What Katrina Teaches about the Meaning of Racism
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Nils Gilman is a high tech executive and entrepreneur in the Silicon Valley. He is the author of Mandarins of the Future: Modernization Theory in Cold War America (Johns Hopkins, 2003) and coeditor of Staging Growth: Modernization, Development, and the Global Cold War (University of Massachusetts Press, 2003). He is currently working on an intellectual biography of Peter Drucker.

Of the many sorry things about the contemporary United States that the Katrina catastrophe has exposed, perhaps none is more depressing than what it showed about the abiding divide in American thinking about race and racism. The televised and photographed spectacle of Katrina’s aftermath in New Orleans in particular revealed that the vast majority of those worst affected were black, in numbers disproportionate even to the large percentage of blacks within the city. At first the mainstream media restricted themselves to muttering nervously about this fact, but the racial dimension (and divide) was brought into open debate as a result of Rapper Kanye West’s declaration, during an unscripted moment on live TV at a Katrina fundraiser, that, "George Bush doesn't care about black people.” Inevitably, a partisan firestorm erupted.1

To what extent was West’s statement fair? More generally, what would it mean to ascribe the racial profile of Katrina’s victims to “racism”? This essay will argue that the debate over the racial meaning of Katrina exposes a public disagreement in the United States about the meaning of racism itself. The fundamental divide in the debate over racism in the United States today is between those who regard racism as essentially a question of individual psychology versus those who consider it a social, structural phenomenon.

One of the most fundamental problems with the discussion of racism in the United States today is the tendency (most commonly found, it must be said, on the political right and among whites) to equate racism with racial prejudice. People of this persuasion define racism as being identical to (and, crucially, limited to) ethnophobia—that is, disdain for other people on the basis of their supposed racial characteristics. In this definition, racism is not a social condition but rather is something that exists in the minds of “racists.”

It is widely and correctly observed that this sort of racial prejudice, or bigotry, has abated greatly in this country in the last half century. Though racial prejudice certainly still exists, many fewer people despise others simply because of their skin color. This is true not only in terms of a reduction of the number of bigots, but also in terms of a steady restriction of the social arenas in which prejudice manifests itself. Even subtle displays of bigotry are today widely regarded as illegitimate not just in the political arena, but also at work or even in social circles. For example, while many whites may still cavil at their daughters marrying a black man, the vast majority of whites no longer actively or even passively refuse to work alongside people of color; and that someone might be refused service on public transportation because of their skin color is unimaginable. It is precisely this tabooification of active racial hatred that leads some to believe that racism is no longer a significant problem for American society.

It is impossible to overstate what huge progress the curbing of bigotry represents for the United States. But if rolling back bigotry is a necessary condition for eliminating racism, it is arguably not a sufficient condition. This is precisely the fulcrum of the political debate in this country today about racism.

The problem with equating racism with prejudice is that it fails to address the fact that racial discrimination takes place not merely through intentional (though perhaps unselfconscious) interactions between individuals, but also as a result of deep social and institutional practices and habits. That is, historical patterns of race-based exclusion do not disappear in lock-step with the diminishment of the chthonic prejudices that underpinned the original race-based exclusions. Long after white people cease to actively hate and consciously discriminate against racial minorities, there persist social patterns—where people live, which social organizations they belong to, what schools they attend, and so on—that were built during the hundreds of years where active racial prejudice was the fact of ethnic life in America. These social and institutional structures, in other words, are constructed on prejudicial racialist foundations. As such, they are bearers of the racist past, even though they may today no longer be populated by active bigots. This social and economic exclusion on the basis of race is what “racism” is really all about.

The continued exclusion of blacks from certain prestigious, purely social organizations is the archetype for this sort of racism. Consider the illustrative archetype of the all-white country club. The barrier to entry for blacks into these sorts of institutions is rarely an active rule banning blacks from joining.2 Rather, what excludes blacks is that the club members know few if any black people as social equals outside the club. Now, it would be a mistake to conclude from this lack of black friends that the club members are necessarily prejudiced against black people. Rather, the club is simply an institutional manifestation of a longstanding social network of upper-class whites. For such a social set, it’s not that they’re against the idea of socializing with blacks (though maybe their parents or grandparents were), it’s just that as a matter of fact they don’t socialize with blacks. The phrase “not caring about black people” is thus both fair and accurate to describe the mentality of this social milieu. Folks in this milieu may not be bigots, but they scarcely know any black people and thus don’t pay much mind to the specific concerns and welfare of black folks. In the meanwhile, the club facilitates the making of money (within their narrow social circle), the reproduction of the elite (within the same narrow social circle), and thus generally works to assure the social replication of the longstanding racialist pattern, all without a discriminatory thought ever entering anyone’s head.

Moreover, it should be stressed that racism can replicate itself merely via an unwillingness to challenge these racialized institutions and patterns. Undoubtedly the majority of white Americans regard themselves as post-prejudicial; yet many continue to consider the impact of racialist patterns of exclusion as something that the individual victims of those patterns must take individual responsibility for redressing.3 The result is a huge gap between blacks and whites in their understanding of the racial meaning of Katrina: for blacks, the disproportionate blackness of Katrina’s victims is a sign of how the plight of their community is systematically ignored by the government; whereas the large majority of whites consider the racial issue as more or less irrelevant.4 (A less comfortable example for the average reader of this essay might be the challenge of making “diversity hires” at elite universities: when someone on the search committee insists that there simply are no qualified minority candidates for a given position, this argument is far less likely to be the result of active prejudice than it is to derive from an unwillingness to challenge a process that at every step imposes race-tinged filters.)

It cannot be repeated often enough that racial exclusion, e.g. racism, today happens not so much through active bigotry as it does through the tacit exclusions created by these sorts of unstated, unconsidered social habits. The fundamental point is one that is deeply uncomfortable for large sectors of this country: if your social network is, for purely historical reasons, defined by color lines that were drawn long ago in a different and undeniably widely bigoted age, then you don’t have to be a bigot yourself to be perpetuating the institutional structures of racial exclusion, e.g. racism. This was exactly Illinois Senator Barack Obama’s point when he declared on the Senate floor that the poor response to Katrina was not “evidence of active malice,” but merely the result of “a continuation of passive indifference.” 5 These structural exclusions matter very much for one’s total life opportunities, including crucially one’s economic opportunities…and thus greatly affect one’s opportunities to, say, escape from deadly hurricanes.

The social definition of racism underpins the argument that while anyone can be prejudiced or bigoted toward anyone else on account of their skin color (including blacks who hate whites), racism is something that only applies to blacks and other ethnic minorities. Since racism is a matter of racially-coded social exclusion from positions of power, and since white people are not systematically so excluded, white people cannot be victims of racism. Yes, a white person can be a victim of bigotry, and a black person can be a bigot, but it is only society itself that is racist. Individuals can only meaningfully be described as “racists” insofar as their prejudices actively perpetuate society’s racism.

When two thirds of blacks believe that “racism continues to be a problem” in this country, while two thirds of whites believe that it is not, the divide in good measure can be explained by the competing understandings of what constitutes racism. To quote the Wall Street Journal’s op-ed page, “For white Americans in general…as the proportion of whites who supported or were complicit in Jim Crow segregation or other racist institutions declines…the question of race becomes less fraught with every passing year.” 6 By contrast, black people find themselves systematically outside the centers of power and privilege, and conclude that the lovely thoughts inside white people’s heads aren’t the salient issue.

People on the right hate the argument that racism is not a matter of individual psychology but rather a social condition. They are not wrong to see that this definition flies in the face of the myth that America is a land of unlimited individual opportunity. Nor are they wrong to suspect that defining racism as larger and longer-lived than the bigotry of individuals leads nolens volens to the idea that ending racism requires structural reform. For if dissolving racism cannot take place simply by adjusting individuals’ “preference sets” to non-bigoted settings, then the solution to racism cannot happen exclusively in the marketplace, but instead must be mediated by an institution outside the market. Even if you haven’t read Hayek, you know where the argument is going.

The specter of Hayek raises a final point (one of no small methodological moment to the social sciences, one may observe in passing), namely that regaining progressive political possibilities requires reconstituting ideas about social collectivities; obversely, it requires dismantling Margaret Thatcher’s notorious claim that “there’s no such thing as society.” 7 This literally anti-social perspective represents a fundamental obstacle to addressing social problems, including racism. After all, if there’s no such thing as society, then why try to solve society’s problems? Put in these terms, perhaps the dark lesson of Katrina is that much of America, and in particular the current administration, in fact does not regard the victims of Katrina as wholly belonging to the same society as them. In this sense, Kanye West’s blurted remark was entirely on the mark.

In sum, Katrina provides an unprecedented opportunity to communicate that “racism” is not just a matter of the psychology of hatred but is instead also a matter of the racial structure of political and economic inclusion and exclusion. This is one lesson from Katrina that social science should help communicate. Moreover, we should not blinker ourselves: this message is one that is deeply opposed by powerful political forces in the United States today. Those who deny the social nature of racism (whether substantively or methodologically) may not be bigots, but they are undoubtedly abettors of racism in the social sense of the word.


1 Charging that the story of Katrina cannot be told apart from a story of race and racism, see Clarence Page, “When the ugly truths bubble up: Katrina brings race, poverty front and center,” Chicago Tribune, September 7, 2005; Betty Bayé, “Katrina and Pandora: Debate rages over role of race in slow response,” Louisville Courier-Journal, September 8, 2005. Denying the same charges were Douglas MacKinnon , “In the eye of the storm,” Washington Times, September 7, 2005; Susan Jones, “Dependence on Government, Not Racism, Hurting Black People, Pastor Says,” CNSNews.com, September 8, 2005; Jonah Goldberg, “Race has no place in Katrina relief efforts,” New Hampshire Union-Leader, September 8, 2005. For a more dispassionate accounts, see Jesse Washington, “Katrina, aftermath galvanize black America,” Associated Press, September 8, 2005. For a discussion of how the media was treating the race issue, see Howard Kurtz, “Katrina in Black and White,” Washington Post, September 9, 2005.

2 Rarely, but hardly never. The popularization of televised golf championships, ironically, has spotlighted the continued existence of statutorily all-white country clubs in the United States. See “Golf's host clubs have open-and-shut policies on discrimination,” USA Today, April 9, 2003. However, these exceptions prove the rule: whenever the media shines a spotlight on these statutes, the institutions almost invariably cave in and eliminate the exclusionary rules—but the elimination of the rules only rarely result in changes to the actual membership of these bastions of privilege.

3 See the recent Pew Poll’s survey of the huge opinion gap between whites and blacks about whether or not the government response would have been better if most of the victims had been white: http://people-press.org/reports/display.php3?ReportID=255

4 In fact, there were some who even claimed that to raise the issue of the race of the victims was itself “racist,” underscoring the way some regard the individual consciousness of race, rather than the social practice of racial exclusion, to be the essence of racism.

5 “Statement of Senator Barack Obama on Hurricane Katrina Relief Efforts,” September 6, 2005.

6 James Taranto, “The Best of the Web Today,” Opinion Journal, September 8, 2005.

7 Women's Own, October 31, 1987. The whole quote: “There is no such thing as society: there are individual men and women, and there are families.”