Predisposed to Disaster: Institutional Racism and Hurricane Katrina

Toys in DebrisI was only 9 years old when Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, so I do not remember that much about the coverage of the disaster at the time. My parents largely tried to shield me from the extreme tragedy that took place in the city. I knew that a hurricane had hit, and I knew that it was bad, but I had no conception of the extent of the damage and lives that were lost as a result of the storm. Over time, I began to learn more about the staggering effect of the hurricane on the city and its people, and I even heard bits and pieces about the government’s failure to respond effectively; however, it was not until I took this class that the disaster was ever presented to me in a racial context, and I began to realize just how much of the story I was missing. Henkel, Dovidio, and Gaertner (2006) provide a detailed analysis of the racism in Hurricane Katrina by focusing on three processes (institutional racism, aversive racism, and racial mistrust) that I found to be very helpful in understanding this event. Specifically, I think their analysis of institutional racism and the role it played in Hurricane Katrina is particularly important.

In their discussion on institutional racism, the researchers present a detailed account of the ways in which Black communities were put at an increased risk to be hurt by Katrina by governmental actions particularly with regards to housing policies. Many Blacks lived in the low lying-areas of the city, which left them particularly exposed to the storm. I think is important to realize is that this racial segregation did not happen by chance. The vulnerable position that Black residents found themselves in was a direct result of housing discrimination. Additionally, the researchers point out that job market discrimination lead to severe gaps in wealth for majority and minority racial groups. One major implication of this economic difference is that when Black residents were advised to leave (I use the word advised because these communities were usually not issued mandatory evacuations), they often times did not have the resources to do so. Many of these residents did not have cars or the money to spend on other housing accommodations if they were to leave their home; therefore, they were forced to stay through the storm.

There is a disconnect I’ve noticed where White people don’t really “see” the relationship between the statistics on racism and the impact on actual people. These statistics about institutional discrimination may seem abstract or as existing only in papers and “academic speak,” but they have tangible, real-world consequences. Systemic racism affects every facet of life of disadvantaged groups, and an extreme disaster like Hurricane Katrina highlights the destructive power of this racism. Black people were unjustly predisposed to be hurt the most by Hurricane Katrina as a result of racist policies and discrimination, Black people lost their livelihoods as a result of racist policies and discrimination, and Black people died as a result of racist policies and discrimination.

I’m left with one major question after working my way through this topic: how is it that even after an event as catastrophic as Hurricane Katrina where we can trace the loss of Black lives to institutional racism, the role that race had in the event is still excluded from the master narrative? Or perhaps that question isn’t that productive and a more important question would be how can the role that race had in the event become part of the master narrative? How can the counter-narrative overtake the master narrative?

1 thought on “Predisposed to Disaster: Institutional Racism and Hurricane Katrina

  1. I see the difficulty you see in this situation, and in some ways it reminds me of the complications of bringing up Michael Brown and Ferguson. Whenever I am talking about issues of institutional racism with other people who I am trying to convince or change their opinions I find that incidence particularly difficult because at the time Brown was robbing a store. Does that justify in any shape or form him being killed? Absolutely not. But it gives people arguing room. Because of this I usually avoid this situation even though I see it as an incident in a great patter, Katrina is an even bigger example and it seems problematic to avoid it but it also is one of the more difficult instances to talk about. Do you try to use the more complicated examples? Or is it strategically better to use more clear cut instances.

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