Looking for Race in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina

Among the many things exposed in the devastation caused by Hurricane Katrina was our national history of race–and also our striking inability to address that history in any informed or sustained way.

When we acknowledge the obvious fact of the racial divides among the victims of the hurricane and of its aftermath, we find ourselves lost in the winds of superficial definitions and easy explanations.
Do our national leaders care about African Americans? Were delayed responses racially motivated? Such questions, backed only by a naive or even defensive understanding of race, will not take us very far towards an understanding of the racial realities revealed by the storm, nor will they help us work toward lasting solutions.

We need to be clear about what we are talking about when we talk about race. Too often, we focus on discredited notions of biological entities or a politically convenient, pop-culture set of social affiliations. The realities of race are more complex–and it is impossible to address race responsibly without talking about history. In fact, race is a systemic, historical construction, a process that began long ago and that operates independently of individual intentions.

What race is in the United States (for it is different in different places and at different times) is what has been created throughout U.S. history; it is the complex product of legal, economic, social, scientific, and even theological practices. Race concerns the history of how people were positioned in the past–how their opportunities were either maintained or restricted, and therefore how well they could provide a foundation of opportunities and experience for subsequent generations.

Race concerns the history of education–its availability, its funding, and its selection of people and events to be studied, highlighted, or appreciated.

Race concerns the history of the legal system–precedents and processes established, and decisions that maintained privileges for some at the expense of others. Race, in short, refers to a systemic process that follows its own logic, its own all-but-inevitable course through the years. And throughout that history, the one consistent concern has been to define, protect, and promote the interests and privileges of white people. If race was visible in the faces of those left behind after Katrina, race was even more visible in the faces of those who managed to escape before the storm.

Too often in our nation, we address the history of race only to announce that racial injustice is now largely behind us–as if to say that we have achieved justice when we stop perpetuating injustice. But to say that is something like saying that a hurricane requires our attention only while it is still blowing. It is something like saying that if I steal a thousand dollars a month from you every month for many years, then justice will be achieved if I simply stop taking your money. It is something like saying that if I have been lying to you for a long time, then when I stop lying, you will know the truth.

In fact, the history of race is always and complexly present–in who we are, how we live, what we can dream, and where we can hope to go with our lives.

Katrina didn’t cause racial problems out of the blue. The history of race was waiting for Katrina and was exposed by Katrina. The history of race prepared the grounds for this disaster, ensured a predictably ineffective response to the disaster, ensured that many would be unprepared for the predictable consequences of the storm, positioned some to recover from the disaster more quickly and fully than others, and now presents formidable challenges to the process of rebuilding following the disaster.

In ways large and small, this devastating hurricane has taught us that the more threatening storm is the one we created long ago, the one we’ve failed to track. Katrina revealed what we should have known all along–that we have yet to address systemic, historical injustice in the United States, and that even ideals require a strong foundation if they are to withstand the storms that will surely come their way.