Professors discuss Katrina response

By Emily Bell

Race politics has consistently played a prominent role in discussions of Hurricane Katrina and the governmental response. Last night, about 200 people attended a moderated panel discussion at the School of Social Service Administration, the goal of which was to add concrete social science to the often emotional discussion of these issues.

Sponsored by the African American Student’s Association as a part of ongoing Martin Luther King week events, the discussion was entitled Revisiting the Dream in the Aftermath of Katrina: Race Culture and Politics. It featured panelists Waldo E. Johnson, Jr., director of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, assistant professor of political science at the University. The discussion was moderated by Pulitzer-prize winning journalist William Raspberry.

A prominent theme was the issue of misunderstandings caused by fundamental differences in perception between white Americans and black Americans. One area in particular that these perceptual differences were relevant was the American media’s portrayal of Katrina and the government’s response.

Though at the time many saw the media a champion of those affected, Harris-Lacewell cited a study that implied the media’s presentation of the disaster and the people involved affected the country’s longterm willingness to contribute to disaster relief.

Harris-Lacewell’s team examined the impact of specific media buzzwords, such as “refugee,” and the impact of such language. The study found that whites were significantly less likely to support “spending whatever necessary” for Katrina relief and reconstruction when they were presented with images of displaced black families paired with the term “refugee.”

Perceptions have also played a role in how the victims of Katrina have been received in their new homes, according to Johnson. He pointed out that some have historically referred to New Orleans as a “haven of crime,” leading many outsiders to the assumption that everyone from the city is a criminal.

“People aren’t too happy then, when a whole bunch of these people show up on their doorstep.” Johnson made parallels to occurrences of this sort of stereotyping that occurs in certain Chicago neighborhoods prone to poverty or high-crime.

Harris-Lacewell also described a survey of local black residents that she completed in post-Katrina New Orleans. She found that a significant number of blacks believed their city government was responsible for the levees breaking during the storm. Some residents believed the government deliberately destroyed the levees in attempt to clear out poor areas, others believed that the failure of the levees was caused by decisions of the city government to not invest in maintenance measures and prevention becausethey were too expensive.

“As a public opinion researcher, it is not my goal to investigate whether or not these claims are true, rather to point out the fact that even in a city with a black mayor and a predominantly black city council, these people believe their government would harm them for profit,” Harris-Lacewell said.

Johnson tried to explain why so many find it difficult to have open discussions about race. He said, “The perception is that to have the conversation means that someone wins and someone loses, and that’s difficult.”

Lyn Lewis, a fourth-year in the College, was overwhelmingly impressed by the evening’s discussion, saying, “Melissa Harris-Lacewell is my new role model.”

Lewis appreciated Harris-Lacewell’s strength as a public speaker. “She was able to communicate the race issues in a way that spoke equally to the white people and the black people in the room. Race is such an awkward topic, and to be able to talk about it so articulately and well is an impressive and important skill.” Lewis added, “I’m really glad that undergraduates were invited to an event like this.”