Hurricane Katrina revealed to the American public that race and class are still issues which are alive and well in the United States of America. The images on television and other media modes revealed that a select segment of society was overwhelmingly affected by this natural disaster. In fact, many died simply because they were poor and African-American. The adverse consequences they faced were a direct result of either actions or inactions directly related to their class and race; and the two are inextricably intertwined and continue to effect the rebuilding of New Orleans to this day.
How Hurricane Katrina Exposed Race and Class Issues in America
Nothing illustrates the issue of race and class issues in America greater than the moniker "The Chocolate City." Mayor Nagin, of New Orleans, used this term to describe his own city in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. Understandably, his words created quite a stir and he found himself apologizing profusely as did a number of politicians and government agencies who were called on the carpet for the manner in which this emergency was handled. It took a natural disaster of vast proportion to force Americans to confront the underlying reasons for the ghastly images continuously flashed across the media. Having done so, most will agree that the lack of appropriate response to Hurricane Katrina had a direct link to the fact that the majority left in this ravaged city were poor and African-American. It is also true that the rebuilding of New Orleans has been greatly influenced by the demographics of the city and the inability of many residents to return home. Hurricane Katrina has forced the nation to confront the systemic oppression of poor African-Americans and to admit that race and class are not distinct, but rather, inextricably intertwined as a result of years of systemic racism.
It is easy to point fingers at individuals and government agencies regarding the devastation which occurred in New Orleans as a result of Hurricane Katrina. However, one must consider the underlying factors which contributed to the various policies and decisions. For example, it was a well-known fact that the levees surrounding New Orleans were in dire need of repair. Yet somewhere along the line the decision was made to divert those funds elsewhere. That decision was made even with dire warnings that the failure of these levees was a disaster in the offing and surely would have devastating affects on the residents of the city of New Orleans. Though no one would ever admit it, it is probable that the inhabitants of the City of New Orleans simply were not that important to the decision makers. President Bush's focus was not on the largely African-American, poverty stricken residents of New Orleans. In fact, his indifference was noted by Kanye West when he publicly asserted that "George Bush doesn't care about black people," in a televised segment that went viral, ensuring that everyone was sure to see it one place or another. With this statement, Kanye was voicing what many were thinking. Interestingly, Bush later that said that, 'it was one of the worst moments of my presidency'. Note that he was not referring to the catastrophe on the Gulf Coast. He was referring to West's assertion that he doesn't care about black people.
On a local level, rampant mistakes were made, all of which had adverse effects on the poor, African-American, and elderly of New Orleans. The evacuation plan itself was flawed from the start. The city's evacuation plan relied on private transportation to ferry the New Orleans populace out of the city to safer environments. That's all fine and good; if you have access to private transportation. In reality, those left behind were predominantly African-American, had incomes below the poverty level, and elderly. Most of these people had no access to private transportation. As President Obama stated later, 'there was a misconception that these people could jump in their SUV's, fill the tank up with of gas, grab a bottle of water, and head out of town."
Obama's statement is cause for further reflection. When considering a population with no transportation, one certainly needs to address the issue of resources at their immediate disposal. Even if they owned a vehicle, could they afford to fill it with gas and head to a hotel? It is highly unlikely. What plan was implemented for those in these dire circumstances? Why the Superdome, of course!
Everyone remembers the horrible images appearing on every channel which showed the deplorable conditions which the evacuees were forced to endure. The bottom of the dome was covered in water, it was overcrowded beyond belief, and there were not near enough provisions available. According to many news items at the time, the local government was only anticipating a few hundred evacuees to seek shelter at the Superdome. Why? Had they done their homework they would have known the percentage of people in their own city who did not have access to private transportation as a means of escape. With no where else to go they swamped to the Superdome by the thousands. Their numbers well exceeded anything heretofore anticipated and were left without clean water, working bathroom facilities, and a plethora of health issues and discomforts. Apparently, on a local level, these members on the margins of society did not count. They weren't even worthy of being considered in the disaster plan.
On the state level, many mistakes were made as well. While visions of widespread violence were repeatedly being shown on television, the then Governor of Louisiana declined the initial offer of assistance insisting that the Louisiana National Guard could handle the problem. Was she watching the same reports that the rest of the nation was watching? Clearly, the Louisiana National Guard was overwhelmed. It certainly did not help that a large number of the National Guard, along with many emergency type vehicles, was currently out of the country. Would the governor have been as quick to decline aid if the citizens remaining in New Orleans under such deplorable conditions had been from a different racial and socioeconomic background? Again, it is not likely.
Yet more clear examples of race and class discriminatory actions regarding Katrina are related to bridges. Two of the most disgusting stories to emerge from the catastrophe centered around bridges. With regard to the Danziger bridge incident where innocent unarmed civilians were gunned down while attempting to flee the devastation and flooding, one can be sure that if these had been white people dressed in Polo shirts and Lizwear, these shootings would not have occurred. Furthering the damage to an already distressed reputation as a police force, as one third fled prior to the hurricane, the NOPD present at this murder attempted to cover up their actions as justifiable.
The other bridge incident also involved refugees fleeing the floodwaters and devastation. In this instance, a group of mostly African-American evacuees, following directions from authorities, were attempting to flee New Orleans via the bridge heading to Gretna. Gretna is a predominantly white community just outside of New Orleans. Prior to reaching the relative safety of the other side, where they were told that buses waited to evacuate them, they were met by armed Gretna police officers who refused to let them pass. They turned the evacuees back by firing shotguns over their heads and pointing their guns at several evacuees. When asked by some of the evacuees why they were being turned back, they said they 'were not going to have a Superdome in Gretna' and 'this isn't New Orleans'. Most blocked evacuees took this as a direct connection to the fact that most in the crowd were African-American. Clearly, the blockade was racially motivated.
Though the immediate responses to the emergency created by Hurricane Katrina compelled Americans to reconsider their previously held conceptions of race and class in America, the slow reconstruction of New Orleans is also evidence of deeply entrenched race and class distinctions. Though the hurricane made landfall in New Orleans in 2005, as of this writing (2112), New Orleans has yet to be fully restored, particularly in those areas which were once inhabited by those initially left behind in the initial evacuation. Although the French Quarter was relatively unscathed, and quickly restored with an influx of money, not all areas had the same fortune, primarily because they were first unlucky, and second, because they are not income generating districts. There are still parts of the city that seem like ghost towns. Houses are boarded up, lots sit vacant and overgrown, and the population is significantly reduced. Many wonder if the people once left behind will ever be able to return. Unfortunately, racism and class distinctions do not only exist in New Orleans. They also exist in the cities to which these poor African-Americans fled. Finding themselves in the same position, no or low paying jobs, many find it impossible to save enough money to return to the place they once called home. Home may…