure” from “people worried about the gay community.”

All in all, the Red Cross’s record is not exactly admirable, yet every time there is inefficiency or scandal, Americans–citizens and journalists alike–act as though it is an aberration.