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  • Writer's pictureAntonio Gomez Fortuna

Race, class, and Hurricane Katrina

This post reviews the article “Race, class, and Hurricane Katrina: Social differences in human responses to disaster”, by James R. Elliot and Jeremy Pais.

Race, class, and Hurricane Katrina: Social Differences

In human responses to disaster. James R. Elliot, Jeremy Pais

The aim of the article reviewed is to explore how race and class influences the response to disasters. This article is based on data taken from a database of 460,000 Katrina survivors that asked The American Red Cross for assistance – the survey was carried out through 1,510 random telephone calls.

The article studies the differences per race and class in evacuating timing, emotional support, housing, employment and plans to return.

The article tries to be objective and bring some light to an unresolved issue in the U.S. like racism, if it was behind the images of black people struggling to survive, images that struck the American society- however, it fails.

In a promising start, the article gives us a background about the history of New Orleans, how New Orleans has always been a peripheral city where there has never been a big change in its social structure since the times of slavery – always being dependent of other major urban and commercial centers, New Orleans never saw a major immigration process that could have changed its demographics and dynamics.

Although it is a good start, the article lacks depth since the beginning. It is surprising that it is not mentioned a vital aspect that backed racial segregation in the urban planning of more than 200 cities in the U.S., including New Orleans: “Redlining”. In 1935, The Federal Housing Administration introduced a policy where neighborhoods were color coded to help the government the issue of mortgages and define investment risk. Red coded neighborhoods were defined as “hazardous" due to the "infiltration of inharmonious racial or nationality groups.". This policy prevented the issue of mortgages to buy properties as well as business investments in the red coded area. Even though “Redling” was suppressed in 1968, the segregation effect and the vulnerability derived from it are still present.

Then, the article includes references to research papers that analyze whether class or race brings the most differentiated response to disaster. They are very interesting references that underpin the article’s subject. In “The Declining Significance of Race” (1978), Wilson argues that since the 1970’s, the status of the blacks in the U.S. society is more about economic factors than race - the poor black underclass that doesn’t have access to good, well-funded schools, appropriate job networks, salary, wealth, social connections and credit access for housing and businesses. All this makes black people more vulnerable against disasters.

The article also brings the opposite view. Erikson (1976), introduces the “role of culture” in the response to a disaster. Culture influences how we think, act and feel. Close friendships, social clubs, churches and neighborhood remain quite segregated by race.

Current events in the U.S. confirm Erikson’s approach. In less than a year we have seen the rise of Black Lives Matter movement, sparked by the killing of George Floyd during a police arrest in Minneapolis. Soon after, several far-right groups, including white supremacists, were assaulting the U.S. Capitol induced by the president of the United States. It seems quite clear that there are social “wounds” that are not healed yet.

As earlier mentioned, the paper analyzes how race and class influenced the evacuating timing, emotional support, housing, employment and plans to return.

The survey’s results show that blacks were less predisposed to evacuate than whites. It was mostly because they believed that the consequences of the hurricane wouldn’t be so catastrophic. The author states in the conclusions that this risk assessment may have not been considered irrational if the levees had survived the storm. But , why did they take this assumption?. The article doesn’t develop the social factors that may underpin that argument and lacks sufficient depth.

With regard to emotional support, blacks and whites searched for it differently. Whites relayed on family and friends while blacks were more likely to find support on God. Again, this argument is not underpinned by any social factors that could define if whether is due to race or class.

Job security is other factor that affected blacks negatively in a disproportionate way. There, the author makes a difference between income levels, being lower income blacks the most affected. This factor especially affected the return of blacks to their homes. How would it possible for an unemployed to face the rebuilding of their homes while paying the mortgage? Also, ownership was other important factor that influence the return to their homes. Here is where the Redlining policy -clearly racist- may have influence, but the author does not mention it.

The article’s conclusion is that “both axes of variation -race and class- appeared to have mattered in response to Hurricane Katrina”. This statement just confirms the lack of depth to seek for the real underpinning factors.

There is where the article fails. It tries to be completely objective when showing and analyzing the results but doesn’t make all the necessary connections to the social reality of the U.S. This is a very complex problem. The article mentions the work of Brown et al., 2003 where it is noted the difference between how blacks and whites understand race itself, giving whites less importance to it because they don’t recognize the privilege of being white. However, for blacks, race is something much more present in their daily lives and speak much more about it.

O’Keefe -“Taking the naturalness out of natural disasters” (1976)- argued that “disaster marks the interface between an extreme physical phenomenon and a vulnerable population”. If we want to avoid future disasters, we need to define what the vulnerable groups are, and the reason and factors that make them vulnerable. Unless we find the real causes of their vulnerability and there is a real will to change them, disasters will keep on affecting the same social groups.

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