• U.S.

Healing Katrina’s Racial Wounds

5 minute read
Russell McCulley/New Orleans

Levees and floodwalls are being repaired and fortified; washed-out neighborhoods are repopulating. But on the eve of the second anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans is grappling with fallout from the storm that could prove even harder to repair: ever worsening relations between the city’s white and black residents.

Racial tension is certainly not unique to New Orleans. And there are groups and individuals who are reaching across color lines here post-Katrina, as they did before the storm. But the charges of racial discrimination that cropped up during the botched response to Katrina have lingered throughout the protracted and painful rebuilding effort, and two years on, the tension is palpable.

City council meetings have devolved into shouting matches. Local crime stories on the New Orleans Times-Picayune‘s web site, which allows readers to post comments, are inevitably followed by a string of missives reeking of barely disguised racial hostility, calling for citizens to arm themselves against the “thugs” responsible for the city’s sky-high murder rate. And a string of guilty pleas from corrupt city officials, including one that led to the resignation this month of popular City Council member Oliver Thomas, has elicited charges that white prosecutors are motivated by race; even the somewhat staid Louisiana Weekly, an 80-year-old newspaper targeted to African-American readers, recently ran an op-ed piece claiming the U.S. Attorney’s Office was abetting a white power grab.

“The levels of distrust in the African-American community are higher than I’ve ever seen them,” says Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, an organization founded in 1993 with the mission to counter prejudice and improve race relations. Hill, who is white, led a grass-roots campaign to defeat David Duke, the former Klansman who made it into a runoff in Louisiana’s 1991 gubernatorial race; racial tensions in the aftermath of Katrina, Hill says, are even more stark than those that surfaced during that watershed event.

While Katrina made victims of just about everyone in New Orleans, poor black residents have had the hardest time restoring their lives, with many evacuees still living outside the city and others in FEMA trailers, waiting for promised help to arrive. “I don’t think African-Americans are paranoid in believing that they have suffered in ways that white people didn’t,” Hill says. “But the prevailing conventional wisdom among white people in New Orleans is that African- Americans had no grievances since Katrina, they didn’t suffer any kind of special discrimination in the rescue and recovery, and that there is no merit to their claims that poor African-Americans were being locked out of the city and being deprived of their fundamental rights — that those were all paranoid delusions.”

Hill points out that in times of crisis — and the two years since Hurricane Katrina have been one prolonged crisis — ethnic groups tend to circle the wagons. “When people’s basic psychological needs, and physical needs — security, food and sustenance, health care — are not being met, when they’re frustrated in fulfilling those needs, there’s a tendency to fall back on ethnic group identity,” he says. “I think that both whites and African-Americans have fallen back on their ethnic group identity to fulfill their basic needs, and to give them political advantages during the recovery.”

Far from helping ease the tension, politicians have sought to exploit it. Mayor Ray Nagin has tended to downplay racial tension in his few public comments on the subject. But many blame him for exacerbating racial disharmony during his successful bid for reelection last year by alluding to unnamed power brokers who were seeking to prevent displaced black residents from returning and, most famously, in his vow that New Orleans would once again be a “chocolate city”; since Katrina, New Orleans’ population of 450,000 has dropped to about 300,000, with African-Americans’ share going from around 70% before the storm to an estimated 55%-60% today.

One of the many white candidates in that race railed against the “pimps and gang-bangers” who she said were behind the city’s post-Katrina crime wave. And when Democratic U.S. Rep. William Jefferson was indicted on corruption charges last June, a group calling itself Justice for Jefferson raised charges that his prosecution was racially motivated — an accusation the Congressman did little to dispel during his successful reelection campaign in 2006.

But the underlying cause of racial tension — and the path to a possible solution — lies in a string of broken promises that predate Hurricane Katrina, says Ronald Chisom, executive director of the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a collective of community organizations based in New Orleans. “This disaster has just compounded what we’ve dealt with for years,” Chisom says. Before the storm, poor schools, inadequate health care, low wages, high unemployment and substandard housing were the norm for a vast number of New Orleanians, especially poor blacks; since Katrina, Chisom says, those problems have intensified. “People aren’t really getting the resources they thought they were going to. Everybody is sort of blaming each other, and the frustration is overwhelming.”

The blame game, and the violence that has rocked New Orleans over the past year, are “classic symptoms of people who have gone through trauma, especially when they feel someone else is responsible for that trauma,” Hill says.

“This is a wholly preventable crisis. It does not have to happen,” he says. “If the federal government, which is the only entity that has the resources we need to fix the problems that we have — if they swiftly and effectively begin to address the issues of housing and joblessness and lack of health care, it would pull the rug out from under racial resentment. People would not feel abandoned, and they wouldn’t feel as if they had to turn to extreme politics to achieve their ends, both blacks and whites.”

More Must-Reads from TIME

Contact us at letters@time.com