Katrina and Race

Originally posted: September 23, 2005

The federal government’s initial response to Hurricane Katrina demonstrates America’s continuing indifference to poverty and its hostility to African-Americans. In the words of Jesse Jackson, “Katrina was a nightmare of a storm, but she hit a country suffering a nightmare of neglect.”

Rev. Calvin Butts, a Baptist minister from Harlem, asserts that if Katrina had struck a white middle-class neighborhood in the Northeast, the federal government’s response would have been much swifter and stronger.

Hip-hop superstar Kanye West believes that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people” and that the United States is organized “to help the poor, black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” Therefore, he says, relief came slowly to New Orleans.

Most African-Americans are inclined to agree. A Washington Post/ ABC News poll found that 60 percent of blacks believe race was a factor in the federal government’s slow response (compared to 12 percent among whites).

Even stronger racial resentment is present in the African-American community. Louis Farrakhan suggests that the Bush administration deliberately cut funding to repair New Orleans’ levees. His reasoning? A hurricane would come, the levees would break, the city would flood, and hundreds of black people would be washed away. Many postings on black-oriented web sites assert that Mississippi will be rebuilt before New Orleans, because Mississippi is predominantly white.

Many blacks are deeply suspicious of whites. A poll of New York City blacks in 1990 indicated that 10 percent believe that “AIDS was deliberately created in a laboratory in order to infect black people,” and that 25 percent believe “the government makes sure that drugs are easily available in poor black neighborhoods to harm black people.” Blacks in Washington, DC speak openly of “the plan” of the white power structure to drive up real estate prices in order to force blacks out. Many black politicians allege that Marion Barry, Mike Tyson, Michael Jackson, and Clarence Thomas have been singled out for prosecution or harassment because of their race.

Kimberly Crenshaw, a law professor at UCLA, argues that these feelings are perfectly understandable, because of the ill will that has been “directed toward us in employment, in health care institutions, in housing, and especially in the criminal justice system.” Therefore, she says, when black people see a black man “standing in handcuffs or being hauled before a court, they are ready to believe that brother is innocent without even hearing the charges against him.”

Media coverage of Katrina created the impression that blacks are out of control, are lawless, and are undeserving of sympathy. Ericka Wheeler, a student at IUPUI, states that “the thing that shocks me is that with the Katrina crisis, people are just now seeing how the media portray black people. This is nothing new. Blacks are often seen on television shooting each other, stealing, or making comments on the newscasts that seem as if they just woke up.”

The attitudes of many African-Americans toward Katrina are eminently justified. Black people in this country have faced slavery, imprisonment, beatings, and lynchings. They have faced Bull O’Connor’s dogs, sitting in the back of the bus, separate and unequal schools, poll taxes, literacy tests, forced segregation, discrimination, and hatred. Every day, most African-Americans face hostility from the police for driving while black and hostility from merchants for shopping while black. Every day, most African-Americans put up with rude remarks and rude gestures from Caucasians.

Was race a factor in the federal government’s slow response to Hurricane Katrina? Absolutely–just like race is a factor in every other aspect of American life.

Ted Rueter is an assistant professor of political science

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