Hurricane Katrina discussion raises more questions than answers on race, class

Hazel Markus

Hazel Markus

David Brady

David Brady

Why does the United States provide such a small safety net for its poor and needy citizens relative to almost all other industrialized nations?

Why didn't anyone learn the lessons of so many past floods and curb development in marshlands and flood plains before Hurricane Katrina hit?

Should Americans expect their government to take care of them in times of disaster, or are they better off depending on the charity of individuals? Is there even such a thing as genuine charity, or are all acts of altruism inspired by more selfish motives?

And finally, does President Bush care about black people?

Clearly, a recent discussion series on Hurricane Katrina sponsored by Stanford's Center for Comparative Studies in Race and Ethnicity produced more questions than answers.

Yet the series of discussions, "Confronting Katrina: Race, Class and Disaster in American Society," offered an honest, no-holds-barred look beyond the news headlines at the complex causes of the disaster in New Orleans and its likely effects on public attitudes and policies. The series, which featured speakers from the various humanities departments as well as the graduate schools of law and business, examined Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath from a perspective of land development, race relations, philosophy and government.

Central to all these talks was a consideration of the significant role the media played in shaping the public's understanding of the event. As Hazel Markus, the Davis-Brack Professor in the Behavioral Sciences, stressed, "Most of us did not experience the fear of 150 mile-per-hour winds, the terror of climbing onto a rooftop to stay dry or the panic of not being able to reach family. We viewed it from the comfort of our own homes."

Markus argued that the gap between representation and reality, inevitable in news coverage, was particularly blatant in the aftermath of Katrina. Blacks caught on camera taking goods out of stores were routinely said to be "looting," she noted, while white people doing the exact same thing were said in captions to be looking for food or supplies.

For Markus and other professors in the discussion, this sort of distortion of fact by the media was nothing new. What was different about the coverage of Katrina was that many of the people watching the events unfold from the comfort of their own homes took notice of the bias and voiced their outrage, which fueled a different portrayal of events in the alternative media, blogs and even popular hip-hop music.

"Katrina was not simply a wake-up call; it brought people out of their state of complacency," said Marcyliena Morgan, associate professor of communication. "The hip-hop generation, with its long memory, will not forget about what happened."

Morgan referenced surveys conducted over the past several weeks to illustrate how dramatically race influenced perceptions of Katrina. Asked whether the government had responded to the storm swiftly enough, far more blacks than whites expressed dissatisfaction. And when the question was whether President Bush cared about black people, opinions were even more racially divided. The overwhelming majority of whites responded "yes," and most of the blacks surveyed said "no."

Remarkably, this intense discussion of race had its moments of levity, most notably when one speaker showcased a newspaper article on some prominent African Americans who voiced their outrage. The report mistakenly identified hip-hop artist Kanye West as Cornel West, a Princeton University professor well known for his studies of race and religion. Audiences also were amused to recall President Bush's speech days after the hurricane when, instead of addressing the suffering of masses, he focused on the damage endured by one particular senator, Trent Lott, the Republican from Mississippi. Bush talked of his sadness upon learning of Lott's destroyed home, and spoke lightly of how a new and improved Lott home would rise from the rubble.

As that gaffe showed, class has become as important an issue as race, both in the response to Katrina and the media coverage of it. David Palumbo-Liu, a professor of comparative literature, offered a number of statistics to suggest how U.S. policies had failed to protect its poorest citizens. He cited the relatively small amount devoted to social programs in the United States as well as falling tax rates, particularly for the wealthiest citizens, which have left fewer resources available for emergency response.

Debra Satz, associate professor of philosophy, concurred, saying Hurricane Katrina may have been improperly labeled a natural disaster since its most disastrous consequences seemed to be the result of poor planning and grossly insufficient response. "Hurricane Katrina was unusual not so much for its strength but for the way it endured and festered," she said. "A week after the disaster there were still bodies floating around the city."

Satz said that while massive storms are not necessarily preventable, they are predictable. Failure to respond to repeated warnings about aging levees surrounding New Orleans or to implement an evacuation plan for a population largely dependent on public transportation, she said, begged for a distinction to be drawn between simple misfortune and serious injustice. "The government's inaction in the face of the disaster was an act of passive injustice," she said. She asked the audience to consider whether the country had relied too much on voluntary charity to handle a disaster created largely by a negligent government.

While everyone might hope that the massive loss of lives and homes and the strong public outcry following Hurricane Katrina would lead to significant change in government policies, some panelists were skeptical. David Brady of the Graduate School of Business offered a historical view of disasters in the United States and noted that that when it came to respecting the sheer force of nature, many Americans seemed to have a short memory.

The Bowen H. and Janice Arthur McCoy Professor in Leadership Values, a professor of political science and a senior fellow at the Hoover Institution and the Stanford Institute for Economic Policy Research, Brady recalled the massive flooding along the Mississippi River in 1993 which, like Katrina, produced widespread death and devastation and seemed at the time to leave a lasting lesson about the hazards of building on flood plains. Indeed, more federal funds were allocated for flood prevention and disaster assistance after the 1993 floods. But the reality, Brady said, is that that much of that money ultimately ended up in local pork barrel legislation used to fund even more development in flood-prone areas.

"Today on the Mississippi, there is a higher probability than there was 12 years ago that rain will generate flooding," he said.

Andrea Orr is a freelance writer.