In the wake of Hurricane Katrina, deep-seated issues about the intersections between race and class in America were exposed as the nation watched the city drown. Shortly after the storm, one of the most prominent stories to emerge was the lack of assistance provided by the United States government and its unusually slow response when it was finally doled out. Since that time, many groups have blamed the federal government for conducting a racist response.
Critics said that since the majority of Katrina’s victims were poor and black, they were considered “expendable” and thus did not warrant the same kind of response that would have been given if the storm hit a rich white city. In other words, the combination of poverty in a specific geographic areaas well as factors of race determined the lackluster response. While there was a great deal of variance in terms of how different racial and class groups perceived the response, it is safe to say there was a delayed and weak reaction, no matter what the reason might have been. It is the aim of the study to consider first an article dealing with race and class issues after Hurricane Katrina and then to broaden the concepts touched upon by addressing how the situation fits with notions of structural inequality and conflict theory. Along with these issues, it is impossible to ignore ideas about social mobility, class conflict, and racial stereotyping. If there is any general statement to be made, it is that issues involving the intersections between race and class can hardly be looked at without taking a look at the large picture; what societal structures are in place that support (even unconsciously) these problems as well as what related troubles are inherent to simpler notions of race or class.
The article that forms the basis for this study of the intersection between race and class in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina gives a basic overview of some of the most glaring problems that existed, particularly in terms of race. First of all, the article contends that many Americans agree that there was a delayed response to the disaster and that ethnic and minority groups were hit the hardest. Despite the positive spin put on the issue by President Bush and other members of the government, “six in ten African-Americans say the fact that most hurricane victims were poor and black was one reason the federal government failed to come to the rescue more quickly” (Marsh 2005). This is a striking figure compared to the 9 out of 10 whites who say that these were not issues involved in the slow response.
To support this argument, the author of the article looks to both the black community in New Orleans for interviews and obtains corresponding details in which the whites say it was it was the storm itself and the African-Americans claim it was racially motivated. It is significant that the article puts, in the same sentence, “the nation that claims many of the world’s wealthiest people also is home to staggering poverty. The nation that champions equal rights around the globe has not resolved its own racial tensions” (Marsh 2005). It is worth noting that both to the reporter as well as African-American citizens of New Orleans, issues of race and class are nearly inseparable. It is also worth noting that the article addresses the media coverage of the tragedy and the author points out the images of looting may have sent a message that it was the poor black segment of the population that was responsible. Generally speaking, this article covers quite a bit of ground. Not only does it address the different perceptions of whites versus blacks in the aftermath, but it puts these perceptions within the context of the country at large. The final “message” in this article is that there is a huge gulf between white and African-American feelings about the crisis and how it was handled with the whites seeing it as more of an unfortunate incident and the minorities seeing it as a devastating example of deep structural and institutional inequality.
Given the scope of the disaster in New Orleans and ensuing political and social debate about issues of race and class, it was not difficult to obtain an article that successfully addressed these two problems. Once the article had been carefully examined, more questions emerged about the intersection between race and class and how race is handled in America, both in terms of political rhetoric and by ordinary citizens. By combing through databases containing sociological articles and searching by the terms “race” with class a separating term, it was not difficult to find a wealth of material on the subjects from several points of view. Once these data were collected, they were examined side by side so that any discrepancies or correlations were made apparent. By doing this, it became far easier to differentiate between schools of thought on the issue. It should also be noted that during the data collection process, numerous books and articles were scanned that led to a better overall understanding of race and class in America, even if some of these sources failed to make it into this study.
After encountering a number of news and other sources regarding the racial and class issues in the aftermath of Katrina, the idea of conflict theory and the associated structural inequality kept emerging. In countless numbers of sources, scholarly opinions seemed to uphold conflict theory, which states that the upper classes designate and control the institutions in which the ordinary person functions within and strives to maintain its position at the top through such institutions. In many scholarly articles, claims were made about the inherent bias that exists on the part of rich white America and how the delayed response to the disaster was based on the sense that the poor black people in New Orleans were considered to be “dispensable” because they did not help the system.
According to one scholar, the outright signs of structural inequality and poverty as they relate to conflict theory “are very clear signs of impending fascist policies and practices, which not only construct an imaginary social environment for all of those populations rendered disposable but also exemplify a site and space where democracy has lost its claims” (Giroux 2006). The article discusses how those who are black and poor do not serve the interests of the elite because they are a drain on resources and thus are expendable. It is difficult to ignore this position as it emerges to some degree in nearly every source available that deals with the more complex theoretical sociological issues at play. What is reassuring is that the event brought to the surface a newer understanding of inequality in America and this could bring about the revolutionary actions inherent to conflict theory and could go on to improve society eventually.
Another central aspect of conflict theory is the idea of competition. According to one scholar, “no matter how one wishes to theorize ‘race’ and racism, all forms of racism are ultimately linked to the exploitation and domination of both natural resources and human populations” (Drader 2004). If the poor minorities of New Orleans were in need of a great deal of resources in order to get on their feet again and they were as “disposable” as Giroux suggests, it only follows the model of conflict theory that these people would be denied the necessary resources. This seemed to take place in New Orleans as thousands of poor black citizens awaited assistance that either never came, came too late, or was altogether insufficient. In terms of conflict theory, it is only fitting that the lack of response was part of the larger structural notion of maintaining and preserving resources for the privileged classes. This structural inequality “can be seen or detected in processes, attitudes, and behavior which amount to discrimination through unwitting prejudice, ignorance, thoughtlessness, and racist stereotyping which disadvantages minority ethnic people” (O’Grady 2005). The difference is, it is not just a matter of simple discrimination because the minorities in New Orleans looked different, it was also because the power structure had little to gain (aside from national glory and recognition) if they enacted a quick response.
It is almost impossible to think about the issues of race and class in the wake of Hurricane Katrina without shifting focus to some of the larger sociological forces at work. For instance, class mobility, which is the ability to rise in class status, is more of an issue than it may seem. For these poor minority families, the lack of funding and other assistance to help rebuild will significantly drain what little savings many of these poor families might have. As a result, their children might be kept from school to help their family and not be able to attend college or pursue educational opportunities. It is conceivable that the impact of this could go on to have an effect on more than just one generation as a result and thus social mobility becomes more of a concern than it already might have been. In addition to this, there is likely to be more class straitification, even among those of the same racial group as there was little evenness in the distribution of post-Katrina aid. This could mean that those minorities who lived closer to white areas (that did receive more funding) will have an advantage over their peers and thus a sub-group has been created. This could lead to more class conflict, which is tensions that arise between different class groups, than already exists. The potential long term outcomes are innumerable. Along with this are the more short-term ideas. For example, the USA Today article used here mentioned that there were disparities in the media coverage of the event. According to the author, more poor black citizens were shown as looting and rioting and this left an impact on the American viewer. Such an impact would only confirm the notion that certain people (read as whites) were more “entitled” to the aid money because they were not responsible for some of the problems that arose. This kind of racial stereotyping is also part of a larger problem and in this case, the continuance of it only reinforces bad connotations in the viewer’s mind.
The racial and class issues surrounding Hurricane Katrina do not have a simple solution and although there have been many suggestions about where to go next, all proffered solutions have a racial or class bias of some kind. One such suggestion has been to hurry up and build new housing for the urban poor (read as minorities) in the middle of the devastation. This has come under fire because it reeks of the same racial and class discrimination that has been so heavily criticized as of late. As one editorial suggests, “squeezing the black poor into their old city when they’ve already moved on to other communities is not only counterproductive, it smacks of ‘reservationism,’ disrespect for people’s ability to recreate their lives, and disrespect for nature’s warning that things cannot continue on their present course” (Baker 3). This comment gets at the heart of both race and class because it discusses the fact that poor people in question are black and that they are not being given any credit as human beings. In other words, this editorial is suggesting that the establishment is setting itself up for a repeat of the exact same situation by attempting to rebuild the same race and class relationship in the same area. This is an example of inequality in imagination, if anything, simply because it is carelessly shrugging off the need for a new solution for people who are “expendable.”
New Orleans has been an area of the country where race and class issues were already intertwined and it suffers from some of the bigger problems associated with these two issues. For instance, it is clear that race and class are mixed when it is understood that “In New Orleans before Katrina, the city was 67% black and more than half or 34% lived below the poverty line. To put it another way, 28% of those in New Orleans were in poverty, far higher than the national average, and 84% of those were black” (Radford 2006). So the crisis of Hurricane Katrina and the negative response that followed might not have been such a national issue if these problems did not already exist. In an attempt to help the city recover the authorities did not give enough attention to the fact that merely throwing money at the problem was not going to work. Even if they helped to rebuild homes, it would still not solve the longstanding issues. One of the most significant sociological problems underlying the response to Hurricane Katrina is that it only made problems worse. Here was an area that had been suffering for a very long time and nothing had been done about it until a major crisis hit—one worthy of international headlines. Even still, though there has been some rebuilding done, the area still suffers from race and class issues. These problems are just intensified because the storm also took away many jobs and livelihoods. Now unemployment can be added to generaldisplacement in housing, all on top of the preexisting race and class tensions. At this point, no amount of money from the Federal government can remedy the situation. Instead, what is needed is a more level playing field in which race and class issues are dealt with before crises hit.
The primary reason I chose the main USA Today article is because it was incredibly complex and dealt with a number of issues directly related to race and class after the disaster. Given the scope of what happened in New Orleans, choosing an article that just dealt with one aspect (such as race or class alone) seemed inadequate since the two are nearly inseparable. Through this article and the journey it lead me down as I examined outside sources for more information, it was clear how structural inequality was perceived to be at least one of the overarching issues at hand. For instance, many argued that because they were poor and black, this was something of a “double-whammy” and they were not given aid because they did not matter as much as rich whites. Conflict theory emerged as the central idea in much of the scholarly literature on the topic and it is easy to see the way it is plausible, especially given the government’s lack of a quick and meaningful response. In addition to this, the article exposed layer after layer of sociological issues and revealed that saying simply “this is an issue about race and class alone” is impossible. Like an onion, these interrelated issues can be constantly pared down and examined. At the center of the onion, it seems that the core problem is a foundational system of structural inequality on all levels.
After Hurricane Katrina a number of sociological issues that had already existed reemerged and were given closer scrutiny. In the end, it seems that race is a contentious issue when money is involved, especially if that money is coming from the government. Since class stratification already existed to a large degree before the disaster, it may be exacerbated afterwards as many families received differing amounts. This disaster and its aftermath have also shown that race and class are inseparable issues and that more attention must be given to this so that future problems do not occur. As if the two issues were not enough to contend with by themselves, the intersection of race and class created the most tension after the hurricane hit. Now the government was dealing with mass displacement along with rampant poverty that ran across race lines. After Hurricane Katrina it is no longer possible to view race and class as separate issues, especially when examining these in the context of an entire city.
Other essays and articles in the Main Archives related to this topic include : Extended Definition of Insular Poverty in the United States • An Overview of Housing and Urban Revitalization • Problems and Weaknesses in the American Educational System • Compare / Contrast On Rural Versus Urban Living •Analysis and Summary of “The Classic Slum” by Robert Roberts • Eminent Domain: Institutionalized Robbery
Sources / References
Baker, Scott. (2006). “Katrina and Race.” World Watch 19(6) 3-3.
Darder, Antonia. (2004). After Race: Racism and Multiculturalism. New York: New York University Press.
Giroux, H. A. (2006). Reading Hurricane Katrina: Race, Class, and the Biopolitics of Disposability.College Literature, 33(3), 171.
Marsh (2005). Views of whites, blacks differ starkly on disaster. USA Today, Sept. 13.
O’Grady, A. (2005). Institutional Racism and Civil Justice. Ethnic & Racial Studies, 28(4), 620.
Radford, Ruether. (2006). After Katrina: Poverty, Race and Environmental Degradation. Dialog: A Journal of Theology, 45(2), 176.