Hurricane Katrina: New Orleans’ Reaction and Racial Segregation in the United States

In 1968 the Civil Rights Act passed abolishing legal forms of racism but it didn’t end racism in the United States. Structural racism blocks access to economic, political, and/or social opportunities for people of color due to a class system where European Americans are placed on top while people of color are placed at the bottom. Some factors involved in structural racism include housing, education, the criminal justice system, and prejudice in the media. Two ways that the events of Hurricane Katrina can be interpreted as having been shaped by structural racism are through the media and US government’s response as well as New Orlean’s history of racial and socioeconomic segregation leading up to the catastrophe.

New Orleans history of racial and socioeconomic segregation is an example of structural racism that played a role in the events leading up to and after Hurricane Katrina. In 2005, the US Census Bureau released a report on poverty in the nation which showed that Orleans Parish had a poverty rate of 24.5% which demonstrates that the city’s population included a high proportion of individuals of low socioeconomic status. These individuals were concentrated in New Orleans as part of a century-long process of residential segregation by race and socioeconomic status seen through redlining. According to a website called Brookings, “Although African-American residents made up 67% of the city’s total population, they made up 84% of its population below the poverty line. And those poor African-American households were highly concentrated in 47 neighborhoods of extreme poverty—that is, neighborhoods where the poverty rate topped 40%.” Often times redlining led to banks denying low-income, people of color loans and without access to loans black neighborhoods in New Orleans couldn’t thrive which created generational poverty and “ghettos” thus repeating the cycle of structural racism which makes it almost impossible for people of color to climb the social hierarchy. Unfortunately, a pattern was noticed where African Americans and poor people generally lived in lower lying, flood-prone neighborhoods of New Orleans such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Out of the 47 neighborhoods of extreme poverty in New orleans, 38 were flooded further supporting the pattern of black low income communities being affected the most by Hurricane Katrina. White neighborhoods weren’t as negatively impacted as black neighborhoods due to the fact that redlining did not affect them which allowed them to continue to invest in their neighborhoods as well as the fact that they resided in higher grounds which ironically is a perfect way of imagining a social hierarchy.

The way the media and the US government’s responded to Hurricane Katrina is an example of structural racism seen throughout the events of Hurricane Katrina. On September 15, 2005, President George W. Bush gave a speech to the nation followed Hurricane Katrina where he stated, “..poverty has roots in a a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action”. Although his tone was compassionate, we can not ignore that there had long been concerns regarding the city’s levee system and its ability to only withstand a Category 3 hurricane, not a Category 5 hurricane like Katrina. If it has been our duty to confront poverty in the nation why where the citizens of New Orleans neglected adequate resources to prevent such major catastrophes. Even after complaints were voiced regarding the levee system, little to no action was taken. Another example of structural racism seen during Hurricane Katrina is through media reports such as when the Associated Press published an image of a young black boy, navigating through chest-deep waters carrying a bag and described him as “looting a grocery store” in contrast to a media report by the AFP where a white male and women are also seen navigating through chest deep water with bags but were described as “fining bread and soda from a local grocery store”. This is significant because it demonstrates ideological racism and the small biases we have towards black people and in this case specifically black men.

In conclusion, there were many factors leading to New Orleans ill-equipped response to Hurricane Katrina. Many of these factors are due to structural racism which continues to affect subordinate or minority-majority communities such as the poor, the elderly, or people of color. In the case of New Orleans, two major factors that played a role were the city’s history as well as responses by the media as well as our government.