Race, Class & Katrina

It is sometimes difficult for us, as Americans, to intelligently discuss “race” and “class” because these terms have such loaded meanings and are so often conflated. When it comes to Hurricane Katrina, the failure of the levees, and the human-created disaster that followed, people often ask, as Dyson does in his book, was this because the people in New Orleans were, predominantly, African American (was it about “race”)? Or, was it because the people in New Orleans were, predominantly, poor (was it about “class”)?

In an article for Monthly Review, published in 2006, Kristen Lavelle and Joe Feagin, write convincingly that it was “both race and class” and that these are intricately connected in the American political landscape. The evidence that race, and more specifically racism, played a part in making the devastation from the hurricane worse, includes this:

However, many, primarily white, Americans have been unable or unwilling to empathize with these relatively poor black New Orleanians. This social distance became apparent at the onset of the disaster. An incident that occurred in the first days on a bridge connecting New Orleans with the community of Gretna is telling. Due to dwindling resources, New Orleans police had directed a group of about 200 evacuees to make the two-hour trek on foot across the bridge to Gretna, a white-majority suburb on the west bank. They were met by warning gunshots from Gretna police officers. The black evacuees explained that “we were told by the deputies…that [they] were not going to allow a Superdome to go into their side of the bridge….So to us, that reeks absolute racism, since our group that was trying to cross over was women, children, predominantly African American.”

At a trip to a Houston arena shelter, Barbara Bush, the elder president Bush’s wife, made a comment that reflected a lack of empathy for the hardest-hit hurricane victims and the stark social distance separating whites from blacks generally: “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this—this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”48 Some out-of-touch whites convinced themselves that the poor, black evacuees, without even resources to afford a hotel room, were better off after the hurricane than before. This kind of flippant reaction to suffering by thousands reveals the deeper dynamic of alienating racist relations, where racist notions have for centuries impeded empathy, understanding, and solidarity across the great American color line.

To make matters worse, in the wake of the arguably most traumatic event in their lives, black hurricane victims faced racism in their personal treatment. Interviews with forty-six evacuees at Houston’s Reliant Park shelter showed that being black was central to evacuation experiences. Several evacuees reported being discriminated against by members of the primarily white police, support, and volunteer staffs. Significantly fewer reported having experienced what they perceived to be class discrimination, because of their poverty.

Among the evidence that the situation in New Orleans was about “class” are these statistics about the pre-Katrina city:

It was the sixth-poorest large U.S. city, with more than one in four residents living below the official poverty line. …Graver still was the fact that the majority of the poor scraped by on incomes of less than half the official poverty level.

The city’s public schools were in horrific shape, even in comparison to the rest of Louisiana, which ranks third lowest for teacher salaries in the country. The public school system served poor whites better than poor blacks; poor white children were less likely to attend schools in areas of concentrated poverty. High school drop-out rates were very high, and over half of black ninth graders were projected to not graduate in four years.

Lavelle and Feagin conclude by pointing to the ways these intersect:

In the history of most U.S. cities and rural areas, whites have imposed racial oppression so long and so often that it has long been a foundational and undergirding reality routinely shaping both the racial dynamics and the class dynamics of U.S. society.

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