Hurricane Katrina and Structural Racism: A letter to white people

By Jean Hardisty, Ph.D., WCW Senior Scholar
From, copyright by Jean Hardisty
October 2005

Senior Scholar Jean Hardisty shares her thinking on structural racism engrained in U.S. society that became front-page news during HurricaneKatrina coverage.

While cleaning out stacks of old papers and files, I came across an article I had clipped from the New York Times in November 2004. The title was "Enforcement of Civil Rights Law Declined Since '99, Study Finds." Charges of civil rights violations have remained constant, it said, but prosecution of those violations has dropped by almost fifty percent.

That headline was no surprise. What else would you expect? The Bush Administration is not just neutral on civil rights; it's hostile to them. Evidence includes its attacks on affirmative action, its anti-immigrant policies of round-ups and precipitous deportations, and the domestic anti-Muslim consequences of its "war on terror."

But in his "come-back" September 15 speech to the nation on Hurricane Katrina, in front of the floodlit backdrop of New Orleans' Jackson Square, George W. Bush mentioned "racial discrimination" and "inequality." He stated that, "We have a duty to confront this poverty (in New Orleans) with bold action." Although it was only a couple of sentences, his language was so uncharacteristic that news commentators speculated that perhaps Bush had learned something about race and poverty from Katrina.

Maybe Bush will experience some disquiet from the fury in response to images of Katrina: poor, mostly Black New Orleanians of all ages lined up to get into the Superdome; elderly, sick people waiting in nursing homes for buses that never came; and people on foot crossing a bridge and then being turned back by the police from the wealthy suburb on the other side. But I fear that he and much of the White public will never understand that those images were more than the result of neglected enforcement of civil rights laws, or the "failure" of the poor to rise above race and class. They were images of structural racism.

In one of the poorest cities in the country (with 28% of New Orleanians living in poverty - over two times the national poverty rate), the poor were White as well as African American. But, the vast majority (84%) of the poor were Black. This is not an accident. It is the result of white supremacy that is so imbedded in U.S. society that it has become part of the social structure. Structural racism is not only a failure to serve people equally across race, culture and ethnic origin within private and government entities (as well as "third sector" institutions, such as the print, radio and TV media and Hollywood). It is also the predictable consequence of legislation at the federal, state, and local level. As Victor Goode describes it in Colorlines (Summer, 2004), "Structural racism is racism underneath and across society, permeating its entire history, culture and institutions. Our culture, including our education, perpetuates, normalizes and legitimates the effects of racism, while making them invisible to the narrow legal definition of unlawful segregation."

Many right-wing scholars, members of the Bush Administration, and centrists of both parties have attacked affirmative action, dismissing structural racism as rare, impossible to prove, or a liberal excuse for the failures of people of color (especially African Americans). In a "colorblind" society, they argue, people should pay no attention at all to race and ethnicity. They argue that doing otherwise "belittles" or "insults" people of color by implying that they cannot successfully compete without a hand up. Further, from this perspective, the stigma of being an affirmative action hire will follow them into the workplace, build resentment among White men, and stifle the necessary development of entrepreneurial instincts and practices.

But a great deal of attention is paid to race and ethnicity. This attention is not subtle. It informs virtually every transaction that people of color negotiate in their daily lives. It is hard to name a realm in which it is not predominant - housing, education, medical care, nutrition, access to transportation, and job opportunities, to name a few. We saw how this "discrimination" (as Bush described it) converged when Katrina hit New Orleans. Wealthy Whites were on the high ground; people of color and poor Whites were on the low ground: a perfect metaphor for structural racism.

We should not imagine that structural racism is only found in the three states affected by Katrina. It pervades the entire country. The visual images of Katrina would be similar in Chicago, Boston, Washington, DC, Atlanta, Miami, and other cities where race and poverty reinforce each other and proactive government programs address neither.

Why were so many White Americans shocked to see the reality of New Orleans? I believe that, in large part, the message put out by the "New Republicans" - that a colorblind approach to public policy is moral and just - is powerful because so many White people want to hear and believe it, not because it can't be easily refuted. Until those of us who benefit from White privilege have to confront the consequences of that privilege, it is possible for us to believe the White supremacist line that people of color are victims of their own moral failings, not of government and private policies.

In order to maintain this myth, it is imperative to keep those consequences out of sight. Mainstream media, White liberals, and the philanthropy establishment often collaborate with the Right in this project - to maintain the belief that opportunity is equally available to all in a colorblind, post-racist society. Ongoing racism is successfully hidden from those who don't experience it.

In a wave of media misinformation, mainstream newspapers, TV, and radio reported that Black residents were raping, looting, shooting at rescue workers, and generally running amok in the streets. These reports spread fear among people in New Orleans across race and class, and were especially terrifying to women. That crime wave proved to have been largely fictional and partly carried out by the police themselves. But because the stereotype fit, the mainstream media ran with the story. This is an example of structural racism.

An especially important building block for structural racism is an educational system that fails to serve people of color. The New Orleans school system was the seventh most segregated urban school system in the country and was stunningly underperforming. As Gary Orfield of the Harvard Center for Civil Rights states in a recent study of school re-segregation, "...research consistently shows that segregated schools are usually isolated by both race and poverty, and offer vastly unequal educational opportunities." Jonathan Kozol, documenting the resegregation of U.S. schools, calls it "the shame of the nation." We know the consequences of unequaleducation: poor job prospects, higher rates of incarceration, and greater poverty.

Reform of the immoral and irrational system of funding schools locally from real estate taxes would begin to address educational disparities. If only such issues were on the table as New Orleans rebuilds.

But instead, economic conservatives will use this tragedy to expand their agenda of privatization, charter schools, enterprise zones, and corporate profit. Watch for Bechtel and Halliburton to reap billions from rebuilding New Orleans. President Bush has signed a proclamation voiding the provision in the US Code of Federal Regulations that guarantees minimum wage for federally paid work. Further, the cost of rebuilding the city will advance the right-wing agenda of eliminating the social safety net. Bush has already said he will raise no new taxes to pay for Iraq and New Orleans. At the urging of the White House, the Department of Health and Human Services has denied any special health insurance coverage to hurricane victims. The deep cuts to pay for rebuilding will fall (as does nearly every Bush initiative) on the backs of the poor. Any federal allocations will give minimal relief to the most devastated victims across the three states of the Gulf of Mexico.

Hurricane Katrina has opened the door for White people to have a more vivid understanding of structural racism. For Black people, it was an entirely different experience. An intellectual analysis doesn't touch the anguish, anger and demoralization that African Americans have experienced during this travesty. The root of that anguish has many names: one is structural racism.

Jean Hardisty's website contains more information about her work and thinking.

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