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Crisis raises questions of race

New Orleans' poor blacks were already at a disadvantage. Could more be done to help?

Published September 3, 2005

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NEW ORLEANS - A black woman stood outside the city's convention center, surrounded by thousands of hungry, sick and frustrated residents.

Javelin Coleman, 20, arrived at the center by canoe. Now, several days later, and with no car, she and her 3-month-old son had no way to escape. "I got stuck here," she said.

Some 600 miles away in Tampa, a white man, Dave Dickson, enjoyed a Diet Coke and a muffin. He and his wife, Barbara, evacuated their $300,000 home in New Orleans and drove to Florida.

"I feel very fortunate that my friends and family are safe," said Dickson, 56.

In Hurricane Katrina's baneful aftermath, the dichotomy of New Orleans has become increasingly apparent. In image after image, the victims left to suffer appear to be mostly poor and black.

Why? Part of the answer is that two-thirds of New Orleans' population is black.

But history suggests an uglier explanation:

Black residents long ago were pushed into the swampy, low-lying lands of New Orleans, while rich white residents built on higher plots.

So when Katrina unleashed its fury, poor residents who could not afford to flee were most vulnerable. And, when the skies cleared, they were left to endure the floodwaters and lingering misery.

Black leaders expressed outrage Friday at the relief effort, wondering if it would have been more urgent for white victims. They also wondered if disaster planners gave enough thought to protecting poor residents.

"I do think the nation would be responding differently if they were white elderly and white babies actually dying on the street," said David Billings of the People's Institute, a 25-year-old New Orleans organization focused on ending racism.

Not everyone agreed. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice, for one, denied the claim.

"That Americans would somehow, in a color-affected way, decide who to help and who not to help, I just don't believe it. Americans are generous to each other," said Rice, who is black.

* * *

"It's been hell," Coleman said as she stood outside the Ernest N. Morial Convention Center. "We're just trying to survive and get out of here."

She arrived at the center with only the clothes on her back and her son on her hip.

Coleman is unemployed. She said she stole milk and diapers for her son, Andrew. Deliveries of water and packaged meals have been few, with little medicine or milk in sight. She has been forced to improvise.

She gives Andrew two cans of water for every can of milk, even though his doctor warned against water because it can induce seizures, she said. One day this week, she fed him Pet Milk.

"I don't have any other choice," she said.

For Dickson, surviving Katrina has been easier.

An oil engineer for Halliburton, Dickson and his wife, a private school administrator, earn between $100,000 and $200,000 a year, he said.

They made quick decisions about what possessions to take before leaving town: family photographs and expensive jewelry.

They left behind his Honda motorcycle and pricey artwork. Turns out, their home was unscathed.

Coleman's neighborhood looked like a bomb had been dropped.

* * *

To be sure, white, black, Hispanic, rich, poor, young and old suffered from Hurricane Katrina.

But it came as no surprise to disaster planners, professors and historians that New Orleans' poorest neighborhoods suffered most.

The poorest residents have long lived in the city's low-lying areas, starting in the 1830s when well-off whites built homes on higher ground near Mississippi River levees, Craig E. Colten, a geography professor at Louisiana State University, told the Philadelphia Daily News.

Since the 1890s, those lower areas have been occupied largely by African-Americans. The Lower 9th Ward, where the worst flooding occurred, is 98 percent black.

Like other cities, white residents have left the urban area in droves.

New Orleans isn't completely segregated. Run-down shotgun homes sidle up to well-appointed Creole cottages.

And while the city has its share of wealthy white residents, it also has wealthy and powerful black residents.

But in Orleans Parish, 21 percent of households earn less than $10,000 a year. Nearly 27,000 families are below the poverty level. Most of those families are black.

While an estimated 80 percent of the city's population evacuated, tens of thousands stayed behind with no resources and no way out.

The images of the black poor struggling in New Orleans' chaos should be "a powerful wakeup call," said Dr. Jeff Johnson, a professor at the University of Maryland's School of Medicine.

"The message is that these people are in some sense abandoned, and that's why they're so angry," he said. "But that abandonment occurred not just around this storm."

Black lawmakers expressed frustration with the relief effort.

"It looks dysfunctional to me right now," said Rep. Diane Watson, D-Calif.

She and members of the Congressional Black Caucus, NAACP and other groups suggested the response was slow because those most affected are poor.

The Rev. Al Sharpton described the response as intolerable: "If we were not dealing with black people and poor people, we would not be dealing with this snail's pace reaction."

Black leaders and professors also said Friday they fear the long-term effects of Katrina.

Images of black people "looting" stores and reports of crime in the city have depicted blacks negatively, said Thomas J. Durant Jr., a black sociology professor at Louisiana State University.

"The reports are greatly exaggerated, I believe," Durant said. "I think it presents an image that has a drastic psychological impact on the rest of the population and creates fear."

Scholars and social commentators across the country question whether the new New Orleans will be as black as it was. Poor black residents won't be able to wait for a long reconstruction effort, Durant said.

And if black residents don't go back, how will they fare in new communities?

"These are people who didn't have much to begin with," Durant said. "Now they have close to nothing. How will America respond? Will we embrace them?"

* * *

With temperatures climbing into the 90s, Coleman remained at the convention center.

A man's body lay beneath a white sheet on the first floor. The smell of sweat and urine filled the air. Thousands of men, women and children sat in the unlit, sweltering center, heads held in their hands.

Others stood outside and yelled at the rare passing car: "Take us to Baton Rouge!"

Dickson, meanwhile, planned to stay with his wife in Florida until power is restored in New Orleans.

"We don't feel guilty. We feel fortunate," Dickson said. "Do we feel like we need to help? Yes. Can we? Yes. Will we? Yes."

Coleman, like thousands in New Orleans, waited for one of the buses that had been promised for days.

She didn't know where she was going.

She didn't know whether she would be back.

Staff writers Rebecca Catalanello, Eric Deggans, Matthew Waite and researcher Cathy Wos contributed to this report, which also contains information from the Associated Press, the Philadelphia News and the New York Times News Service.

[Last modified September 3, 2005, 01:21:10]

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