September 19, 2005
Katrina & poverty
Little by little, we have begun to grasp the enormity
of what has happened to New Orleans. Due to the ubiquitous presence
of video cameras, we have been treated to round-the-clock, day-after-day
coverage of the physical damage done by the storm and flood and the
subsequent human suffering.
To watch television has become synonymous with a vicarious
participation in others’ misery.
On some level, we have to consciously resist the temptation to devolve into a
nation of passive voyeurs inclined to view—but not to participate in—another’s
panic and misfortune.
Unlike the horror of watching the World Trade Center
collapse, we know that this disaster is not about all of us; it is
After all, Atlanta and Emory
are not good candidates to experience the full effect of a hurricane; we are
hundreds of miles inland and sit about 900 feet above sea level. Simple geography
buys us the ability to distance ourselves from the full psychological ramifications
of this tragedy along the Gulf Coast. Viewing the flooded neighborhoods in New
Orleans and watching the fires and looting on television certainly produces empathy
and heartfelt concern, but not an ominous feeling that we too are at risk.
The images from New Orleans typically portrayed African
Americans as the most visible victims of this tragedy. It is not
were not victimized by
this particular disaster; certainly many lost their lives, livelihoods and homes.
But again and again, what we saw in New Orleans was black faces on rooftops,
on freeway ramps, in the Convention Center and Superdome.
If one had just arrived on Earth and knew nothing of
social dynamics, that person might assume that African Americans
(and only African
Americans) lived and suffered
in New Orleans. How to account for the overwhelming overrepresentation of people
of color in the televised coverage? Some relatively simple sociological observations
can further our understanding of this issue.
After more than 60 years of focused and intentional
efforts to address the many issues facing African Americans, it is
still true that
African Americans are
significantly overrepresented in groups that experience a wide range of deprivations
when compared to whites. There has been much progress since the early 1950s,
since the Montgomery bus boycott and the movements led by Martin Luther King
Jr. and others. But African Americans are still massively overrepresented in
groups that go without good schools, without easy access to good medical care—without
access to whatever is of any value in our culture.
Most visible in the New Orleans debacle was the simple
fact that these African Americans lacked access to an automobile.
understanding of what we all
saw on television last week is enhanced by grasping this simple fact.
An article by Jason DeParle in the Sept. 4 New York
Times compared and contrasted the resources available to the poor
of New Orleans
broken down by race. The article
demonstrated that, even among the population of poor people living in New Orleans,
whites were three times more likely than African Americans to own a car—and
that car was the ticket out of New Orleans once the evacuation started.
American society is rarely organized in such a manner
as to make visibly obvious such large collections of poor and desperate
Put simply, the hurricane
and subsequent flood have blown the cover off not only homes, but also New Orleans’ social,
class and racial distinctions. There we had it, in 24-hour-a-day pictorial coverage:
the poor made obvious by their pitiful inability to gain access to the means
of escaping the flood.
Much has been made and will continue to be made of
this most recent “natural
disaster.” In actuality, very little was either natural or inevitable about
what happened along the Gulf Coast. The systemic warming of the oceans will produce
more frequent and more violent hurricanes. Although some may claim that global
warming is “natural” in that it may be occurring independently of
human action, few informed people outside President George W. Bush’s inner
circle of nihilists subscribe to this belief.
What is “natural” about the social, economic,
political and educational
circumstances experienced by America’s underclass of all races? Hurricane
Katrina exposed deeply embedded social-structural features of inequality in American
The disaster in New Orleans pulled back the reassuring
cover story about poverty in this country. There are insightful and
penetrating lessons to be learned
from this terrible experience; I am not sanguine that they are lessons Americans