Death on the Roof: Race and Bureaucratic Failure
Published on: Jun 11, 2006

Harvey Molotch is professor of sociology and metropolitan studies at New York University. He is the author of Where Stuff Comes From: How Toasters, Toilets, Cars, Computers and Many Other Things Come to Be as They Are (2003) and, with Kee Warner, Building Rules: How Local Controls Shape Community, Environments and Economies (1999).

Would so many white people struggling for life be ignored for so long? Racism explains some of what went on, but its route was indirect.

There are non-racialist explanations, of course. Katrina led to unprecedented crisis and Bush’s appointments process put incompetent leadership in charge at FEMA. We already have Iraq to go by. The US invaded a country but couldn’t govern. Margaret Thatcher once asserted there was “no such thing as society.” Bush no doubt would agree if he were inclined toward abstractions. But in whatever form it gets stated or not stated, such a belief wreaks havoc regardless of region, race or other social category.

One of the race-based explanations is that those left behind are consistently the most deprived. The legacy of slavery, exclusion, and segregation corrals those with least resources into a vulnerable space, natural and economic. Governments go on to reinforce that vulnerability with the way they spend money. Katrina shows how this works in otherwise low-visibility arenas like Army Corps of Engineers flood control projects. Institutional racism, familiar in so many other contexts, does its job on the levee.

But a more subtle explanation involves tracing how race impacts organizations’ abilities to deal with unanticipated problems. I will outline one effort. A founding sociological truth is that bureaucratic actors follow rules—something that gets a vast amount of routine accomplished but works against adaptation to change. But sociologists went on to discover that people “bend” those rules, responding for example, to pressures from co-workers or other elements of context. This leads to so-called “informal rules” that affect who does what. The bureaucracy becomes suppler (and less predictable).

This still does not go far enough in recognizing the social ingenuity of bureaucrats. They do what most everyone does when they need to solve problems. They invent as they go. Rules, formal or informal, become a resource people use to explain their own behavior, not simply a force in determining it. Rather than follow-through on dictates, individuals have a sense—gestalt-like—of what to do given the context. This frees up the capacity to innovate, to make the rules come alive “on the fly.”

Receptionists in a welfare agency, Don Zimmerman showed, ignore “first-come, first served” when a screaming child makes it impossible for other workers to be heard by their clients.1 The squeaky wheel gets the grease so that all the other wheels can be kept going. Harried hospital emergency room doctors, whose oath prescribes otherwise, work less hard to save lives of derelicts whose alcoholism they think will lead to eventual fatality anyway.2

For good or ill, actors find a way. Sometimes they discover, from the welter of regulations, another rule, a “better” rule to follow. Or they just act under the presumption that others will later see they did the right thing. Indeed, to avoid being what Harold Garfinkel called “judgmental dopes,” they must use such discretion. Otherwise, their “work to rule” appears incompetent, obstreperous or maybe even insane.3

Both a full-on list of rules and the simultaneous capacity to not follow them make society possible. Individuals figure out what to do on an ad hoc basis—mobilizing, elaborating, and finessing the rules as things move along. We are, as the ethnomethodologists reiterate, “artful,” and this forms social life, bureaucratic and otherwise.

As with other zones of organized activity, emergencies do involve Weberian protocols. Vehicles, uniforms, and building entrances carry the word “emergency,” each bound up with its own routines. Codified triggers do set off responses. The bell rings, the firefighter slides down the pole. At each scale, protocols specify how to fill out the paperwork, who gives the clearance, which budget to use. So when “911” calls for help come in, emergency call-takers require not only that certain bits of information be provided (e.g. nature of problem, whether or not the caller is alone or with others) but be provided in a particular sequence. But that is not the end of the story; call takers, the research shows, also adapt. Indeed, if the call-taker really insists that all the “i”s be dotted, death can happen on the other end of the line.4

In the Katrina case we are learning that functionaries, in searching out the rules to apply, did a poor job. They seem to have fallen back on the Weberian default. They became bureaucrats in the formal sense, rather than the bureaucrats who populate much of real life. Federal authorities apparently said the local governments’ requests were too vague; they needed specific requisition. The forms had to be filled out in the right way. Competent bureaucrats take it into account when a caller for help is trying to communicate while drowning. To do otherwise is, in bureaucratic terms, pathological.

Now back to race. For organizational creativity to happen, there needs to be motivation to look up, think, and find the route. For many people, Katrina would be a no-brainer; something MUST be done, the evident suffering MUST be dealt with. No aspect of protocol can stand in the way. Convention, easy to invoke if you are without a contrary motivation, has to be overcome. What helps?

First, people need a lateral scan that takes in, gestalt-like, the larger context. This includes the suffering of others. The deeper and the more heart-felt, the more energetic will be the search and rescue for the procedures that can work. Ideally, it is as though it is oneself or one’s own family in desperate straits.

Second, there needs to be a blink of understanding that others’ orientation will be the same, that one will not be alone out on the limb of empathy. You can get away with commandeering fleets of buses, moving funds across budgetary categories, and contacting people out of the sanctioned communication order. Not only can you get away with it, you will—the presumption may be made—later be seen as having done the right thing.

Unprecedented action requires some personal adrenaline within and around the bureaucracy. It happens: a kind of panic of empathy that trumps organizational habit and individual postures. Response to the World Trade Center attack had elements of this. Private companies and public agencies went into action. They put equipment in place and spent a lot of money with contracts worked out on the spot or with no contracts at all. A shared sensibility fueled corporations, bureaucracies, and political units. Given the gargantuan scale and wider consequentiality, it reads in retrospect as organizational heroism—which is what it was.

Anything that inhibits empathy for the victims or weakens the assumption that others share it, undermines the likelihood of effective rescue. The rites, rituals, and sometimes dopey constraints of bureaucratic life will remain the default. Some depict this failure as an inherent feature of bureaucracy, and of government bureaucracy in particular. But this is the case only if one has a naïve sense of what competent people in bureaucracies actually do.

The culprit was not bureaucracy, per se, but the structure of feeling among those responsible and the milieu in which they operated. And now we can see how a little bit of racism can go a long way. It amplifies into the vast realm of business as usual. The default to literalness, always available to the irresponsibly prudent, binds as a force. The rescue workers and the victims alike remain in the iron cage.

White Americans do not completely accept African-Americans. As the sociologist Gary Schulman found when he replicated the Milgram shock experiments, white people are a little more likely to shock black “victims,” at least under certain conditions, compared to fellow whites under the same conditions.5 Certainly, white attitudes toward blacks have become more positive over time. And African-Americans take up prominent US public roles. But for those in charge, the victims of the flood were sufficiently outside to hinder bust-out.

Let’s also get back to government incompetence. Incompetent people occupy many positions in all realms. Maybe the wrong person got put in charge of something very important, maybe because it was not anticipated that it would become all that important during their tenure. More common still, people default to routines that no longer work—because that is the world they know and deploying a larger imagination is not their strong suit.

But others are too passionate and imaginative to let it happen; they see too much. They break the mold; they deal with it. The big boss moves in and exercises direct authority. Friends and cronies put aside delicacies of personal loyalty: this must be done. Or those in the next layer just beneath rise up and take control, maybe even sensing that those above will fall into line because the need for innovation and change is so clear.

In this case of Katrina, we had very little of this. Somebody really smart (Karl Rove?) did not press the panic button. Those just below, obviously agitated in many cases, could not assume their actions would be seen as “of course” necessary. They could not surmise, probably quite accurately, that parallel takeovers would make for coordination across different geographic and administrative spheres.

The human capacity for overcoming inertia, including formal emergency inertia, could not come into play. No one with power reached over, pressed down, or pushed up to make the rescue. I think race was at hand.


1 Don Zimmerman, “Tasks and troubles: the practical bases of work activities in a public assistance agency” in D. Hansen (ed.) Explorations in Sociology and Counseling. New York: Houghton-Mifflin. 1969; Don Zimmerman, “The practicalities of rule use” pp. 285-95 in J. Douglas (ed.) Understanding Everyday Life. Chicago: Aldine. 1970.

2 David Sudnow, Passing On: The Social Organization of Dying. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall. 1967.

3 Harold Garfinkel, Studies in Ethnomethodology. 1967. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall.

4 Marilyn Whalen and Don Zimmerman, “Sequential and institutional contexts in calls for Help” Social Psychology Quarterly. Vol 30, pp. 172-85. 1987.

5 Gary Schulman, “Race, Sex, and Violence: A Laboratory Test of the Sexual Threat of the Black Male Hypothesis” American Journal of Sociology. Vol. 79, No. 5 (Mar., 1974), pp. 1260-1277.