Thursday, September 8, 2011

Read Heldman's "The Truths of Katrina" Right. Now.

Today the Hairpin directed me to "The Truths of Katrina", in which Caroline Heldman describes, in great detail and with many citations, how the 2005 flooding of New Orleans is less the result of a hurricane and more the result of rampant corruption and racism. It's a year old, so forgive me if you've already read it. I hadn't.

The first part of the article presents what is apparently an honest-to-god real-life government conspiracy. Put away your moon landing concerns and check this out:

The judge chided the Army Corps, noting that they "not only knew, but admitted by 1988, that the [Mississippi River Gulf Canal Outlet] threatened human life ... and yet it did not act in time to prevent the catastrophic disaster that ensued with the onslaught of Hurricane Katrina."

Mayor Nagin received nearly $20 million to establish a workable evacuation plan in plenty of time for Katrina, but it’s questionable whether it was ever developed, and it was never disseminated (Palast, 2006).

Prison officials deny that anyone died in the crisis, despite several reports of deaths from both police officers and prisoners (Onesto, 2006).

After the massacre, the NOPD actively covered up the shootings (Maggi & McCarthy, 2010), including falsifying reports, planting a gun, and recruiting phony witnesses (FBI, 2010).

That referenced article from Greg Palast is even more damning; I recommend reading it as well:

Funny thing about the murderously failed plan for the evacuation of New Orleans: no one can find it. That's right. It's missing. Maybe it got wet and sank in the flood. Whatever: No one can find it.

Heldman then discusses the racism that accompanied the disaster:

The "looting" frame was racially charged as evidenced with the now infamous AP photos of a black man described as “looting a grocery store” and a white couple described as “finding bread and soda from a local grocery story."

When those stranded at the Convention Center marched a long, hot three miles across the Gretna Bridge to get out of the City to a neighboring town, they were stopped by police officers with dogs who shot guns over their heads (Riccardi, 2005), called them racial slurs (Witt, 2008), and told them "we don’t want another Superdome."

At least eleven black men were shot, although some locals expect that the actual number is much higher ... Roland Bourgeois ... allegedly came back to the militia home base with a bloody baseball cap from Ronald Herrington, a man he shot, and told a witness that “Anything coming up this street darker than a paper bag is getting shot."

The judge in the case concluded that "on average, African-American homeowners received awards that fell farther short of the cost of repairing their homes than did white recipients." Nearly 20,000 Road Home Program grant claims that qualify for funding have yet to receive it, and these applicants are disproportionately black.

Overt acts of racial terrorism are also being employed: the letters "KKK" burned into the lawn of a young, black couple who moved to Gretna; the torching of a home in St. Bernard Parish that was to be rented to a black family.

The city has shifted from 67% black pre-Katrina to 58% black now (Jung, 2008), and, for the first time in two decades, the City Council is now majority white (Chappell, 2007).

It goes on and on, in amazing detail. It ruined my day, and, forgive me for saying so, but I hope it ruins yours too, because everyone should read this. The systematic neglect and violence that led to the deaths of so many black New Orleanians now has me wondering if this event might not be better labeled as the 2005 New Orleans Genocide.

If you're white, though, I hope you don't read Heldman's article thinking, "Oh, those poor black people." Because I agree with Helman that that's part of the problem:

"White people clearly understand Katrina as a racial issue. If we didn’t, whites would have experienced elevated anxiety about the possibility of it happening to us (as happened after 9/11)."

Those of us who are white need to start identifying with black Americans, not othering them.* Stories of 30,000 innocent people unconstitutionally and inhumanely incarcerated in the Superdome should not incite pity, but rather PANIC that this can happen to us. If, for some reason, one has trouble identifying with one's fellow human beings, perhaps it would help to remember that while some of us are protected by white privilege, our neighbors, friends, family, and future descendants may not be.

*And we really, really need to chill the fuck out about "bad neighborhoods." The Lower 9th Ward was considered a "bad neighborhood," and I'm sure that had a great deal to do with the violent reactions exhibited towards influxes of evacuees from the Lower 9th.


  1. Thanks for the resource and your post, Kyrie. I've never read it either. I might use it in my class next week.

    Check out this research which discusses empathy (or lack thereof) in the brains of Whites for people of colour. Yes, I'm claiming Canada and Britain in my spelling today. Although this particular study is about Whites, the research goes both ways. Based on what I've read each racial group is most empathetic with pain, (or activity) inflicted upon members of its own perceived racial groups. This is a problem.

    However, Whites have the least amount of cross racial empathy (as measured in brain activity). We must, must change that.

  2. Tangentially, you HAVE to read this. It's great. The students in my Race and Education course are dealing with just this. How do you acknowledge you own complicity in racism and be anti-racist.

  3. Thanks for providing the links. Fascinating read.

    The NOPD. Paragon of corruption. The whole organization is like something out of a movie.