Race and Class Matters: the Case of Katrina*


Randall G. Shelden


* Note: for more news and commentary on Katrina go to the main page of this web site. 


Hurricane Katrina is possibly the worst natural disaster in American history and has brought to the surface the importance of the two most important sociological factors in human life: race and social class.  As dozens of reports have pointed out, economic recovery may be especially slow, since Louisiana and Mississippi are among the lowest in the nation as far as per capita income are concerned. Both the photos and the films of the disaster illustrate this as clear as anything. 

            If there is one consistency in everything I have written and talked about in my career, it is that these two variables stand far above everything else in determining the life chances of human beings.  You name it and if it is important, then class and race matter.  Health, longevity, occupation, wealth and income, education, being sent to war, crime and victimization, imprisonment, and everything else that matters are all closely associated with these two factors.

            Coverage of the hurricane and its aftermath in newspapers and various Internet sources is revealing.  Some samples include the following.

In comparing disasters in Florida and California, a Los Angeles Times story observes that unlike their more prosperous counterparts, Louisiana and Mississippi are among lowest in the nation as far as per capita income is concerned.  Few have insurance, especially flood insurance.

Another story, this one in the Christian Science Monitor, pointed out that the levee system, “crucial to the survival of a city surrounded on three sides by water, hasn’t been upgraded to withstand a Category 4 or 5 storm.”  The reason: a massive 40% reduction (amounting to about $71 million) in the budget of the Army Corps of Engineers, which was in charge of rebuilding the levee.  According to this and several other sources, the cuts were made in order to help finance the war in Iraq.  Several experts on hurricanes had predicted a Category 5 storm was likely to hit the area.

The city of New Orleans itself, although a popular tourist attraction, is two-thirds black and within the county of Orleans itself, a third live below the poverty level. Such poverty is “invisible” to the tourists, to use Michael Harrington’s famous lament more than 40 years ago.

Another story in the Los Angeles Times, appropriately titled “Images of Victims Spark a Racial Debate,” noted that the fact that photos and films showed mostly black faces prompted many to charge racial bias in determining the lack of response by the government.  In one of the most perceptive comments I have read, sociologist David Wellman observed that whites and blacks often see things quite differently.” Many whites will focus on the lawlessness of what's going on in New Orleans,” he stated, while at the same time “blacks will focus on the desperation of the victims, the fact that they're being neglected and ignored.”  He also used the analogy of a “geological fault line” comparing it to a “racial faulty line,” noting that they are largely “invisible until there’s an earthquake.”  He also noted what the research has found over the years: 65% of white Americans do not believe that racial discrimination exists, while 75% of black Americans believe it does.

Ward Connerly, head of the American Civil Rights Institute, a conservative think tank, expressed the typical view of these kinds of organization, saying that race should not be talked about, since it diverts out attention away from helping the victims. “It’s a needless distraction. We all ought to be praying and crying about the people whose lives have been totally ripped asunder.” In an overstatement, he commented that it is merely coincidence that the faces are mostly black, since New Orleans is mostly black and poor.  Yes indeed they are which is why we need to focus on the issue. For Connerly (who is black and has ascended into the upper-middle class – a former member of the University of California Board of Regents and owner of his own association management and land development consulting firm) says that “too many blacks have been conditioned to view everything through the prism of race.”

Damu Smith, executive director of the National Black Environmental Justice Network, expressed just the opposite view, noting that this was the best time to bring this issue out in the open.

Many foreign countries have issued responses, mostly highly critical, yet at the same time offering help (Sri Lanka, devastated by the tsunami recently, sent in $25,000 they could barely afford).  Typical of the responses came from The Guardian (London), where it was noted that the New Orleans Times-Picayune had published a series on the federal funding problem long before the hurricane hit and the newspaper (whose presses are under water) reported in their online edition that: “No one can say they didn't see it coming … Now in the wake of one of the worst storms ever, serious questions are being asked about the lack of preparation.”  They were referring to several studies showing the lack of preparation and the massive cuts in funding to reinforce the levees.

A foreign correspondent who had covered the tsunami and reported that in province under Indonesian control called Aceh, accused Indonesian authorities of “disorganized, chaotic reaction; of deployment of religious ‘volunteers’ instead of professionals…of sabotaging the aid, of stealing food and water desperately needed for those who managed to survive” and concluded that most of the people in Aceh “died because they were poor.” On the US response to Katrina, he wrote the following: It was hard to avoid asking: “is this really the best the US government can do for those who are experiencing severe trauma; for those who lost everything? This is not Aceh but Houston, Texas, the center of the US oil industry and space program, with hundreds of hotels and motels spread all over the area!”

Not surprisingly, in most left-leaving publications, such as Znet, the analysis has gone much deeper.  Michael Parenti argues that the failures in the government response reveal the more general failure of the “free market” system. He observed that:  “They announced that everyone should evacuate. Everyone was expected to devise their own way out of the disaster area by private means, just as the free market dictates, just like people do when disaster hits free-market Third World countries.” There was little or no evacuation plan and people were simply advised to leave the city, as those more well-to-do folks, but the vast majority had no way of getting out, since most poor people can’t afford SUVs.  Parenti notes that “It is a beautiful thing this free market in which every individual pursues his or her own personal interests and thereby affects an optimal outcome for the entire society. This is the way the invisible hand works its wonders.”  He further observed that: “It was not until Day Three that the relatively affluent telecasters began to realize that tens of thousands of people had failed to flee because they had nowhere to go and no means of getting there. With hardly any cash at hand or no motor vehicle to call their own, they had to sit tight and hope for the best. In the end, the free market did not work so well for them.”

A blogger put it another way, noting that while Bush was touring the devastated areas he often described them as “this part of the world.”  Going further, the blogger observed that perhaps Bush “forgets that ‘this part of the world’ is in the country that returned him to the White House. Maybe he forgets that ‘this part of the world’ flies the same red, white and blue flag as Maine or Texas. Maybe he forgets that ‘this part of the world’ supplies the canon fodder he needs for his adventure in Iraq. Then again, maybe he calls a destroyed major city in America ‘this part of the world’ because it just doesn't really matter to him.”

Writing in the web site Alternet, Jordan Flaherty puts it this way: “Long before Katrina, this city was hit by a hurricane -- of poverty, racism, disinvestment, deindustrialization and corruption. The damage from that storm alone will take billions to repair.”

Not surprisingly, Michael Moore chimed in, writing an “open letter” to Bush.  He made an interesting observation, saying that he was in Florida on August 25, as Katrina passed through as a Category 1 hurricane.  He stated that local weather reports said that it was on its way to New Orleans. In his typical dry humor Moore stated to Bush: “That was Thursday! Did anybody tell you? I know you didn't want to interrupt your vacation and I know how you don't like to get bad news. Plus, you had fundraisers to go to and mothers of dead soldiers to ignore and smear. You sure showed her!”

As usual, much of the attention has been on the looting, with unconfirmed reports of snipers and other criminal activities.  Thousands are dying, millions more are suffering tremendous losses, the government’s response is a disgrace (witness the mayor of New Orleans yelling and using curse words on the radio, begging for some help), but reporters shift attention on a handful of looters.  What do you expert on such occasions, but for people to grab what they can, mostly to help them survive. 

On September 2, members of the Special Response Team from the Louisiana Army National Guard arrived expecting to find crime and violence.  However, as a Los Angeles Times story reveals, “when they arrived, they did not find marauding mobs. They did not come under fire. They found people who had lost everything in the storm and, since then, their dignity.”

Media critic Norman Solomon had these words to say: “Media outlets have popularized some tactical critiques of U.S. military operations in Iraq. But the administration is competent enough to keep the military-industrial complex humming. It’s good at generating huge profits for ‘defense’ contractors, oil companies and the like…Why shore up levees when the precious money it would take can be better used for war in Iraq? Why allow National Guard units to remain home when they can be useful, killing and being killed, in a faraway war based on lies? And when catastrophe hits people close to home, why should the president respond with urgency or adequacy if their lives don’t figure as truly important in his political calculus? There is something egregiously obscene about the people in charge of the U.S. government telling citizens to donate money for a hurricane relief effort while the administration, from the president on down, has viciously abdicated its most basic responsibilities.”

Solomon drew from a comment by Martin Luther King, who was often able to cut to the deep end of social problems and look beyond the individual toward the larger structures of power.  King said that “True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring.”



When it comes to various social problems the United States has faced – whether it be crime, poverty or whatever – I have always directed my thoughts in the same way that Martin Luther King expressed it in the above quote.  My favorite metaphor is the one about rescue efforts aimed at people drowning at the bottom of a waterfall.  As one man begins to run upstream, someone yells “Where are you going, there are so many people that need help here.”  The man turned back and yelled, “I’m heading upstream to see why so many are falling into the river.”  You see, upstream is the “edifice” – in sociological terms, social structures – that need restructuring.

© 2005, Randall G. Shelden. All rights reserved. No part of this may be reproduced without permission from the author.