[IMC-Boston-Editorial] Column by Katrina evacuee on returning home & the unnatural disaster of racism

Betsy Leondar-Wright bleondar-wright at faireconomy.org
Tue Nov 15 14:44:03 PST 2005

I wonder if you¹d be interested in running this op-ed by a Louisiana woman
who just returned home after evacuating during the hurricane.
Betsy Leondar-Wright

An Unnatural Disaster
by Emma Dixon

When Hurricane Katrina tore up the roof of my house, it didn¹t care that I¹m
black. My white neighbors, like my black neighbors, saw trees fall on their
homes and saw their refrigerators rot and mold. They, like I, lived without
electricity or phone for over a week after that color-blind natural

But an unnatural disaster hit us as well, the institutionalized racism that
began centuries ago. The flooded areas of New Orleans were three-quarters
black, while in dry areas, African Americans were a minority. Over the
years, many well-off white people have left the city for gated suburban
communities. The remaining whites tend to live on higher ground.

The unnatural disaster of racism swept away the savings accounts and credit
cards with which poor black people could have bought their escape. A century
of Jim Crow laws barred black families in the South from certain schools and
jobs. Social Security benefits were not available at first to domestic and
agricultural workers, the occupations of most African Americans at that
time. Due to discrimination, most black WWII veterans were unable to use the
GI Bill, which gave most white veterans the homeownership and college
educations that have made their children and grandchildren so prosperous.

The unnatural disaster of racism swept away the cars with which poor black
people could have escaped Katrina. Almost a third of residents of the
flooded neighborhoods did not own the cars on which the evacuation plan
relied. If the promise to the freed slaves of 40 acres and a mule had been
kept, then six generations later, their descendents would own more assets,
and the mule would now be a Buick.

Nor has this unnatural disaster abated today, as I learned from my own
experience. Almost immediately after Katrina hit my town, I saw
spray-painted signs warning that looters would be shot and killed. I was
warned by a white neighbor not to move around too much lest I be mistaken as
a looter.

When my daughter came to get me from my damaged house and drove me to her
home in Indiana, we were turned away by a white motel clerk in Illinois on
the pretext that there were no vacancies. A later phone call confirmed what
their sign said, that rooms were available. I also experienced first-hand
racial discrimination in gas lines, and in food and water distribution lines
by a police officer.

The world noticed that the evacuees stuck in the SuperDome and those turned
back at gunpoint at the Gretna bridge were mostly black. But who noticed
that the first no-bid federal contracts went to white businessmen, cronies
of white politicians?

It¹s hard for me to believe, but this persistent racism is invisible to many
white people. A Time Magazine poll taken in September found that while three
quarters of blacks believe race and income level played a role in the
government response to Hurricane Katrina, only 29 percent of whites felt the

The color of money is green, but the color of poverty has a darker hue.
Families in the flooded black neighborhoods of New Orleans had a 2004 median
income of only $25,759 a year, barely more than half the national average.
Why? Louisiana is a low-wage, anti-union state. Many workers have pay so low
that they receive public housing and food stamps. New Orleans voters made
history by approving a citywide living wage in 2002, but a court blocked it,
allowing poverty wages to continue.

Last week I drove home to Louisiana. In my neighborhood I hear the constant
buzzing of chain saws removing uprooted trees, and the sounds of hammering
as roofers repair endless numbers of damaged roofs. The fragrances of Pine
Sol and bleach tinge the air as residents attempt to save refrigerators and
rain-soaked carpets. I thank God that my family and I survived the storm,
and that the recovery has begun.

Yet I ask myself when the other recovery will begin.

Katrina revealed the racial wealth divide in New Orleans and the unnatural
disaster that caused it. When will we rebuild our society so that everyone,
regardless of race, has the means to escape the next disaster?


Emma Dixon, of Mandeville, Louisiana (dzkem at i-55.com ) is a financial
literacy educator with United for a Fair Economy.

697 words

Betsy Leondar-Wright
Communications Director, United for a Fair Economy
(617) 423-2148 x113
29 Winter Street
Boston, MA 02108

United for a Fair Economy is an independent national organization
that raises awareness of the damaging consequences of concentrated
wealth and power.


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