The Race and Class of Disaster

Watching CNN’s coverage of the disaster in New Orleans, the thing that isn’t being said by most observers comes screaming out of the screen: New Orleans has a majority-black population. And there’s a very strong correlation between poverty and race in the city. And the folks who didn’t leave the city — the folks who didn’t leave because they couldn’t afford to leave, or because they had no transportation, or even because it seemed like a better idea to stay put and cling desperately to what little is theirs — these people are the poor, and they are, in the vast majority, black.

Most of the dead are black. Most of the stranded are black. Most of both are exceedingly poor. And this is not incidental.

Much was made yesterday of the AP and AFP’s senses of who is a looter and who is not. And I’m quite convinced that if such a natural disaster happened in a city where the population left behind was white, the media would have far less interest in the looting question at all.

But I think that the unconcsious race bias endemic to this country is playing itself out in other ways as well. More below the fold.

Imagine that the Big One — the earthquake that’s been predicted for several decades — finally hits San Francisco. The city has done what it can to protect itself, but it’s never been hit with anything of this size, and even though there were computer projections of the kinds of devastation that were possible, somehow those projections were so bad as to be incomprehensible.

Would anyone say, of San Francisco, that the area is much too prone to such disasters, and that we shouldn’t rebuild?

Would anyone point fingers at the people who live there, saying they brought this on themselves?

Would basic relief — water, food, evacuation assistance — be this long coming?

I’m not trying to suggest that there’s conscious racism or classism involved in the fact that all of the above responses are happening around the country, as people (not any of you, of course) look at New Orleans, see the disaster, and want to give up. But there are people whom it is easier for us to give up on than others, people whose interests and desires seem alien, and therefore dismissable.

(Two good posts on this topic can be found here and here.)

5 thoughts on “The Race and Class of Disaster

  1. There’s a good editorial/article in Slate about the race and social class issues. I’m also disturbed by how the cable and network news outlets have framed these questions: who is a looter? should we rebuild?

    While the 1989 San Francisco earthquake didn’t do this kind of damage, there was no question of rebuilding.

  2. I agree with you wholeheartedly, but would like to add that Katrina clearly chose New Orleans for a reason. What reason, you might ask? Well, the Columbia Christians for Life have it all worked out: Katrina hit New Orleans to punish residents for having abortions. You can tell because Katrina is shaped like a giant fetus. Seriously. The contents of their mass email can be viewed here. also got the email, and include a handy fetus comparison shot. Wow.

  3. When all the bad news started to come out, my first reactions were shock and horror, and then soon after, fear for myself. My god, i thought, if the government cant handle ONE city and surrounding region, what would they do if the bay area was razed by The Big One (the specter of which has been hanging over our heads in news reports and scientists’ predictions for years)? I tried to imagine the bay in a similar chaos and it almost paralized me with dread.

    But then, later that day, i realized. The bay is full of some of the wealthiest populationn in the country, if not the world. The majority of the population has an image of upstanding, hardworking white, asian, and indian employees of silicon valley. And then i realized that with so many companies with important stakes in the economy seated in the area, no government official would ever let it descend to such chaos. Our demographics would get us through.

    I realized this, and I was ashamed.

  4. Someone suggested the SF/NO comparison to me yesterday, and it caught me off guard because it’s so fair. Would people be suggesting (as I sort of have about New Orleans) that the city somehow deserved it if a natural disaster that we’ve all seen coming for decades actually happened? I think they would–at least, for the sake of consistency and fairness, I hope so.

    And If San Francisco were in as dire straits as N.O., I would certainly think about whether it should be rebuilt, and I would probably come to the same conclusion I have come to about New Orleans: it’s objectively stupid to do it, but it’s what the country wants, cost be damned.

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