Towards a Transformative View of Race: The Crisis and Opportunity of Katrina

By john a. powell, Hasan Kwame Jeffries, Daniel Newhart and Eric Stiens

“You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals….so many of these people…are so poor and they are so black, and this is going to raise lots of questions for people who are watching this story unfold.”

— Wolf Blitzer on CNN, September 1, 2005

Immediately after Hurricane Katrina ravaged New Orleans and the Gulf Coast, journalists and laypeople struggled to find the words to express their outrage over the situation. In a very real way, the devastation wrought by the storm challenged normative perspectives on race and class in this country. The disturbing images of poor African Americans struggling to survive in an abandoned city and the inadequate response of the government forced uncomfortable thoughts into the national consciousness. Suddenly, race and class mattered, and mattered more than most people were prepared to acknowledge.

When a national dialogue began, however, it was clear that the existing vocabulary was incapable of explaining what everyone was seeing. Like Wolf Blitzer, many people were left stumbling over the links between race and class and trying to figure out why Katrina’s destructive force disproportionately impacted African-American and poor communities.

Soon after the levees broke, politicians and pundits tried feverishly to ease our discontent. They assured us that nature is colorblind and that the government response, although clearly inadequate, was not a result of racial animus. We were told that class and poverty, rather than race, were the keys to understanding the crisis. Conservatives even went so far as to drape poverty in the rhetoric of welfare-as-dependency, arguing that government assistance had created a culture of victimization. Progressives, for their part, talked about the absence of an adequate safety net to deal with persistent poverty.

Still, questions about why African Americans are more likely than whites to be poor, and why poor African Americans are more likely to live in areas of concentrated poverty, were neither asked nor answered. The mainstream media did make an effort to broach the issue of race, but the resulting discussions either suffered from a reliance on racial stereotypes, or failed to move beyond race-based human interest stories. There was little critical discussion about how historical patterns of segregation contributed to the racial layout of the city, and how structures worked together to produce racial disparities and economic inequality.

Trapped in Individualistic Mode

For far too long, Americans have been trapped in an individualistic mode of thinking about race and racism that requires that there be a racist actor in order for there to be a racist action, and that separates race and class into distinct categories. As the full extent of the damage to New Orleans became clear, the nation as a whole struggled to make sense of the situation by filtering visual images and sound bites through the dominant individualistic framework. Consequently, people asked: Is President Bush a racist or simply incompetent? Were so many poor African Americans affected by the storm because they were poor or because they were black, or was it because of their culture? Would the response to Katrina have been different had New Orleans been mostly white? How could so many things have gone wrong in a country that prides itself on responsibility and opportunity?

Unfortunately, narrow thinking about racism as a product of individual intent is not particularly helpful. Not only does it tend to be divisive—the conversations that follow often center on assigning blame and finding culpability rather than on making change—it diverts attention away from the role of structures and institutions in perpetuating disparities, while simultaneously locating racism in the mind of individuals. Katrina has provided a rare chance to discuss the links between race, equity, justice and democracy.

Those who rejected racism as a contributing factor to the disaster, as well as those who knew it was somehow relevant, focused so much of their attention on identifying or dismissing the racist behavior of individuals, including the president, that the overall discourse on the role of race and racism lacked substance. For the most part, there was no discussion of the myriad of ways that race informed the social, economic and political factors that converged long before Katrina made landfall and made New Orleans ripe for a disaster that would hit the city’s black residents the hardest.

Just about everyone failed to discuss local patterns of residential segregation. They ignored the fact that grossly disproportionate numbers of African Americans lived in neighborhoods that were below sea level. Some pointed out that African Americans comprised 98 percent of the Lower Ninth Ward, but said little if anything about how this came to be. Similarly, some noted the sickeningly high poverty rate among the city’s black residents, but said nothing about how racialized poverty contributed to the crisis. Neither the concentration of subsidized housing nor the lack of car ownership among poor blacks—which made it impossible for many to flee in their own vehicles as was called for by the city’s middle-class-oriented evacuation plan—were mentioned. Racialized divestment in schools, public health and other critical institutions in the core city, which impacts the suburbs as well, has existed for decades, but unlike the wind and the water, it garnered little attention. We do not believe that anyone intended to strand poor blacks in New Orleans. Nonetheless it was predictable, given that we tend to regard poor people differently than we do others.

The inability of Americans, both white and black, conservative and progressive, to analyze the Katrina disaster in a way that would have rendered visible the central role of structural racism in the disaster was the result of the narrow way we tend to understand racism. The normative conceptualization of racism is that it is a deliberately harmful discriminatory act perpetrated by people who possess outmoded racial beliefs. It is the aberrant behavior of white supremacists and is easily identified by the discriminatory intent of perpetrators. Furthermore, it is static. It is an offense committed by a particular person at a specific moment in time. Racism happens, and then it ends.

How Space is Racialized

We need to ask how and why segregation is maintained. The answer can no longer be found in explicit arrangements of de jure segregation, but instead in the impacts of a variety of structural arrangements. The creation and re creation of black ghettos in the United States is no mystery. We can trace the ghettos back to race-specific practices by governmental agencies, including the Federal Housing Administration, and to uneven tax allocation, zoning laws, transportation spending and the devolution of power to ever-smaller jurisdictions. The degree to which this discussion is largely “off-the-table” is not a function of the relative difficulty of pinpointing the origin of the conversation, but rather reflects the degree that individual agency has been privileged at the expense of collective action and social structures.

Answering why segregation persists to this day is somewhat more complicated. Part of the reason is because it fosters racialized poverty and opportunity. While poverty is certainly a phenomenon that crosses racial and geographic lines, the face of poverty in this country is overwhelming urban and African American. Segregation also helps usrace society. It continually helps recreate the social categories to which we commonly ascribe racial meaning. White space, or the outer-ring suburbs, plays an important role in maintaining an increasing fragile white privilege. So too does the existence of ghettos. Divestment from urban areas (53.1 percent of African Americans live in central cities) has had radically disparate racial effects, even in the absence of overt racial intent. Consequently, areas of racialized poverty are accepted as natural, as if they have always, and will always, exist.

Residential segregation has produced “white space,” which is tremendously unstable. As globalization expands in a post-Jim Crow era, and as the identity of a particular space comprised of individuals who are “white” comes under assault, “white space” means less and less. Many whites are averse to being labeled racist, but they also refuse to surrender forms of privilege, such as access to preferred residential space. What needs to be propelled forward is the idea that racialization of space affects us all.

A New Lens, Vocabulary, Avenue for Change

Employing this lens provides a new vocabulary for talking about race and thinking about racial justice. No longer must we be caught up in issues of guilt and blame, in pointing fingers or decrying our innocence. Using this new lens allows us to understand how race continues to sort opportunity in this country, without having to find racists.

First, we must eliminate concentrated poverty. Prior to Katrina, New Orleans had one of the highest rates of concentrated poverty in the country, second highest among the nation’s fifty largest cities. Most of these places need to be rebuilt, but they neither can be rebuilt as static replicas of what they were, nor can this opportunity be used as an excuse for displacing residents. There is tension here, to be sure, between the right of displaced residents to return and creating affordable housing that is not concentrated in a few sections of the city. This tension, however, can be mitigated in large part by involving those most affected by the storm in the planning process.

There are multiple proposals on the table for how this can be accomplished including: housing voucher programs, expansion of the low-income housing tax credit, inclusionary zoning and models based on previously successful housing programs, such as the Gautreaux experiment in Chicago and HUD’s Moving to Opportunity program. The very scale of the rebuilding that needs to occur can be an advantage, as well as a challenge, because it offers an opportunity for a re-visioning of what an integrated and livable city might look like.

Also, a racially and economically just framework has to focus on access to opportunity. It is clear that this needs to occur in New Orleans and the Gulf Coast area, but it also must include the thousands of displaced residents who may or may not return voluntarily. We run the risk of simply shifting the black urban poor from one city to another, and from one opportunity-deprived community to another. The planning process must include provisions for connecting the “Gulf Coast Diaspora” to affordable housing, job training, economic opportunities, quality education, transportation and healthcare. We must treat the citizens of New Orleans as a democracy should, that is, with equal opportunity for all.

We must focus on providing access to opportunity explicitly, both during the reconstruction process as well as afterwards. The reconstruction of the Gulf Coast will be labor-intensive and require tens of thousands of people working in tandem in order to be successful. Current and former residents of the Gulf Coast should be hired first, and local laborers should be paid a living wage. We must put job training programs into place so that residents are able to take advantage of the opportunities available during the redevelopment. Citizens need to have meaningful oversight of the billions of dollars that will be brought in by private development corporations to guarantee that development occurs in a way that benefits their communities, and not simply the shareholders of these companies.

Transit problems were a principal reason that the violent impact of Katrina was so disproportionately shouldered by poor African Americans. We must not allow this to occur in the future. State and local authorities should implement immediate plans for the evacuation of residents who lack access to personal transportation. Transit also remains a key factor in connecting people with parts of metropolitan areas where opportunity flourishes, job growth is occurring, and high-quality schools exist. The expansion of public transit has to be a priority going forward.

Access to educational opportunities significantly affects well-being later in life. Not only must the public schools of New Orleans be repaired, but planners must think proactively about the linkages between residential integration and school integration. In 2003-2004, for example, 46.9 percent of public schools in Orleans Parish were in the “academically unacceptable” category, in contrast to only 5.7 percent of schools across Louisiana. Planners must begin to consider how residential segregation, which leads to school segregation, is affecting test scores, causing all of our children to suffer today and shutting them out from opportunity in the future.

Lastly, health and environmental concerns are going to remain a part of life in the Gulf Coast area for decades. Officials need to take all precautions to ensure the safety of workers involved in the cleanup and redevelopment process. They need to mandate uniform standards for cleanup so that some communities do not disproportionately shoulder the burden of exposure to toxins. Most importantly, there needs to be a long-term monitoring and grievance system established to ensure the health and safety of Katrina survivors, one that provides affordable access to healthcare if health problems arise in the future. There have been remarkable advances in “green building” over the past two decades, as well as in more environmentally-friendly methods of construction and waste disposal. Redevelopment plans need to include environmental planning as an explicit part of the process.

Throughout this process, we must be proactively attentive to the ways in which all of these aspects of opportunity—housing, education, job training, employment, healthcare and transportation—interact with one another structurally. Adopting a regional approach to planning, therefore, is essential. Segregation, fragmentation and concentrated poverty create barriers to opportunity for people of color and undermine the vitality and competitiveness of the entire region. An approach to rebuild in a just way must look at the region as a whole unit and create ways to more equitably distribute resources and opportunity throughout. It is not a coincidence that some of the poorest parts of New Orleans are also the places where the African-American population is very high. It is important to consider how segregated space interacts with race and poverty, economic health and democratic norms. The resource disparity between cities and suburbs hurts not only inner-city residents and those that live in areas that have become isolated, but also encourages a dysfunctional fragmented system. This system encourages destructive competition, such as sprawl, inefficient duplication, divestment in infrastructure and people. The health of the city and older suburbs is linked to the health of the entire region.

Finally, we must keep the discourse of race and racism alive and inclusive, rather than subterranean and divisive. This will take some strategizing given the current inadequacy of public discourse. We might support national and local media campaigns, community initiatives, grassroots organizations, interdenominational efforts and political maneuvering to transform our understanding of race and class. We will need to pay particular attention to not only the needs of poor and middle-class blacks and other nonwhites, but to those of poor and middle-class whites as well. Globalization and devolution place the vulnerable on precarious footing, which will require us to work together to recreate more equitable life opportunities in New Orleans and throughout the nation.

Given the hesitancy of the United States to confront or discuss race, even after a disaster like Hurricane Katrina brought it to our attention, it is time for a new way of speaking about race and racism. As we stumbled over words to describe the pictures that appeared in our newspapers and on our television sets, we discovered that we did not have an adequate frame for articulating what was going on, not only in New Orleans, but all across this country every day. Katrina demonstrated that race and class are still salient topics in the US, but discussing and understanding how they matter is an important part of envisioning a racially just and democratic society.

john a. powell is the founding director of the Kirwan Institute for the Study of Race
and Ethnicity and the Gregory H. Williams Chair in Civil Rights and Civil Liberties
at the Mortiz College of Law at The Ohio State University. Hasan Kwame Jeffries is
an assistant professor at the Kirwan Institute and in the Department of History at The
Ohio State University. Daniel Newhart is a graduate research associate at the Kirwan
Institute and a MA candidate in Higher Education Administration at The Ohio State
University. Eric Stiens is a research associate with the Kirwan Institute and is currently
a candidate for a MSW at Washington University in Saint Louis. Research assistance
provided by Jason Reece, the senior GIS demographic specialist at the Kirwan Institute.

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