Katrina, Race, and Place: A Sociological Look at a “Natural” Disaster

Would decision makers have acted more quickly if most of the evacuees had been white?” The Pew Research Center asked this question in a recent poll. While it is an interesting question, there is no way to know the answer. Still, this poll item attempts to explore a controversial aspect about the Katrina disaster—the race issue.

In the aftermath of Katrina, I became very interested in the buzz around me. In public places, at social gatherings, and on network television news programs, I listened to people placing blame on the victims of the hurricane. I listened as people around me blamed the residents of New Orleans for failing to evacuate or “choosing” not to evacuate in a timely fashion. In addition, many people were rejecting the notion that race played a role in the outcomes of evacuees. Occasionally, people would ask me whether I thought that race mattered in the devastation that accompanied the hurricane. I wondered whether they were asking me whether a group of white men sat around a table, rubbing their hands together, plotting to react slowly and insufficiently to the African American community in New Orleans. Like many people, I am aware that overt racism and discrimination continue to exist. However, as a sociologist, my research and teaching tend to focus on the less obvious ways in which race plays a role in people’s lives. Thus, I never had to ask whether race mattered, because for those of us who conduct research on residential life, race almost always matters.

I spend a great deal of time thinking about, empirically analyzing, and communicating facts about the intersections of race, class, and place and one of the ideas that I emphasize is the idea of a place hierarchy. When sociologists refer to place hierarchies, they are simply saying that some neighborhoods are better places to live than others and that this form of stratification is not random, but patterned. Where we live impacts the quality of the people who form our social networks, as well as our proximity to high quality housing, good jobs, quality education, and safety from crime . The media coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed U.S. citizens how real these place inequalities really are, but it also showed that place differences are racialized. How was this natural disaster adversely affected by very unnatural circumstances related to systematic social inequality?

The fact of inequality is the very heart of sociology. The essence of my research, teaching, and intellectual passion centers on a question that Gerhard Lenski asked in 1966, “Who gets what and why?” This was my contribution to the discourse on the campus of West Virginia University when I was an invited panelist on a forum entitled “Public Forum on Katrina: What Will We Learn?—A Political & Social Analysis.” I spoke about the topic of racial inequality because sociologists’ insights into inequalities are the way that that our discipline has most influenced policy and public perceptions. On that night, I discussed who got and why. Who were the victims whose dead bodies were recovered on the streets? Who suffered most when the levees broke? Who felt abandoned? Who was struggling with thirst, hunger, and hygiene in the New Orleans Convention Center and Louisiana Superdome?

At first, the answer seemed clear—the poor were most adversely affected. Oddly, in some ways, this idea was comforting to many of us. Then, we can view the poor as a unified, colorblind group. While it is true that real differences in socioeconomic status contributed to the chances of being left behind, class is not the whole story. Just because class is important does not mean that race is incidental. Society is structured so that the outcomes of Hurricane Katrina had a color. In our community forum, I suggested three reasons for the assertion that race played a major role in determining which American citizens would suffer the most in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina.

First, the television coverage of Hurricane Katrina showed that the evacuees with the fewest resources suffered the most. In the United States, African Americans and Latinos are disproportionately poor. According to the U.S. Census Bureau, in New Orleans in 2000, 28% of the population was poor, but of those, 84% were African American. When African Americans are disproportionately poor, this suggests that race does matter for people’s life outcomes. Lots of factors contribute to poverty and when we look at many of the reasons that people are poor, researchers find that race matters. It is a fact that, on average, African Americans have lower educational attainment, worse jobs, earn less money, and have less wealth than whites. Given these socioeconomic disparities, how are African Americans to improve their life outcomes? Some people argue that education is the key, but New Orleans’ schools are troubled. Sixty-five percent of New Orleans’ public schools did not meet the state’s standards in 2004, compared to 11% of schools in the state. Again, race matters, as New Orleans had one of the nation’s largest central city school districts in 2000, but also had the largest African American enrollment in the country among such schools—92.7%. Tests scores and segregation are not the only problems. The school district in New Orleans is $25 million in debt.

When racial /ethnic groups vary by class in such a way, we can say with confidence that race is playing a role in class structure. And believe me, researchers attempt to explain away race in our research. We compare poor whites to poor African Americans, and for many outcomes, the differences between groups narrow quite a bit, but they often do not disappear. Race still has an effect, over and above class, when we look at many outcomes.

This brings me to the next point: segregation. Segregation is a second reason that race matters for Katrina victims. By 2000, New Orleans was one the ten most segregated metropolitan areas in the U.S. and one of five metropolitan areas to show the least amount of decline in segregation between 1980 and 2000. This means that on average, African Americans in New Orleans live in neighborhoods with very few whites in them and whites live in neighborhoods with very few African Americans in them. Segregation is problematic for our society for so many reasons. Let’s look at a few of these.

First, on average, African Americans prefer integrated communities to segregated ones. The research on residential preferences shows that the average African American does not want to live in a neighborhood that is segregated. So, to better understand this, consider the fact that the U.S. is 12.3% African American, but Louisiana is 32.5% African American. This means that African Americans are geographically concentrated in this state. Then, think about the city, itself. New Orleans is 67.3% African American , so the city further concentrates African Americans. Why is New Orleans segregated? One reason is white flight. In 1950, only a third of the New Orleans population was African American. This increase between 1950 and 2000 cannot be due to an influx of African American population because between 1965 and 2000, New Orleans was one of the ten metropolitan areas with the greatest loss of African American population. Just because African Americans are overrepresented among the poor does not mean they must live in racially segregated environments.

Segregation is also important for understanding Katrina because segregation is caused, at least in large part, by historic federal housing policies, restrictive zoning and land use policies, and many forms of housing and lending discrimination. We want to believe that the increase in the size of the African American middle class, stricter enforcement of fair housing laws, and decreases in white’s prejudice mean that neighborhoods in U.S. cities and suburbs are integrated. However, even though housing discrimination has been illegal since 1968, it remains a fact in our society. Actors in the real estate and lending industries discriminate against African American and Latino buyers and renters and they discriminate against residents of African American and Latino neighborhoods.

A final reason that segregation is important is that racial and ethnic segregation geographically concentrates poverty. Today, U.S. poverty is concentrated in urban areas. Segregation confines deprivation to a small number of socially isolated areas. In 2003, the U.S. poverty rate was 12.3%, but the urban poverty rate was 17.5%. In contrast, the suburban poverty rate was only 9.1%. New Orleans typifies this situation. New Orleans residents are more likely to be in poverty (27.9% were poor in 1999) and are far less likely to be homeowners (46.5% are homeowners compared to 68.3% of the U.S). However, for African Americans, these class-related problems are worsened by segregation. Research shows that in the absence of segregation, poverty has a smaller impact on the neighborhood environment that African Americans experience. Segregation increases the chances that African Americans live in neighborhoods with high levels of community stressors. Under integrated conditions, poor African American families are scattered more evenly throughout the area, and this decreases the concentration of poverty.

Just think, even with the same poverty level, if New Orleans had been more racially integrated, the evacuation might have been more successful. The statistics bear this out. Consider the fact that in New Orleans, transportation was a problem for many evacuees. Is this just about class? In the U.S., even among the poor, whites are more likely to have access to a car than African Americans (12.1% versus 33.4%). In New Orleans, 52.4% of poor African Americans lacked car access, versus just 17.4% of poor whites. This means that if poor neighborhoods had been racially integrated, the average African American resident in a poor community would have had a better chance at escaping the hurricane, because one of his or her white, car-owning neighbors may have been able to help.

Related to segregation, the third reason race is relevant for Katrina victims is that there are racial differences in social ties—the very social ties that can help in an emergency. There is evidence of the exacerbating effects of neighborhood poverty on social isolation. Residents of extreme poverty areas have fewer social ties and their existing ties tend to be with other people who are coping with a low socioeconomic status

So, given that African Americans are more likely to be poor, tend to live in segregated communities with higher concentrations of disadvantage, and have limited social networks, race matters very much for their chances of evacuating from a catastrophe with ease. This is a structural situation and structural explanations show us the patterned ways in which race does matter. As individuals, we act, but we do not act on a purely individual basis.

To conclude, in September 2005, hip hop artist Kanye West was live on an NBC hurricane benefit show and almost in tears, he said “George Bush doesn’t care about black people…America is set up to help the poor and the black people as slow as possible.” What was the reaction to this statement? Many whites were offended by his outburst and accused him of playing the “race card.” However, poll results suggest that most African Americans agree with Mr. West. Let’s returning to the poll question above—would decision makers have acted more quickly if most of the evacuees had been white? Sixty-six percent of African Americans said “yes” to this question, but only 17% of whites agreed. This suggests that Kanye West and African Americans across the country know something about the African American experience in the U.S. that many whites do not. Why were so many white Americans shocked by the helplessness of African American Katrina victims? Because, many whites do not know how the other half lives, because they do not live near them. Katrina showed us that our society’s racialized spatial distance has many costs, not the least of which is a racialized social distance from one another.