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Race, class and a hurricane

In the United States, oppression, discrimination, misrepresentation and marginalization of African-Americans are an integral part of our history and experience. We live in a society where social stratification exists. That is, people are routinely and hierarchically categorized on the bases of race and class. Low socio-economic groups and people of color often lack the access to power and resources that others enjoy. This sometimes stems from and leads to a plethora of social inequities.

Perhaps this limited access to resources helps to explain why tens of thousands of New Orleaneans were not able to evacuate the city and were instead directed to shelters of last resort. But does this explain why the local, state and federal governments were slow to respond in the days immediately following the disaster?

Some think so. During the NBC “Concert for Hurricane Relief” rap artist and producer, Kanye West, expressed sentiments shared by many. “I hate the way they portray us in the media. If you see a black family, it says they’re looting. See a white family, it says they’re looking for food…the way America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible…George Bush doesn’t care about black people.”

Kanye, I feel you!

I share the pain expressed in these comments. It is difficult to see people with whom I identify living like animals for days due to inadequate planning and slow relief efforts. I share the anger expressed in these comments. It is difficult to watch racially biased media coverage. I share the bewilderment in these comments. It is difficult to comprehend why the federal government was able to act swiftly and decisively in some instances of human crisis (here and abroad) but not this one. Nevertheless, the fundamental question still remains: were race and class factors in the slow response to aid Katrina’s victims?

Perhaps. But only God knows the hearts of those who had decision-making power. It is certain that there were numerous factors that contributed to the slow response. This was a catastrophic event the likes of which we haven’t seen on American soil during our lifetime. Despite warnings of its inevitability, we seemed to have been caught off-guard and unprepared to deal with such devastation.

It should also be noted that counties other than Orleans Parish were neglected too in the days following Hurricane Katrina. And most of those who resided in these areas were not African-American (although some may have been poor). It seems that failure to plan, poor communication between leaders and faulty governmental processes and bureaucracy are no respecters of persons. Without doubt, these multifaceted factors contributed to the destruction of New Orleans and the initial inhumane treatment of its people.

As Christians and Americans, each of us is left with incredible responsibilities. We must ask “the race-class question.” America’s history of discrimination and inequity against the poor and people of color (by law and practice) requires that we at least ask the question. Some won’t examine themselves without it. Nevertheless, it is important to recognize the many known, complex factors contributing to the slow response to Katrina’s victims.

We must advocate for those further marginalized by this disaster by using whatever resources we have: our voice, our money, our time, our knowledge, and our connections. To fail to do good when it is within our power to do so is sin.

There are lives to be rebuilt. There are officials to be held accountable. There are systems of operation to be challenged. There are infrastructures of cities (those destroyed and those welcoming thousands of evacuees) which must be rebuilt or reinforced. The tasks may be daunting. But now is the time for those of us with power and resources to bring healing to victims and transformation to communities affected by this disaster. I pray that both everyday citizens and governmental officials would demonstrate concern for all, while recognizing that those coming from low socio-economic backgrounds, those representing what some call the “underclass,” and those whose lives are utterly destroyed, need particular help and resources.

Fast FactsDemographic Profile of New Orleans-Pre Hurricane Katrina According to the 2000 U.S. Census:– 67% of the New Orleans population was black/non-Hispanic (compared to 43% in Philadelphia, 37% in Chicago, and 27% in New York).- Half of the population was under the age of 33.- Half of all households earned incomes of less than $27,133 annually- 28% of individuals lived below the poverty level.

Kimberlee (K-lee) Johnson is Director of Urban Studies & Youth Leadership and Director of the Center for Urban Youth Development

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