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Racism and Hurricane Katrina

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Autor:   •  February 23, 2011  •  Essay  •  1,735 Words (7 Pages)  •  997 Views

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As Hurricane Katrina ravaged the South and drowned large parts of New Orleans this past September, the ugly reality of our nation's continuing problem with class, poverty, and race became apparent. Many Americans began to question the possibility of racism being a deciding factor in the fate of many New Orleans citizens who were black and who lived in the poorest, most low-lying portion of the city, the Ninth Ward. Many, including First Lady Laura Bush, denounce critics who say race played a role in the federal government's slow response to the victims of Katrina. While it is possible that the government's slow response to the disaster was not directly due to racism, there are many unanswered questions suggesting the protection of the city was ignored because the people who lived within it were poor and primarily black, thus having little political power.

We may never know the true reason for the government's inexcusably slow response to the poorest, mainly black Katrina victims in New Orleans. Whether racism played a role or not, at the very least it exposed the fact that racism continues to be a major problem in our country.

Understanding the history of this area can help us appreciate the perspective of the minorities who believe so strongly that the levees were destroyed and the Ninth Ward was flooded on purpose, for in fact something very similar did happen in 1927. In the spring of 1927, our country was devastated by one of its greatest natural disasters, known as the "fatal flood." After weeks of constant rain, the Mississippi River tore across the country. Beginning in Cairo, Illinois, it swept south and east, wiping out levee after levee. It destroyed thousands of farms and hundreds of towns, killed over a thousand people, and left almost a million homeless.

In Mississippi, 13,000 African Americans lost their homes and were transported to dry land in Greenville. There they were left with nothing but blankets and makeshift tents for shelter. In an attempt to evacuate the victims to safer ground, authorities sent boats with room for every single refugee. However, only 33 white women and children were allowed to leave, because the southern planters feared they would have no labor to work the crops after the floods receded if the blacks left..

By the time the flood reached New Orleans, the river was almost at the levee tops. In an attempt to save the city and its half-million inhabitants, the Poydras levee south of the city was destroyed to direct the water away. As a result, New Orleans was spared, but thousands of acres of plantation land - where the black people lived - were destroyed, and many people died.

Knowing the history of this disaster, it is easy to understand why many blacks in New Orleans believe that the levee was destroyed on purpose. Many questions remain: Why did the floodwalls along the 17th Street Canal break only on the New Orleans side and remain intact on the side affecting the town of Metairie? Why was industrial land apparently protected by stronger levees than nearby residential neighborhoods? Even if the levees in the Ninth Ward weren't deliberately destroyed, were they neglected and poorly maintained by New Orleans authorities because the only people put at risk were poor blacks?

While many people are quick to blame the levee failure and the poor response on incompetence or failure of leadership, locals who directly suffered from the disaster are more inclined to feel that the way it was handled was the result of planned neglect. Many New Orleans citizens saw racist gestures up close and personal, such as racial epithets and obscene language. The fact that the Red Cross turned away two black doctors who showed up to help only supports the contention that racism was involved. (The Red Cross claims it turned away the doctors because they could not provide proper Red Cross credentials.) Speaking to Essence magazine, Shelly Sorina, 31, recalls the moment when buses came to the Superdome, the building where people were moved when no help arrived: "I don't want to accuse anyone, but when the buses came to take us from the Superdome, they were taking tourists first. By that I mean white people. They were just picking [white people] out of the crowd. I don't know why we were treated the way we were, but it was like they didn't care."

While racism in the handling of the disaster was evident to many Southern blacks, some believe that poverty was a contributing factor. Not only were 90% of the citizens of New Orleans black, they were also extremely poor.

It is not surprising that much of the world has been shocked by the destruction in New Orleans and the ongoing failures exposed at almost every level of government. While it is almost impossible not to be appalled by this series of events, veterans of the environmental-justice movement are not surprised by what happened. In fact, they say that this disaster has confirmed what they have thought all along. They believed that blacks in New Orleans were much more vulnerable and less protected by environmental problems than white folks in areas close to the city. They maintain that the people in power - who included Mayor Ray Nagin, an African-American himself - viewed the city's poor, black residents as expendable. Robert Bullard, director of the Environmental Justice Resource Center at Clark Atlanta University, has been leading a research project of official responses to environmental disasters. He believes that "blacks and other people of color are all too often overlooked in such crises," he told Liza Featherstone, a reporter for Grist magazine. He recalls an instance last January in Graniteville, South Carolina, when a train crash released deadly chlorine gas, forcing the evacuation of some 5,000 people. While a black neighborhood was not evacuated until hours later, the white people were evacuated immediately.

Numerous questions remain. Why did Mayor Ray Nagin, failing to comply with his own official disaster plan, wait 12 to 24 hours before ordering a mandatory evacuation of the city? Why wasn't the nearby U.S.S. Bataan immediately sent to the aid of New Orleans when it had a 600-bed hospital, water and power plants, helicopters, food supplies, and 1,200 sailors ready to join the rescue group? Why were more than 350 New Orleans city buses


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