Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Viewing Race Relations in the 21st Century through Katrina

The issue of race in response to one of the United States' worst natural disasters has been a source of heated discussion since Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast in August 2005. Famously, Kanye West tries to sum up the issue proclaiming “George Bush doesn't care about black people” on national television while co-host Mike Meyers stands next to him awkwardly, stunned and silent. But the problem is much deeper than accusing the president of disliking African Americans. Hurricane Katrina uncovered some of the desperate poverty many black New Orleanians had been struggling with for a long time as well as deep-rooted tensions between the races in the city.

Before the storm, African Americans made up about 70% of the city's population. Post-Katrina, this percentage is lower, with predominately white neighborhoods being rebuilt uptown while historically black neighborhoods such as the lower ninth ward are being renovated slowly, if at all. People may be hesitant to build in neighborhoods like these, as they are especially prone to flooding because they were purposely built on lower ground. Rent and housing costs have also risen in the city, keeping many of the poor from returning to their homes.

After Katrina, violence and crime skyrocketed in New Orleans, a city already plagued by extremely high murder rates. In the mainstream media, African Americans breaking into stores in order to get food, water, and other basic necessities were portrayed as looters. While there was looting occurring in stores and private residences, the majority of the “stealing” seen on television were desperate people turning to a last resort in order to survive when FEMA and the government delayed in their response to help.

The disaster cast a negative shadow on the country concerning race relations in the 21st century. During the Civil Rights movement, pictures of African Americans being beaten and harassed were circulated internationally. I found that this resonated with the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, as the rest of the world watched an American city disintegrate into the likes of a war-torn third world nation with primarily black victims.

While we all have our own opinions on the aftermath and reaction to Katrina in correlation to race relations, it would be difficult to deny that African Americans were hit hardest by this tragedy and that they are returning to the city at a slower rate than whites, changing demographics.

I also find it interesting that New Orleans is the home of such discussions of racism today when during the Civil Rights movement, the focus was mainly on Mississippi and Alabama. That is not to say that racism wasn’t a problem in New Orleans, but it did not make headlines as other Deep South locations did, making it appear as a more tolerant city. Now in the 21st century, it has become to many an example of the racial inequality that much of America thought no longer existed.


  1. I joined a couple of summer work teams that went down to New Orleans in the years right after the storm hit. My team worked in predominantly black neighborhoods, but because of the size of the group, we stayed in a larger volunteer hostel in a "white flight" suburb. The attitudes in the suburb shocked me. I often heard comments like "Well, if they don't come back, the city will be better off." Relief workers are concerned that the city will never fully recover because of these attitudes. Katrina unveiled many infrastructure issues in the city, but I agree; the remaining tension surrounding racism was uncovered as well.

  2. I’m not really sure that it is fair to label New Orleans as an example for racial inequality. It is true that many black homes were flooded in Katrina but so were white homes. The discrepancies between which neighborhoods have been rebuilt aren’t as simple as black vs. white. The Uptown neighborhood, which actually has a pretty even distribution of black vs. white, was barely flooded at all and therefore retained most of its inhabitants. Meanwhile areas such as the 9th ward and Lakeview were built on lower ground and more susceptible. Predominantly white neighborhoods like Lakeview still haven’t been rebuilt completely much like areas such as the 9th ward haven’t, this is more because of insurance policies due to fear of flooding than the government not wanting the people to come back. Think of Nagin’s “chocolate city” speech asking for more African Americans to come back. In the end I think this was a disaster for all involved and race was more of a media story than anything.

  3. I agree Lakeview is a good example. But from the outside looking in on the situation, there seems to be a correlated race/class issue due to those who were hit hardest by the devastation. When we see video of the Superdome after the storm, we see pretty much all black people without anywhere to go. I think this has to do with a significant portion of the black population in the city being impoverished and not being able to finding sufficient means of transportation. But again, I only saw the effects of Katrina through a camera lens and by reading about it.

  4. I agree that through the eyes of the camera and other media outlets it seemed that african americans incurred most of the effects from Hurricane Katrina but, I think that is only because the lower economic portion of the city was made up of african americans. I personally do not think that it was completely a black vs white race issue.