400 Years Blog #18 – Rising Tides of Racism

Posted in: Leader's Blog

In 2006, Hurricane Katrina delivered both devastation and a lesson in environmental justice. Michael Eric Dyson explains in Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster how 1,836 people died, many of them people of color, because they couldn’t escape. “134,000 people in New Orleans were without cars. They were stuck — they weren’t stupid or stubborn; they were stuck,” he told Amy Goodman on Democracy Now. “What we saw revealed in Hurricane Katrina was a spectacle of disaster, disaster colored by race, by class, by poverty….”

Most of us who watched the news saw thousands of stranded Black men, women, and children waving to TV helicopters for help, but we didn’t immediately think about racism. This was not just a natural disaster. This storm was also a human disaster. Bad weather illuminated existing racial divisions. New York Times’ columnist David Brooks said that storms like 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.”

Those same inequalities rose during the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927. 200,000 people in the Delta lowlands, primarily families of Black agricultural workers who lived there for generations, were displaced.  The following year, in 1928, those inequalities were why most of the 2500 killed by the Okeechobee Hurricane were Black migrant workers.  As directed by government authorities, Black survivors did most of the horrific clean up work. These same authorities reserved the few remaining caskets for the burials of whites, while Black corpses were thrown into funeral pyres or mass graves.

The flooding of the tidewater region in 2016 reminds us that things haven’t changed much. Princeville, North Carolina, one of the oldest towns chartered by freed slaves, may not survive.  Residents knew about the potential for flooding, but they had little choice.  Richard Mizelle, of the University of Houston, said, “[t]heir existence in this space was not a matter of chance or choice, but instead the discarded and unwanted space was what former slaveholders allowed them to occupy.”

Today, while some privileged Americans worry about how long their beach homes will stand, gentrification continues to push poorer folks into environmentally dicey neighborhoods.  As the Sea-Level Rise Committee in Miami noted, gentrification is taking an odd twist these days. Higher land further from the surf is now in more demand.  Some things, however, stay the same – people of color are regularly threatened by rising tides.


  • Lesson #72: Katrina exposed how the legacy of Pres. Reagan – who preached that, “government is the enemy of the people” – was alive in the George Bush administration, an administration that was inadequately prepared to serve the most vulnerable during due to Hurricane Katrina.
  • Lesson #73: When natural disasters strike, while explicit racism may not be obvious, the neglect, abandonment, and “passive indifference” as Dyson calls it, have threatened the lives of Blacks.
  • Lesson #74: Even in death people of different races are treated differently.
  • Lesson #75: Federal Emergency Management Agency relief funds are often not available to the poorest people due to the poor conditions of their homes before a weather emergency strikes.
  • Lesson #76: As sea levels rise, Black and brown people around the world will be the first to suffer due to storms and the salinization of fresh water used in farming.


Further recommended sources:


  •  Come Hell or High Water: Hurricane Katrina and the Color of Disaster (2006) by Michael Eric Dyson is provocative and hits hard.  While some may dispute individual claims, he chronicles well what happened in Katrina and sets it effectively into the context of a history of neglect about the health of marginalized communities
  • Amy Goodman interviews Dyson on Democracy Now.  The interview begins at approximately the 36 min mark.
  • In The Great Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and the Mississippi Gulf Coast, Douglas Brinkley, a Tulane professor, lets survivors tell their own story.
  • Three social scientists – Dara Strolovitch; Dorian Warren; Paul Frymer – offer a concise analysis in an article entitled “Katrina’s Political Roots and Divisions: Race, Class, and Federalism in American Politics.” It encourages policymakers to address the “structural and institutional sources of American inequality,” so that “the brunt of future disasters will not be borne by those who are the least able to endure their costs.”


Next blog: Incarceration and Toxic Environments


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