Hurricane Katrina, Class And Race
Hurricane Katrina – Issues of Race and Class
The Hurricane Katrina disaster will be discussed and debated for years, perhaps for a hundred years and more; and it can safely be assumed that an important part of the discussion will embrace the concepts of race and class. One can easily imagine a sociology professor in the year 2025 – with students in her class far too young to know much at all of Katrina – pointing out that had a storm of such colossal intensity been approaching a city of mostly white, middle class and wealthy citizens, a different set of preparations and a wholly different outcome could be expected.
Meanwhile, this paper will review and analyze the social realities of New Orleans before and after Katrina’s wrath – from the several perspectives, including the theories of Karl Marx.
KARL MARX: Marx believed that in the history of all societies, some kind of class struggles have taken place. First, what is a “class” according to Marx? Edward Andrew, writing in the Canadian Journal of Political Science (Andrew, 1975), writes that Marx did not believe that classes are based on “alleged biological differences, such as race or sex,” in the same was castes are classified. And classes are not “nationalities, cultural groups, or religious sects,” Marx explained; and in the case of the poor in New Orleans (most of whom were black), Marx’s view that “every class struggle is a political struggle” (Andrew 1975) puts the black folks of New Orleans on the bottom of the political totem pole. When considering the fact that the Army Corps of Engineers reported years ago that the levees around New Orleans – much of which is below sea level – were not structurally safe, one has to also consider the class issues within the political structure of the United States; in other words, is New Orleans a place that would have a high priority in the ruling class of Washington D.C. The answer is no. And so, the Army Corps of Engineers would be (and was) more committed to working on the Florida Everglades’ multi-billion dollar project (the president’s brother being the governor of Florida) than retrofitting the levees in a city that traditionally votes Democratic, and is largely African-American. These points are raised because Marx doesn’t specifically talk a lot about “race” per se, but he does make it clear that class struggles have to do with issues that in the case of New Orleans, are largely ethnic.
Dr. Larry R. Ridener, Sociology professor at Pfeiffer University (North Carolina), using as a principal reference Lewis A. Coser’s book Continuities in the Study of Social Conflict, writes that – according to Marx – “unequal access” to resources and power “need not at all times and under all conditions lead to active class struggle.” But on the other hand, Marx believed that it was “axiomatic that the potential for class conflict” is every kind of diverse society, since a society that is differentiated “systematically generates conflicts of interest between persons and groups” that are in various positions within the social structure, Ridener went on.
It is also important to understand, when reviewing how Marx viewed class struggles that much of what he wrote centered on “how the relationships between men are shaped by their relative positions in regard to the means of production.” So, in the case of struggling minorities such as many African-Americans appear to be, would relate to the production of let’s say, revenue through guest services; in the hotel business, for example, top CEO and executive management would generally be white, and those who actually do the grunt work and serve guests would more often than not be persons of color. We allude to that example to more carefully define “production,” which Marx alluded to in terms of manufacturing.
The major power “classes,” according to Marx’s theory, are “the owners merely of labor power, owners of capital, and landowners…” And working class people were those people who inevitably were “bound to develop class consciousness once the appropriate conditions were present…” according to Ridener.
Marx believed that workers tend to achieve solidarity once they overcome their “initial competitiveness in favor of combined action for their collective class interests,” professor Ridener continues. In other words, workers realize they aren’t going to achieve much at all beyond basic compensation, so they unite. Capitalists, however, e.g., those that build the factories and own the land and pay wages to workers are in a class that is not prone to “common interests” since they are competitive with other capitalists and have upwardly spiral opportunities, Ridener explains.
And hence, looking at the New Orleans class structure before and after the mayhem caused by Katrina and the subsequent flood, the “ruling class” (FEMA officials, Bush Administration officials, state and local elected leaders, corporations and landlords) evolve into “a justifying ideology and a political system of domination” that serves their collective interests. In the case of Katrina and the Bush Administration, they would appear, using Marx’s ideas, as so deeply involved in dominating the political landscape that they actually overlooked the power of the storm and underestimated the damage because the people (working class) who would be most negatively effected and impacted were not part of the power structure that put the ruling class into positions of domination.
KATRINA: “It’s painfully difficult for me to wrap my mind around images of Americans lying dead by the score, their corpses being eaten by rats and dogs…” (Niman 2005).
That quote – from journalism professor Michael Niman of Buffalo State College – was of course the impression of one individual speaking out, but it can be fairly estimated that it was also the collective response of millions of Americans watching the horrifying post-Katrina events unfold on television.
Writing in Humanist, Niman goes on to point out that the real “calamity” (beyond the storm itself) was the result of “benign neglect” by the Bush Administration, and it resulted from the fact that those in charge halted the life-saving search and rescue operations so that the military focus could be on “stopping looting and restoring order.”
Here is where class and race come into the picture: When this disaster is fully reviewed by objective historians, Niman asserts, the “great shame” will be “the order to value property over human life – to value the property of the wealthy over the lives of the poor.” It is morally unconscionable, Niman goes on, to give priority to protecting property over rescuing African-Americans clinging to rooftops. And when National Guardsmen arrived (five days after the storm) the scene was more like “an occupation than a rescue”; many troops “pointed their rifles at hungry black survivors” and others reportedly kicked in doors in New Orleans to “evict survivors from their own homes.”
The classic example of class and race blended into a package of “fear” occurred on the Highway 90 Bridge, which connected Jefferson Parish with New Orleans. The sheriff’s department of Gretna (on the west side of the bridge in Jefferson Parish) stood with weapons at the ready to block any black refugees from coming into their community, which was not flooded. Fear, according to Niman, is “the bastard child of a racist society,” which explains why the story of New Orleans turning into “self-destructive chaos” – put forth by “a media culture quick to play the race card” – gained such credibility so quickly.
In sum,” Niman concludes, “federal policies have allowed New Orleans’ black community to drown.”
Meantime, the devastation to New Orleans was not merely the work of a hurricane, according to an article in Social Policy (Flaherty, 2006); indeed, the damage to New Orleans “came from brutal negligence, a lack of planning and a stunningly slow response…” By a state, local and federal government “that didn’t care about the people of New Orleans, and still doesn’t.” Flaherty writes that the “worst damage” came after the storm and after the flooding, when a “confluence of forces” like Halliburton and the Shaw Group began a “perfect storm of exploitation created by an orgy of greed and opportunism.”
The “disaster before the disaster” included “racism, corruption, deindustrialization and neglect,” and following the carnage of the storm and the flood, the disaster could be symbolized in the quote (courtesy Flaherty’s article) from Andrea Garland, an organizer in a relief shelter in Covington, Louisiana: “The Red Cross has made at least $800 million from fundraising, but people in this shelter can’t get soap and are showering under a hose? Is that right?”
New Orleans was an “incredible, glorious, vital city” – 70% African-American – where “resistance to white supremacy has supported a generous, subversive and unique culture of vivid beauty,” Flaherty writes. And indeed, following the storm and flood, the real relief for tens of thousands of blacks in New Orleans came not from the Bush government – that handed Northrop Grumman $2 billion “in a direct corporate payout from the Pentagon” and hired “profiteers” like Blackwater USA (workers getting $350 a day) and the “heavily armed thugs of Wakenhut Security” – but from non-funded groups including:
The Latino Health Outreach Project; the New Orleans Housing Emergency Action Team; the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund; Common Ground Collective; and the Association of Community Organizations for Reform now. These groups, Flaherty asserts, provided the first organizers in shelters, and continue to support the homeless and luckless victims of Katrina.
Meanwhile, an article in the journal Reason laid out the race and class dynamic with forceful simplicity: “Obviously, race and poverty are intertwined in America, and to that extent race was related to who survived in New Orleans” (Young, 2005). And when there are problems connected to the Republican Party that cry out for resolution and understanding – such as the ongoing American occupation and bloody civil strive in Iraq – there are GOP spin-doctors busy at work deflecting the criticism. Writer Young notes that “as the city began to retrieve its dead and the final tally was still expected to be in the thousands, some Republicans launched a spin cycle, suggesting that 10,000 dead in a nation of 300 million was that bad…”
Writing in Nieman Reports, Boston Globe journalist Kevin Cullen outlined the media’s “bias against poor people, especially poor black people” in terms of how quickly unconfirmed reports of looting, rapes, hostage situations were accepted as fact, albeit those rumors only helped to feed the notion that somehow angry blacks were out of control (Cullen 2005). The idea of “poor black folks simultaneously looting Wal-Mart of guns and wide-screen TVs in some apocalyptic ‘Get Whitey!’ frenzy seemed perfectly feasible to many reporters and editors,” Cullen wrote.
And so the divisions between race and class – black and white, poor and rich – in New Orleans was exacerbated by feverishly uneven reporting. Adding to that problem, Cullen continues, was the fact that New Orleans’ mayor and police chief, “who are black, did little to challenge and quite a bit to enhance the portrait of a city out of control.”
The police chief (Eddie Compass) even went on Oprah Winfrey’s popular afternoon TV show to claim that “babies had been raped in the Superdome” (Cullen 2005). The mayor, Ray Nagin, told Oprah, Cullen continued, that “hundreds of armed gang members’ were, as it put it, ‘running the show’ inside the dome.” Class and race “are inextricably bound up in New Orleans,” Cullen went on, “and trying to make sense of it was as hard as trying to get accurate information.” But when he reunited with two Boston Globe colleagues a week after “fanning out across southeastern Louisiana,” one of his associates asked him, “Have you noticed how many people down here use the N word?” The racist language he encountered “was shocking,” Cullen explained, albeit he and his colleagues rationalized that “…there are just as many bigoted people up north…”
Andrew, Edward. (1975). Marx’s theory of Classes: Science and Ideology. Canadian Journal of Political Science, 8(3), 454-466.
Cullen, Kevin. (2005). Rumors, Race ad Class Collide. Nieman Reports. Winter 2005.
Flaherty, Jordan. (2005-2006). New Orleans’ Culture of Resistance. Social Policy. Retrieved 30 Dec. 2006 at http://www.leftturn.org/articles/specialcollections/jordanonkatina.aspx.
Niman, Michael I. (2005). Katrina’s America: Failure, Racism, and Profiteering. Humanist,
Ridener, Larry R. (1977). Class Theory. Pfeiffer University. Retrieved 30 Dec. 2006 at http://www2.pfeiffer.edu/~Lridener/DDS/Marx/MARXW2.HTML.
Young, Cathy. (2005). No, This Is the Story of the Hurricane. Reason, 37(7), 19-21.
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