Americans seem not to like complexity. They like simple answers.
Many persons looking at what happened in New Orleans are crying “racism” at the relief effort, because most of the pictures on television showed black people suffering, while most of the folks who got away seemed to be white. And, given the thread of racism in U. S. history, the claim is easily made and easily believed. I decided to take a look the numbers to try to reconstruct some of the reality under the generalities. The statistics below are from the 2000 census, because that’s where I could find the most accurate snapshot across all the landscape I was interested in surveying.
What Do the Numbers Say?
More than two-thirds of the population of New Orleans is black. (Source: http://neworleans.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm)
In 2000 (I picked that because full census data is available), the federal poverty threshold for a one-person household was $8,350. The federal poverty threshold, though, points to a bare subsistence existence.
Perhaps a better standard is presaged by the concept of the “basic family budget,” which identifies an income of $27,005 as the minimum needed for a family of two adults and two children to have a “safe and decent standard of living.”
The average income per capita for a black person was $11,332; for a white person, $31,971. (Source: http://www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/incomeOverview.php?locIndex=3502. The disparity is striking.
There were 87589 owner-occupied units with an average occupancy of 2.6 persons, meaning that approximately 227,000 residents lived in “their own” homes. (Source: http://neworleans.areaconnect.com/statistics.htm)
There were 100662 renter-occupied housing units with an average occupancy of 2.37 persons, meaning that almost 240,000 residents lived in rentals. (Source: http://www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/housOverview.php?locIndex=3517)
The median rent was $378 (I assume this is monthly–the source does not specify). The median monthly cost for a house with a mortgate was $910. (Source: http://www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/housOverview.php?locIndex=3517)
Consequently, despite the presence of some high-priced rentals in fashionable districts such as the French Quarter and the Garden district, where monthly rentals could approach $2,000, I conclude that the great majority of rental housing was also housing occupied by poor persons.
So this gives us a picture of poor people living in cheap rental housing. Not an unusual picture for any city.
But what about transportation?
There were 0.77 vehicles per rental unit (compared to a state-wide average of 1.07 vehicles per rental unit). In other words, of those 240,000 persons living in rentals, almost 80,000 of them did not have vehicles–automobiles, pickups, what-have-you, in their households. For the owner-occupied dwellings, the average was almost two and a half vehicles per dwelling. (Source: http://www.epodunk.com/cgi-bin/housOverview.php?locIndex=3517)
There has been a lot in the news about the Ninth Ward of New Orleans, which, in 2000, was 98% black. For a very thorough picture of it, go here: http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/8/22/people.html. Average household incomes in 2000 were
Ninth Ward: $27,499
Orleans Parish (New Orleans): $43,176
United States: $56,644
36.4 per cent of the residents of the Lower Ninth Ward were living below the federal poverty level. Source: http://www.gnocdc.org/orleans/8/22/income.html
So here is the picture of those who got trapped:
No car, no money, nowhere to go, and no way to get there.
Governor Blanco declared a state of emergency on Friday, August 26. Here’s the beginning of the press release:
BATON ROUGE, LA–Governor Kathleen Babineaux Blanco today issued Proclamation No. 48 KBB 2005, declaring a state of emergency for the state Louisiana as Hurricane Katrina poses an imminent threat, carrying severe storms, high winds, and torrential rain that may cause flooding and damage to private property and public facilities, and threaten the safety and security of the citizens of the state of Louisiana The state of emergency extends from Friday, August 26, 2005, through Sunday, September 25, 2005, unless terminated sooner.
By then, evacuations were already underway.
The hurricane made landfall at 6:10 a. m, Monday, August 29.
The buzz on the internet, especially among the more conservative speakers, is that, since the eye of the hurricane missed New Orleans, many were lulled into thinking that the worst was over, thereby lulling officials into thinking that clean-up, not rescue, was the order of the day and that the flood did not start until the levees broke some time during the night of August 30. However, there seems to evidence that the flooding of the Lower Ninth Ward actually began with the storm surge, as it funnelled up the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet overtopping levees. See http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2005/09/13/AR2005091302196.html for more details.
Then there was all the finger-pointing about who did what when. Here’s FEMA’s description of how the process is supposed to work:
A Major Disaster Declaration usually follows these steps:
Local Government Responds, supplemented by neighboring communities and volunteer agencies. If overwhelmed, turn to the state for assistance;
The State Responds with state resources, such as the National Guard and state agencies;
Damage Assessment by local, state, federal, and volunteer organizations determines losses and recovery needs;
A Major Disaster Declaration is requested by the governor, based on the damage assessment, and an agreement to commit state funds and resources to the long-term recovery;
FEMA Evaluates the request and recommends action to the White House based on the disaster, the local community and the state’s ability to recover;
The President approves the request or FEMA informs the governor it has been denied. This decision process could take a few hours or several weeks depending on the nature of the disaster.
Read more here: http://www.fema.gov/rrr/dec_guid.shtm
However, under the Stafford Act which established FEMA,
“. . . without state requests, FEMA could assess the catastrophic area, assess what assistance the state needed, start mobilizing that relief, present its recommendations to the governor, and, if necessary–as Andrew Card did–get in the governor’s face to force the issue of accepting federal help. Before Hurricane Andrew, FEMA officials took almost none of these steps. Consequently, when a disaster occurred, FEMA’s relief efforts were inevitably too little, too late.” (Jeffrey Itell, quoted in the Washington Monthly) (emphasis added)
This puts the lie to claims that FEMA was unable to do anything until requested by state and local authorities.
The rest, up until today at least, is too well-known–persons trapped on high ground, dying in the streets, going without food, water, and sanitation, dealing with theft, violence, and other threats to their safety; all of this too fresh in our memories and in our eyes. I’m not going into it here. Instead, to my conclusion:
Was racism involved in Katrina and the relief efforts. I conclude a resounding yes and no.
Let me interrogate myself and find out why I think that:
Q. Why didn’t they declare a state of emergency earlier?
A. Look at history. No office-holder wants to send millions of people trekking across the country for nothing. It’s like when I’ve been sitting in a back-up on I-95. When I finally work my way through, I want to see at least a crumpled fender so I know I went through that agony for a reason.
Q. Was there racism in the evacuation?
A. No. The people who got left behind were left behind because they had no way to get out. Intercity transportation had shut down by Friday. These were largely folks who didn’t have cars and didn’t have money to hire transportation, had there been any for hire. And, of course, a few people on high ground and a few people who wouldn’t have evacuated anyway, for any reason, just as people today are staying on North Carolina’s Outer Banks as Ophelia churns towards them.
Q. What about those school buses?
A. New Orleans had only 324 school buses, a sizeable number of which were broken down anyway. They did not have the 2,000 school buses that some persons have claimed they had. Let’s see, 50 persons per bus (a generous estimate) x 300 buses = 1500 persons–they might have gotten a few persons out, but wouldn’t have made a dent in the number left behind. The “2000” number seems to have been a politically motivated smokescreen. See http://mediamatters.org/items/200509120005 for more information.
Q. Yeah, but didn’t they wait to send people in?
A. The people who were there on the scene seemed to have done as much as they could. Remember, they were leaderless. I do not mean that they did not have leaders; I mean they couldn’t communicate with them. Just about every means of communication stopped working as the flood knocked out power to the city. Consequently, I can quite understand why there was chaos on the ground (and in the water) in New Orleans. It’s much easier, in fact, to understand that than to understand why there was chaos and inaction in Baton Rouge and Washington, where persons had the opportunity to see what was going thanks to reporters who repeatedly put themselves in harm’s way to tell the story of Katrina and New Orleans.
It was the people from outside the area, those under the direction of FEMA, who did get not sent in.
Q. But don’t you think waiting so long was racist?
A. No, I think it was stupid and incompetent. Remember Hanlon’s Razor: “Never attribute to malice that which is adequately explained by stupidity.”
Q. But you know what Barbara Bush said!
A. Yes. She said “What Iâ€™m hearing which is sort of scary is they all want to stay in Texas. Everyone is so overwhelmed by the hospitality. And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this–this (she chuckles slightly) is working very well for them.”
I don’t see any racism in this remark as it stands. It is certainly tasteless, insensitive, arrogant, and condescending. Nevertheless, I think it proceeds, not from racism, but from classism, if you will permit me to mutilate the language.
Remember, these Bush folks are rich. Any acquaintance that they have with real life for working people, poor or middle class, is purely academic.
And she didn’t say, “those people” or “people like this (that)”; she said, “the people in the arena here.” I don’t see that as a code word. The phrase was directly relevant to the situation she was in.
Q. But the food and water? They weren’t getting any.
A. No one else was either. The complaints about the lack of disaster aid came from all over the area. Remember Aaron Broussard. The crucial difference in New Orleans is that there, the floods did not end. In the other places, the water had places to go, so it was easier to get in and help those who had been left behind.
Q. But almost everyone left behind was black. Isn’t that evidence of racism?
A. Not in and of itself. Everyone left behind was poor. But why the poorest of the poor were black? That is certainly the work of racism, long-standing, sometime subtle and sometimes not, but definitely racism. Maybe not just racism, but racism is the crucial factor.
Q. Umm, well, yeah, maybe, but weren’t there other things?
A. Oh, definitely. Much of the public reaction has had racist overtones–and undercurrents. I am quite confident that, had those trapped behind been white, a lot fewer persons would have jumped on the “blame the victim” bandwagon. We would have heard less about the school buses (especially if Mr. Nagin had been a white Republican, even though he was a Republican until shortly before being elected and changed parties to have a chance on the ballot), a lot less of “well they coulda shoulda left” and other stuff like that there.
Furthermore, we would have heard less about looting and more about “finding supplies to survive.”
Q. But we are hearing a lot about why weren’t the levees reinforced? Wasn’t there a racial element in that.
A. I don’t think so. The levees protect the whole city. Debates about whether to reinforce them go back a decade or more. Remember the basic principle of time management: “The urgent drives out the important.” To each succeeding Congress and Administration, something else, building something new or attracting more tourists or whatever, has always seemed more urgent that fixing something old that still seemed to be working.
And, as someone who lives surrounded by major navigable waterways, I have learned to view any construction project sponsored by the Army Corps of Engineers with suspicion. They have a tendency to create evidence where there is none (though, in this case, their analysis of the levee situation was spot-on).
Q. So that’s the best you can do? “Yes and no.”