This is an essay on racism in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina. I took it out of the archive, but it is also fitting to talk about the desire to ignore racism. I have been hearing the same argument in the Duke rape case, and any other cases where race is clearly an issue.
A few days back, I wrote about the differences between race and class. I think it is very appropriate to talk about this because many people are debating about why so many people were left in New Orleans for days without being rescued. The fact that the people impacted in the city of New Orleans were overwhelmingly Black, and mostly likely poor, has not been lost on the mainstream news media and many bloggers. But the debate that always emerges in these situations is the “Race vs. Class” debate. The key question here is: were people left because they were poor or because they were Black? However, as a sociologist who studies racism, I see this clearly for the false debate that it is. It doesn’t have to be one or the other, in reality it is both race and class that matter. But unfortunately, very few people want to talk about race; it is much easier for Americans to talk about class because of the political climate I mentioned in the link above.
What is somewhat depressing is how many commentators and bloggers have mentioned race only to follow it up with comments like…”there were poor Whites there too,” “now is not the time to talk about race; we need to rescue people.” (Could you imagine people after 9/11 saying now is not the time to talk about terrorism? We need to rescue people.) The reality is that this is a great time to talk about race; the effects of racism have never been clearer. The institutionalized racism that has denied the African Americans of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama educational and economic opportunities over the last few hundred years is one of the biggest reasons that so many African Americans were unable to get out. Sure they were poor, but it is racism that has lead to the disproportionate poverty among African Americans and other people of color.
Racism also played a factor in the media coverage and the perceptions of the media coverage in New Orleans. Numerous reports were made of looting and violence especially at the Civic Center and the Superdome. The TV anchors at the news desk kept repeating this, giving the impression that these areas were too violent to enter, but I noticed something very different from many of the reporters who actually made it into these areas. Tony Zumbado and Carl Quintanilla from NBC both were at the Civic Center and they reported that the people were not violent, as did several other reporters (including Fox News’ Shepard Smith). Even Harry Connick, Jr. entered the Civic Center and came out saying the people were desperate but not violent. This is not say that there were not acts of violence, but in spite of evidence to the contrary, people refused to believe that the vast majority of the people in New Orleans were not violent.
The violence stereotype of African Americans is very powerful. In the 2000 General Social Survey Americans were asked to rank African Americans on a scale of 1-7, with 7 being the least violent and 1 being the most violent. 47% of Americans (and there is little difference between Blacks and Whites) ranked Blacks 1-3, while only 15% say Blacks are not violent prone, and the other 37.% camped out in the politically correct middle category. Given the number of people who think Blacks are prone to violence, it is not surprising that people refused to believe the reporters actually at the Civic Center. I think this is much more about race than it is about class. Even though many think poor people are violent, the media and the public very explicitly racialized this violence. The media did so by showing countless pictures African Americans and describing them as looters before acknowledging that fact that they had no food, no water, no diapers, and no way to get money (What were they suppose to do let their children dehydrate until the ATM worked again?).
Numerous message boards, such as New York Craigslist were full of blatantly racist messages further promoting the racist angle on this. Here are a few quotes. In a post entitled “The Hurrican shows us the animal world of blacks” this poster said,
“The Hurricane struck the mostly white towns of Mississippi even worse than New Orleans. But there was no looting, there were no rapes. People helped each other. But in New Orleans, once again, we see the lowlife nigger world. Once again, fat black mammys on welfare clutching bastard kids (the future muggers of America) screaming that no one is doing for them.”
In another post,
“The more Kanye no talent, Al Sharpton, and the biggest racist of them all jesse jackson keep talking, the more we realize that those criminals are not worth saving. Apparently, welfare checks and government cheese arent enough. Now we have to relocate a bunch of boderline homeless each with a dozen kids. The superdome was like a maximum security prison with children for these thugs to rape and murder. I challenge anyone to show me a news clip or article that shows those animals banding together to try and help themselves.”
These are just 2 quotes out of hundreds I have seen on message boards echoing similar sentiments. If race didn’t matter and if this was just about class, people wouldn’t be saying these things.
This is not an argument that class doesn’t matter. I think this is a big factor, but we can’t ignore the racism this exposes. It is not impolite to discuss race in a time like this. It is unconscionable not to talk about race. Many of these people are poor because of the racism that continues to plague our society, and rather than being mad at the messengers, we should be mad at the message. Then we should do something about it.
This is an oldy but goody from the Rachel’s Tavern archive. I thought it was fitting to talk about the tendency for people to avoid talking about race in an honest and direct manner, especially since many people have admonished me not to talk about race in this case. What do you think about the general avoidance of frank discussions of race?
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Wow, those quotes from the message boards are unbelievable!
This though: “The reality is that this is a great time to talk about race; the effects of racism have never been clearer” is great! And totally applicable to the Duke rape case.
For some people I think there will never be a good time to have such a painful discussion. Even white liberals avoid it. It’s just easier for us.
The key question here is: were people left because they were poor or because they were Black? However, as a sociologist who studies racism, I see this clearly for the false debate that it is.
As an empiricist who studies physics, I also see this for the false debate that it is. People were left because they were 1000 miles from help in an environment where first responders had failed, a hierarchy of emergency response broke down owing to political incompetence, and limited resources were faced with infinite demand. None of this has anything to do with skin color or race – unless you believe the incompetence of the New Orleans civil government to be related to the race of many of its members, which I don’t.
There is a very interesting conversation about racial dynamics to be had concerning Katrina. The element I find most conversation-worthy is the expectation of helplessness – white liberals outside the disaster area took it for granted that poor blacks within the disaster area had to be rescued. Not given supplies to let them hold out for a few days until they could re-establish their economies – rescued. Not protected from civil disorder until intrinsic social networks reformed – rescued. And so on. I can’t recall a similar disaster in American history where such racist assumptions concerning the incompetence of disaster victims were so widespread.
I apologize for the thread-derailing potentiality of this post, if it is engaged – but this post is, from my point of view, already derailed from reality in its starting assumptions.
Robert wants things both ways.
As an empiricist who studies physics, I also see this for the false debate that it is. People were left because they were 1000 miles from help in an environment where first responders had failed, a hierarchy of emergency response broke down owing to political incompetence, and limited resources were faced with infinite demand.
That “1000 miles from help” reasoning might hold for 24, maybe 48 hours. This crisis went on for weeks. After two days, first, second and possibly third responders might be in motion. Even by accident.
The element I find most conversation-worthy is the expectation of helplessness – white liberals outside the disaster area took it for granted that poor blacks within the disaster area had to be rescued.
I suspect it was because white liberals – and anyone else with decent eyesight – saw corpses floating on the streets of a major American city.
Dude, see what’s right in front of you.
I don’t understand this–are you saying that many people have admonished you not to talk about race in the case of Katrina? Are they nuts? I don’t know how you can ever begin to separate the disaster of katrina from race–to try to do so is just to be willingly, desperately BLIND.
Talk about race. Keep the focus on race when it counts. And yeah, I’m one who thinks that class is enormously important too, but here’s a case where an entire group of people were vilified for race, with a bit of class hatred and welfare bashing thrown in for spice.
Wait, make that a LOT of welfare bashing thrown in for spice. And spite.
Tata, what responder resources do you think were available but undeployed?
Robert, several countries offered help, but it was declined. The coast guard had available resources that was not used. That’s two examples, and while I can’t remember all the cases any more, they were not the only ones (and here I am not thinking of unused busses, since those take bus drivers, which might or might not have been there).
Robert, several countries offered help, but it was declined. The coast guard had available resources that was not used. That’s two examples,
I’ve seen the reports of the aid that was offered from overseas. Most all of what would have been actually useful was accepted. Some of it was declined, mainly because the management overhead to integrate it into the effort would be better spent using material resources already on hand.
“The coast guard had available resources” is so vague as to be meaningless. Do you know any specifics?
In any event, the sum total of all the aid I have ever seen presented as being rejected or not used, divided by the amount of suffering to be alleviated, equals a number close enough to zero as to make little difference.
As a person that lives in the areas affected by Katrina, I think what bothers me the most is the skewed view mainstream media has about this area. There were many, many people that banded together to survive this disaster. Just as in many cases, civilians stepped in where the government failed, and I among many did whatever we could to help alleviate the suffering and take care of the physical needs of those most affected.
Yes, it is about race. Yes, it is about class. And those issues need to be focused on. However, it is also largely about governmental incompetance, and not just in New Orleans, but also the state government as well as failure at the federal level.
When out of state National Guard units were eventually deployed, they were deployed predominantly in security functions. The city was crawling with heavily armed guardsmen and military, forces that were deployed in response to the idea of lawlessness, rather than being deployed in search and rescue mode. The idea of lawlessness, as Rachel says, was heavily racially coded.
People at the Civic Center were prevented from fleeing the area on foot across the river, into an area where access was vastly better. People who managed to cross the bridge were generally able to escape the area fairly quickly. While White people were prevented from fleeing as well, all descriptions I read of the reasoning for preventing people from fleeing across the bridge was in heavily racially coded language. The sheriff of the neighboring community felt that his primary responsibility in the crisis was to keep those people from spilling over into his community.
Your little fantasy of white liberal expectation of helpless is simply bizarre. Huge areas of the city were destroyed. There was no power or water, and the streets in much of the city were deep with toxic muck. The infrastructure of the city had collapsed. The idea that people stranded on roof tops just need a little food so the can wait it out until their local economy reestablishes itself is just bizarre. Indeed, some people were able to do that, and more power to them. Again, there was a desire to empty the city entirely, although in the end it was never enforced, as the reality on the ground overcame the idea of lawlessness, but the goal of emptying the city didn’t come from liberals, it came from the idea that the city needed to be emptied to keep it from turning into a den of lawlessness, which, again, was heavily racially encoded.
Indeed, among disaster watchers, the idea that the Red Cross and FEMA were refusing to provide support in place was one of the horrors of the situation. That refusal didn’t come out of a liberal imaging of helpless black people, it came out of a racist imagining of NO as a city racked by lawless violence, where it would be unsafe for the Red Cross to enter.
I forget the exact time line, and I’m not going to look it up to counter your completely unsupported fantasy, but I believe there were several days early on where the rescue efforts were largely halted by the fantasy of lawlessness, and the belief that it was essential to secure the city with heavily armed National Guard and soldiers before it would be safe to continue the relief efforts. This decision, which certainly cost lives, was motivated by the idea of lawlessness which, again, was heavily racially coded.
The relief effort was a disaster for numerous reasons, combining corrupt and incompetent administrations at all levels: NO, LA, and US. Some small part of the basic incompetence was probably racially motivated (Louisiana is a state that long ago decided it was better to have no infrastructure than to have an infrastructure that had to be accessible to black people too), but most of it probably wasn’t. However, some of the disaster of the relief effort was not simple incompetence, it was coherent decisions made in response to the fantasy of black violence.
Robert, Interior Department resources went unused according to this article – hardly a liberal source.
And I was wrong, it was not coast guard resources that went unused, it was navy resources.
Rachel, while I think you’re right-on when it comes to viewing the situation through a racial-and-economic lens, I have to strongly disagree with you on the above, in particular as talking about class leads to talking about race and vice versa.
I think what (white, middle-class) people and the (mainstream) media are afraid of addressing is the overlap: Black folks are more likely to be poor. I think it’s much easier for these folks to talk about racism when it occurs on an individual level than on an institutional and economic level – this is partly because discussing class itself is such a taboo. Just as it’s easier for these folks to talk about individual, interpersonal racism because they can easily absolve themselves (“I don’t think any less of Black people!”), whereas with institutional racism, they have to note their complicity in and benefit from racism, by the same token, ANY discussion of class implicates the middle-class. The often overlap of race and economics is the most troubling because I think it’s one time where white middle-class people have to actually remember slavery – it’s easier to look at “everyday” interpersonal racism from a more ahistorical perspective.
You can read a rant by one Brad Hicks on this subject here.
The institutionalized racism that has denied the African Americans of Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama educational and economic opportunities over the last few hundred years is one of the biggest reasons that so many African Americans were unable to get out. Sure they were poor, but it is racism that has lead to the disproportionate poverty among African Americans and other people of color.
You did write that you were a sociologist, so this line of reasoning isn’t at all surprising. You did, however, omit any mention of the IQ – SES linkage that is quite pertinent to the broad social issues of poverty, crime, social malady, etc.
As for the Katrina disaster there is no getting around the fact that the average IQ of the city dropped by about 1 S.D. (15 points) after the evacuations and this loss of social capital led to some of the consequences we witnessed. It’s not the poverty of those who remained behind that led to the mayhem, for we can see by looking at the disasters that befall Bangladesh, which deals with a more crushing level of poverty, but where the distribution of IQ is more normally distributed than was the case during Katrina, that more order is maintained during and after their disasters. This same dynamic also played out in the other comparisons that people trot out, such as cities in MS and other areas of LA.
It’s not necessarily the race of the victims that is pertinent, but the average intelligence of those who were left to deal with the aftermath of the hurricane. The other cities faired better not because their populations were white, but because the majority of the brightest people didn’t flee those cities, so those who remained behind to deal with the aftermath had a higher average level of intelligence than those who remained behind in NOLA.
“The coast guard had available resources”
That statement is not incorrect. The Coast Guard did indeed have resources in the form of boats which were brought in and on the ready. They were prevented from being used by FEMA. The governor of Louisiana called for communication equipment, and it didn’t come. She called for it again and again and again, and it was never delivered.
There have been numerous reports on the Web that the people of Mississippi are doing just fine, thank you, and those reports are ludicrous. Parts of Mississippi were devastated, and the “aid” disappeared the day the TV cameras left the sites.
On one of the blogs on which I write, a woman from Lakeview posted that she was angry that it was only the black people in the Lower Ninth that were getting national attention, but that her neighborhood was just as devastated and no one cared. Unforunately, she couched her comments in barely veiled terms of “those of us who work got hurt, too,” (not to mention that white people also live in the Lower Ninth). Nevertheless, her neighborhood was totally destroyed, and she is justified, in that regard, for feeling that no one has noticed.
As for “the other cities” faring better– Waveland and Bay St. Louis and Long Beach were completely destroyed, whereas New Orleans was only partially destroyed. It is possible, however, that these smaller towns in Mississippi will do better in the long run because they are not up to their necks in corruption or busy trying to punish the people with no jobs who cannot return to their homes.
There is a new book on Katrina including issues of racism which may be of interest. Details are available at http:/www.throughtheeyeofthestorm.com
The general debate here seems to suggest that what happened was:
1) Any suggestions of black looting were made up and the few that did happen was purely for food
2) No help was provided because the people were 67% black
3) All the reports of armed gangs shooting at rescue workers and medics are all lies
And yet I’ve read in many places comments like “It was like Lord Of the Flies in there”. This was on the left leaning BBC new site:
Perhaps all those eyewittnesses were lying?
hi :) im doing a project for history and mine was about hurricane katrina. I wanted to focus more on the controversies and saw this site. I really loved the way you portrayed your side of the issue, and I am convinced on many parts. I too believe that the issue of racism should be told to those who believe it shouldn’t be an issue. Honestly, at first I was kind of on the side of it not being racist. However, those posts you put up are unbelievable ! The people should have better common sense than that [no offense].
If you want to understand Katrina, you have to listen more to the people who were there and less to comments on blogs. You also have to learn more about New Orleans, as a city, and depend less on information from outsiders. Many of the outside accounts are horribly wrong.