Katrina’s Political Roots and Divisions: Race, Class, and Federalism in American Politics
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Dara Strolovitch is assistant professor of political science at the University of Minnesota. She has been a research fellow at the Brookings Institution and a visiting faculty fellow at Georgetown's Center for Democracy and the Third Sector. Her research and teaching focus on interest groups and social movements, and politics of race, class, gender, and sexuality.

Dorian Warren is a post-doctoral scholar at the University of Chicago's Harris School of Public Policy. He specializes in the study of inequality and the politics of marginalized groups in American politics.

Paul Frymer is associate professor of politics and legal studies at UC Santa Cruz. He is the author of Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America (Princeton Press) and is currently writing about race and labor in the twentieth century.

In the public imagination, natural disasters do not discriminate, but are instead “equal opportunity” calamities. Hurricanes may not single out victims by their race, class, or gender, but neither do such disasters occur in historical, political, social, or economic vacuums. Instead, the consequences of such catastrophes replicate and exacerbate the effects of extant inequalities, and often bring into stark relief the importance of political institutions, processes, ideologies, and norms. In the words of New York Times’ columnist David Brooks, storms like hurricane Katrina “wash away the surface of society, the settled way things have been done. They expose the underlying power structures, the injustices, the patterns of corruption and the unacknowledged inequalities.”

Katrina hit the Gulf Coast just as America prepared to mark the fourth anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, and consequently, the fourth anniversary of the American government’s quest to bring American-style freedom and democracy to other nations. The hurricane made clear, however, that the U.S. has not resolved fundamental domestic disparities and inadequacies. Katrina did not create these inequities; it simply added an important reminder that they are deeply embedded and constitutive of American political, economic, and social life. From the voting rights violations of 2000, to the vast disparities in drug laws that have resulted in the imprisonment of hundreds of thousands of young African-American and Latino men, to the continued widening of racial and wealth gaps when it comes to finances, education, and health services, the last two decades alone have provided a series of examples that demonstrate the vast inequalities of our democratic system, particularly as they are manifested along racial lines. Were Katrina simply an accident of geography and ecology, we could perhaps be sanguine that its effects might be resolved. But the disparities exposed by Katrina have deep-seated, historical and institutional roots. While it is therefore unlikely that public policies in the aftermath of Katrina will resolve these disparities, perhaps the inequalities laid bare by the hurricane will provide a longer-term wake-up call to those who wish to actively build a more fair and meaningful democracy in the United States. In particular, we hope that new attention will be paid to the role of American political institutions in structuring and perpetuating contemporary racial, economic, regional, and gendered inequities.

The Political Roots of Race and Class Inequality in New Orleans

Storms and natural disasters such as Katrina always hit marginal groups in society harder than they do other segments. Women, many of whom were primary caregivers for their children, were vastly over-represented among those in New Orleans’ shelters, reflecting not only the gendered norms of family relations, but the glaring statistical fact that women in America are more likely to live below the poverty line. Similarly, the elderly and disabled faced some of the most severe horrors of Katrina, again in part because they constitute a disproportionately high percentage of those who are impoverished, and because too many were simply left to die in the face of rushing water due to the difficulties in rescuing them. It was the compounded effects of the intersection of race and class inequalities, however, that was brought most visibly to the fore by the national and international media in the days following Katrina. Quite notably, President Bush, who had first resisted acknowledging the disproportionate impact of Katrina on low-income and black residents of New Orleans, finally felt compelled to recognize “the legacy of inequality.” The evidence of the centrality of racial and class inequalities is overwhelming, as evidenced by Kanye West’s impassioned comments on television as well as by the fact that the topic became one of discussion in such unlikely outlets as FOX news and the Rush Limbaugh show. By now, we have all heard the damning statistics about the demographics of New Orleans residents so devastated by Katrina: 67% are African American, 28% live below the poverty line (of whom 84% are black), 100,000 had no car, and therefore had no ability to flee the city when the storm hit.

Although jarring, these statistics can only be shocking to those who have willingly ignored systematic evidence of what former Senator and vice presidential candidate John Edwards topically called the “two Americas.” Edwards may not have specifically mentioned race during his popular campaign stump speech, but social scientists and political activists have long tried to draw the nation’s attention to the scope of racialized (and gendered) poverty in the United States, particularly in the South. It is no accident that African Americans in New Orleans are disproportionately poor, or that a disproportionate number of the poor in New Orleans are African American. It is the result of centuries of concerted decision-making by political actors at the local, state, and national levels, going back to the days of slavery and continuing up to our current political moment.1 Highlighting the roles of race and class in attitudes about and identities of those most affected by the aftermath of Katrina draws attention to the ways in which these divisions have played an historically significant role in conflicts about the proper relationship between local, state, and federal governments in American politics. Though many in the media focused on the failed political response in the immediate aftermath or Katrina, little attention was given to the long-term effects of weakened government capacity and its core functions in providing aid, services, and jobs to impoverished urban communities, as well as the historical role of race as a causal factor that has shaped these intergovernmental relations.

Race has always been central to debates about the proper role of the American government in aiding those Americans in need of assistance from the inequalities that result directly from the actions of both the government and private citizens. Whether the national government should have the capacity to intervene into local affairs was an issue of primary importance at the nation’s naissance. At the time, race and labor—specifically debates about the slave trade, about the maintenance and expansion of slavery into American territories, and about the status of blacks more generally—were the sine qua non of the conflicts between federalists and anti-federalists at the founding of the nation. Southern political elites argued that the federal government should have no authority over the governance of local institutions and culture; these arguments were constitutionally protected in the 10th Amendment. Pointing to the guarantee of “states’ rights,” southern states resisted all attempts to abolish slavery, resulting in the secession of eleven states—including Louisiana—from the nation in 1860.

The Civil War prompted by this secession did not end race-inspired conflicts over federalism. Following the defeat of Confederate forces, the national government used its power to expand rights and resources for blacks primarily through the Freedmen’s Bureau. Its task was to coordinate relief efforts and redistribute educational, employment and political opportunities among newly freed and homeless former slaves, as well as to whites who had been dislocated by the war. With the help of the Freedmen’s Bureau and the protection of federal troops, African Americans acquired land, sought employment, voted in large numbers, served as elected officials, and used public accommodations in the years following the war. Most southern whites resented the federal presence and resisted efforts to equalize the status of former slaves. President Andrew Johnson vetoed congressional renewal of the Bureau in 1866, and undercut its efforts by restoring most land to its former white owners. As the ex-Confederate states rejoined the Union, Congress further curtailed the agency’s power and personnel, and it finally ceased operations in 1872. Five years later, the Hayes-Tilden compromise led to the withdrawal of federal troops, effectively ending all Reconstruction efforts in the South, sealing the fate of the vast majority of African Americans for generations and ushering in a new era of racial and class inequality. Southern states, with little federal resistance, enacted “Jim Crow” laws that segregated public spaces, curtailed voting rights, and reestablished white political, economic, and social supremacy.

But debates over federalism returned during the Great Depression, leading both to an emboldened national government with power to interfere on matters of interstate commerce to mold social policy, and at the same time, a recognition that states’ rights would limit the New Deal’s intervention into the southern economy and political hierarchy. These political battles, in which the federal government won certain powers with an explicit compromise that it would not threaten southern institutions, set America on a path-dependent course towards a vastly curtailed welfare state and one that differentiated on the basis of race. To obtain the necessary support of southern Democrats in Congress for his legislative agenda, President Franklin D. Roosevelt and northern Democrats agreed to a series of measures that codified racial inequities into policy. Critical legislation such as the Wagner Act and Social Security Act did not cover workers in occupations commonly filled by blacks, such as agricultural and domestic workers, and enabled private and local actors to discriminate in their enactments and interpretations of the policies. Approximately two thirds of black workers were not initially covered by critical pieces of New Deal legislation, at a time when 50 percent of blacks were unemployed, a proportion twice that of whites. Consequently, while black Americans benefited in some ways from the New Deal, the policies were severely limited in reach and, in many instances, served to systematically create racial segregation and poverty in communities such as New Orleans. Labor laws and construction grants allowed unions to exclude black workers through closed shops and contracts, the Federal Housing Act allowed banks and home lenders to “redline” their home and business loan policies to exclude black communities, and federal welfare laws allowed local governments to make determinations of need and assistance.

Southern states continued to resist federal efforts to combat segregation, discrimination, and the increasing use of terror against blacks in the South well into the 1960s. Faced with civil rights activism, a series of Supreme Court decisions, and critical new federal laws, conditions improved for blacks in the “new south.” But, as Philip Klinkner and Rogers Smith have argued, this moment was brief—the “unsteady march” toward racial equality quickly moved backward. Beginning with President Richard Nixon, the ambitious plan of the Great Society to use federal funds to combat poverty and racial inequality was curtailed. The Supreme Court retracted from its ambitious Equal Protection agenda, instead privileging state and local boundaries that limited policies designed to reduce racial segregation and inequality in employment, schools, and criminal justice. This was often a bipartisan effort, witnessed by President Bill Clinton’s signing of welfare reform that cut federal funding sharply to those in need of assistance. The legacies of racial and economic inequality, from slavery and segregation to the exclusionary nature of federal aid, remain evident in every Southern state. Racial disparities in Louisiana and New Orleans are certainly more extreme than they are in other states, but racial inequality prevails in the former Confederacy, in no small part because of the ongoing invocation of states’ rights to justify unequal treatment and to resist federal attempts to intervene.

It is important to recognize, however, that while states’ rights arguments have been used historically to undergird southern racial and class inequalities, they have been invoked inconsistently. Like most political ideologies in American politics, states’ rights is much less a fundamental and enduring principle than a political foil that has been deployed opportunistically by political elites to advance their interests and agenda. Southern conservatives have often invoked states’ rights to resist federal intervention, but they have also been quick to disregard this principle when it has suited their needs, as they did earlier this year when asking Congress to overrule a state court that allowed the removal of Terri Schiavo’s feeding tube. Such inconsistency has historical roots that make clear that southern invocations of the 10th Amendment have more to do with protecting their power than they do with concerns about states’ rights. While many southern states endorsed the 10th Amendment during constitutional debates, they also supported the Commerce Clause and the Full Faith and Credit provisions of the Constitution—both strongly anti-state rights—in order to stop northern states from taxing their products that were made with slave labor, and as a way of legally demanding the return of slaves who escaped to northern free states.

Federalism then, may be a center of the debate, but it provides a smoke screen more than a concrete barrier to political reform. The reason federalism debates are so powerful is because our national political institutions are fundamentally divided over race, a division that is as old as the nation itself. To maintain racial hierarchies, southern Democrats and racial conservatives consistently invoke states rights when it suits them. These interests, while a minority in American society, have always been important pivots and veto players in the national political arena. Because our political institutions, such as the Senate, the Electoral College, and the party system, are unduly beholden to these pivotal votes, federal distinctions remain politically meaningful at a time when many scholars have argued that they are antiquated and artificial. It is for this reason that even those political actors who support the expansion of racial and economic justice have had to make political calculations that work against such goals. This is perhaps most notable in the way that the two party system has been affected by the pivotal role of the South. With brief exceptions, the two major political parties have been equal opportunity ignorers of racial inequality going back to their formation in the 1820s. To win elections, parties need to appeal to southern whites and racially conservative voters. Democrats as much as Republicans are vividly aware of this, as the actions of national candidates from Bill Clinton to Al Gore to John Kerry have emphatically illustrated. The poor in New Orleans only entered our television screens with Katrina, in part because no major party presidential nominee has made race or poverty a campaign issue in almost four decades.

American (Lack of) Recognition of History and Structural Inequality

Fifty years after Louis Hartz remarked that Americans were “born equal” and that, as a result, they have no sense or interest in history or the broader development of ideas and inequities, it is not surprising that the American response to New Orleans was viewed through an exceedingly narrow lens. Most Americans were shocked by New Orleans and our media reflected this with pictures of the faces of inequality capped with headings ending with question marks—How did this happen? Where did this inequality come from? Who is to blame? The sense of wonderment is held only by some segments of the American population, however. As is the case with many other issues, race has been the critical variable in determining Americans’ perceptions and attitudes about Katrina’s aftermath, and about the way it was handled by the government.

The American public is sharply divided along racial lines in its assessments of George Bush’s efforts to help Katrina’s victims. Data from a recent poll by the Pew Research Center show that many more African Americans (85%) than whites (63%) believe that President Bush did not do “all he could to get relief efforts going quickly.” Moreover, race also has also shaped perceptions about why the response was as slow and inadequate as it was. The poll results suggest that a vast majority of African Americans, but very few whites, agree with hip-hop artist Kanye West’s charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people,” and that America is set up “to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off as slow as possible.” Echoing West’s sentiments, the Pew poll found that two-thirds of blacks (66%) agreed that the government response to the hurricane would have been faster if “most of the victims had been white,” compared to less than one-fifth (17 percent) of whites.2

The disjuncture between white and black attitudes on this question is illuminating not only for the wideness of the racial gap in responses, but also because the responses tell us about each group’s understanding of the way in which race and racism structured individuals’ experiences of and the government’s response to the hurricane. For white respondents, the question seemed to ask whether overt racism had led the government to intentionally ignore black residents of New Orleans, leaving them to suffer on purpose. This understanding is captured in First Lady Laura Bush’s denunciation of West’s allegations as “disgusting,” and her statement that “President Bush cares about everyone in our country.” Within this line of reasoning, unless President Bush, Michael Brown, and the Louisiana National Guard had made explicit decisions to avoid helping or rescuing black victims of the hurricane, no racial discrimination would have occurred.

For black respondents, however, the question was much broader, and far more subtle. Though not disconnected from concerns about negative feelings about black people, intentional acts of discrimination by individuals and government agencies and from the facts of the hurricane itself, black responses are embedded within an understanding of what social theorists call structural racism. From this perspective, the racialized impact of Katrina, though clearly more severe than anything in recent memory, was nothing new but was instead yet another chapter in a long history in which the needs of blacks have been ignored, and in which seemingly race-neutral policies have actually been very specifically designed to disadvantage them, whether through provisions that excluded black workers from social welfare protections or the use of “redlining” and other techniques that served to exclude black Americans from government subsidies. Had anyone really been concerned about African Americans and other poor residents of New Orleans, they would have anticipated the fact that many did not own cars and would have arranged for transportation to help them leave the city as the storm approached. (Although it should be noted that public officials have ignored just about every warning by scientists, academics, and journalists of the impending disaster in New Orleans. Just last year, Mike Davis forecasted exactly this chain of events in an article in Mother Jones magazine and his broader books on ecological disasters, blaming directly government officials who have promoted harmful policies for short-term benefit. A similarly prescient article appeared on the front page of the New Orleans Times-Picayune only 3 years ago.) Instead, the plight of these residents was not even on the President’s radar screen. Low-income and poor people always suffer more when disaster hits. Eric Klinenberg’s recent book on the Chicago heat wave of 1995 shows the myriad ways in which African Americans suffered most extensively from the record temperatures because of worse housing conditions, less access to medical facilities, less attention by police, fire, and paramedics, and less urban infrastructure designed to handle such emergencies. As the old axiom goes, “when America sneezes, black people get pneumonia.”

In this sense, the experience of African Americans in New Orleans can serve as the “miner’s canary,” as Lani Guinier and Gerald Torres argue. Similar to the way in which canaries alerted miners to the specter of poisonous air, the fates that befall people who are disadvantaged by inequalities based on, for example, race, class, and gender, are signifiers of society-wide inequalities. If policymakers and the public heed the lessons of Katrina and make efforts to address the structural and institutional sources of American inequality, perhaps the brunt of future disasters will not be borne by those who are the least able to endure their costs.


1 While these decisions have had disproportionate effects on African Americans in the southern states, the exploitation of racial animosity also undermined the possibility of a comprehensive safety net that would have benefited white poor and working-class southerners as well.

2 In addition to structuring responses, the immediate widespread reports by the media of gang violence, mass rapes, and looting hearken back to similar tall tales about African American mayhem in the aftermath of the civil war, the Chicago Fire, and the River Rouge Strike. Barbara Bush’s callousness towards those suffering in relief centers similarly stems from embedded stereotypes of African American cultural deficiencies when it comes to work ethic and responsibility.