Hurricane Katrina: Facts We Lost in the Storm

floodingIn August of 2005, a devastating storm, Hurricane Katrina, shook up the southeastern United States in a way that no one could have predicted…. Or could they? Behind news stories through televised reports, newspapers, and social media, there was an unspoken controversy that many people did not know about – race and race relations between the authorities running the institutions (such as the FHA and FEMA) and the Black population in New Orleans. Through reading an article called, “Institutional Discrimination, Individual Racism, and Hurricane Katrina,” by Henkel, Dovidio, and Gaertner (2006), the class learned about an alternate narrative of the events that took place before and after the storm.

What strikes me as most shocking is that policies and regulations were set up to put Black people in a position of disadvantage in the first place. The authorities used a practice called “red-lining” to rate neighborhoods. It just happened to be that the highest rated neighborhoods (meaning the safest areas) were occupied by White people, economically stable, and high in demand (Henkel et al., 2006). So when I hear people say something to the effect of, “People can make it if they try hard enough,” I get angry, because this statement simply is not true. If the system already has rules put in place to set disadvantaged people up for failure, then people cannot move up the ladder of social, economic, or political status. Where can you move when society has no intention for you to do?

In addition, once the actual storm of Hurricane Katrina was over, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) was slow to deliver essential supplies to the Convention Center that was set up for displaced families, who were disproportionally Black (Henkel et al., 2006). A study conducted by Dovidio and Gaertner shows the bystander effect and the reactions that participants have when presented with a staged emergency situation. The study’s results supported the prediction that White participants would react in the same amount of time toward White “victims” and Black “victims” if they believed they were the only ones witnessing the emergency. In contrast, White participants would react slower to Black than to White victims if they believed other people were watching the emergency.

What was more interesting was the heart rate of the participants prior to and following the emergency. The heart rate of the White participants would escalate when they were believed to be alone, but when the participants witnessed the emergency with other bystanders of a Black person in need of help, their heart rate decelerated. This indicated thinking of whether to react or not. The same principle could apply to the major organizations that were responsible of helping people who lost their houses and race dynamics. There was a slow reaction to help people – disproportionally Black populations, because the authorities had to “think over” the situation instead of act as quickly as possible because there were actual human beings without homes in desperate need of help. How can people act this way toward one another? How does implicit bias play into this situation, and how can we rid people of such thoughts of racial discrimination and hate?