Emory Report
September 19, 2005
Volume 58, Number 4


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September 19, 2005
Katrina & poverty

BY Michael McQuaide

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 about them. 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 that whites 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. Yes, our 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 people. 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 society.

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 will learn.