In the hopes of implying an intuitive connection, many have been quick to couple the government’s pathetic response to Hurricane Katrina with the fact that most victims of the hurricane were poor people and African-Americans. Yet, the existence alone of these two facts does not justify calling the relief effort racist, or even morally callous, as Jared Malsin (“Time to wash away the ‘all equal’ myth,” 9/7) and others have recently done on this page and elsewhere. This is not to say that classism or racism was not a factor, but simply that the unequal impact the hurricane had on certain groups is more likely attributed to pre-existing racial and economic inequalities than indifference to African Americans or the poor.
In fact, the lack of initiative — as well as preparation — in containing the damage from Hurricane Katrina is most likely attributable to bureaucratic ineptitude. Indeed, as Malsin pointed out, the delayed response was caused by internal bickering over questions of authority and management. While he compared this to the swift response to Sept. 11, he simultaneously pointed out the limited scope of the damage from those terrorist attacks. Local firefighters and policemen provided the bulk of the emergency response, so federal bureaucracy was less of an obstacle.
Moreover, the sense of national solidarity lacking in the hurricane response can be attributed to its being a natural disaster. Malsin noted that “[t]here is no talk of ‘America united to overcome evil.'” And why would there be? Only Captain Ahab would call this freak of nature “evil.” I am not suggesting that this justifies a smaller response, but it certainly explains one.
Malsin believes that racial and class-based fears somewhere in the national psyche can account for the administration’s failure to respond. While I agree that the national psyche helped to determine the administration’s response, isn’t it more likely that, in our national subconscious, people are more likely to feel some solidarity with victims of a national attack than with victims of a local disaster? The victims of Sept. 11 were attacked as Americans; the victims of Hurricane Katrina were victims of time and place, not nationality. It is understandable, then, that people would feel less in common with them, not because they see African Americans and poor people as “Not Americans,” but because their crisis does not as easily fit into the national psyche as a national crisis.
Let me reiterate, however, that I am not denying that race and class could very well be factors. Yet, to assert that the differences in the nation’s response to Hurricane Katrina and Sept. 11 can be attributed solely to these two factors is a gross oversimplification.
There are some parts where Malsin and others got it right. For example, Mike Brown, the director of FEMA, certainly exhibited class ignorance in attributing the death toll to a failure to heed the government’s warning to evacuate. There is no question that he should have shown a better understanding of a family’s inability to evacuate given little money and no car.
However, Malsin did what so many in the media have been quick to do — he pointed to the obvious correlation between race and poverty, and from there concluded that Brown’s comments were also racist. Yes, it is true the government failed to help African Americans and poor people. But it does not follow that the government failed because those in need were African Americans and poor people. Brown admitted that he made no “judgments about why people chose not to leave,” and from that, Malsin concluded that Brown labeled hurricane victims as members of an “inferior underclass, lacking … the common sense to heed the government’s warning.
The government’s failure was probably not so much exemplary of a racist, classist administration as it was an exposure of pre-existing economic and racial inequalities. We can speculate, of course, that the scenes of families escaping the flood probably would have been more compelling to white America had the people on their TV screens had fairer skin, but that does not provide a conclusive explanation for the government’s failure to act. And that does not provide a definitive account of why African Americans and the poor were disproportionately hurt by the flooding.
The fact is that the government did not only fail poor people and African Americans — it failed everyone. The government failed to prepare, the government failed to act, and those best able to help themselves in the absence of government assistance were the wealthy. It would be nice if we could all sink or swim as one community, but making that happen requires that people have the same resources available to them.
Chalking the Bush administration’s pitiful emergency response, at least in part, up to racism and a lack of concern for poor people is not the entire picture — or, as I argue, the majority of the picture. The larger issue is that, given the government’s failure (whether for reasons of racism or inadequacy), it was the prevalence of long-established racial and economic inequalities that made African-Americans and the poor the greatest victims of Hurricane Katrina.
William Palmer is a sophomore in Berkeley College.