“Eracing” Katrina: Historical Revisionism and the Denial of the Obvious

Published on Civilrights.org, July 25, 2006

According to a poll taken late last year, the overwhelming majority of whites in the U.S. reject the idea that Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath tell us anything important about race in America (1). Blacks, not surprisingly, feel otherwise. Thus has emerged the latest manifestation of an intergenerational process: black folks seeing race and racism and white folks refusing to do the same. Two groups of people, observing the same social phenomenon, and coming to diametrically opposed conclusions. It is a process that has played out in every era–even during slavery, when most whites didn’t see a problem with the ownership of other human beings–and which suggests either that African Americans are amazingly oversensitive, or that whites are largely clueless. Given the longitudinal consistency of white denial–even at times when, in retrospect, most all would agree that oppression was intrinsic to the nation’s political and economic system–mark me down as believing the latter of these to be closer to the truth, whether in 1863, 1963, or today (2).

Often, white attempts to downplay the role of racism in the warp and woof of our society are quite obviously absurd; yet on other occasions, they come wrapped in a patina of scholarship, replete with claims that objective and dispassionate truth are on their side, and that those waving the banner of racism are either “playing the race card” for political effect, or are incapable of separating their emotions from facts.

One wouldn’t have thought this kind of denial would have found too many adherents in the case of Hurricane Katrina and the flooding of New Orleans. After all, the images of an overwhelmingly black mass of humanity congregated at the city’s Convention Center, suffering for days, while waiting for food, water, and medical help to arrive–let alone to be rescued–are still seared into the short-term memories of millions around the world. Though the story has faded from the headlines, it has yet to recede entirely from the consciousness of a media-saturated public, meaning that at least in theory, it should be hard to deny the racially disparate impact of the storm’s aftermath. And this is so, even if one refuses to accept the more contentious of claims, such as the notion that the slowness of the response itself was due to the race of those who were disproportionately affected. One can disagree with this kind of argument (I don’t, but one could) and still recognize that the event itself had a racially uneven impact. Likewise, it isn’t hard to then acknowledge that this disparity says something about the way in which race still matters in this country, and how certain populations remain more vulnerable despite whatever progress has been made in the past four decades.

Yet here too, many have sought to deny what the rest of us thought sure we were seeing in the last days of August and first few days of September, 2005. Now, as the one-year anniversary of the catastrophe looms, attempts to define for posterity the contours of the tragedy will take center stage. And among those attempts, will be some from persons who would like us to conclude that what our eyes told us was so, was false; that our judgment was impaired; that the seeming racial element of the inundation of New Orleans was an illusion, a media parlor trick, and disproved by cold, hard and presumably dispassionate data.

Last week, while in New Orleans, I stumbled upon this pseudo-scholarly version of the “race is not an issue” school of thought, while perusing the letters to the editor of the local paper, the Times-Picayune. Therein, was a letter from someone criticizing a previous writer for continuing to further the “outright lies” that there had been a racially disparate impact from the flooding of the city (3). The author then cited data, which to him, proved that there had been no racial disparity: to wit, that while blacks were sixty-eight percent of the city’s pre-storm population, they comprised only fifty-nine percent of the dead; while whites, who were merely twenty-eight percent of the population before Katrina, comprised thirty-seven percent of the deceased. In other words, not only was the black community not hit disproportionately hard, but indeed, exactly the opposite had been true!

Remembering the old saying, that there are lies, damned lies, and statistics–the latter of these representing the artistic blending of deception with mathematical science–and yet knowing that data is often believed because of our nation’s fabled innumeracy, I felt a pit growing in my stomach. I had just driven around the city for the better part of a day, observing with my own eyes the racial disparity inherent in the damage, and observing the obvious demographic shift that New Orleans has undergone since the storm (and since my days of living there, from 1986-1996), and yet I knew that most people would never make that drive. For many, all they would know about what had happened would be what they read. And if they read too many claims such as this one, the ability to address the racial disparity of the damage would be lost: after all, one cannot address a problem that one fails to see in the first place.

There seem to me to be two lines of response to the claim of the letter writer: first, that he is simply wrong about the death statistics, and what they actually demonstrate; and secondly, that even if he were correct about the mortality data (and he isn’t–not by a long shot), there are additional impacts from Katrina, other than death, which have clearly fallen most heavily upon persons of color. Looked at in its totality, there is little doubt that it has been the black and brown who have born the brunt of the storm’s wrath, and that of the flooding that came afterward. Claims of historical revisionists notwithstanding, the argument that Katrina had a racially disparate impact upon the people of New Orleans, remains as unassailable as common sense and personal observation both tell us it is.

So, what about those mortality figures, which seem to suggest that it was whites, rather than blacks, who suffered the most harm, per capita? After a little searching, I was able to ascertain the source of the data, which has been floating around since December of last year. At that time, based on death totals up to that point, the Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals announced that 36.6 percent of the city’s dead were white, while 59.1 percent were black. These facts were trumpeted at the time on conservative websites, as “debunking” claims of racial disparity towards African Americans. To wit, headlines like “Statistics Suggest Race Not a Factor in Katrina Deaths,” on Cybercast News Service, from December 14th (4).

A follow up piece on NewsMax.com, and an editorial by Cathy Young, of Reason magazine (which appeared in the Boston Globe), would make similar arguments about mortality figures and the lack of racial disparity, using similar, if somewhat different data sets. In Young’s case, although she grudgingly acknowledged that the study by Knight-Ridder, which she was citing to disprove racial disparity, found that three-fourths of blacks, and only half of whites in the area said they had experienced serious flooding, the overall thrust of her piece was to minimize, if not deny any significant racial disparity. Instead, according to Young, the only real disparity worth mentioning was age-related, in that persons over 60, while a mere fifteen percent of the population, comprised nearly three-fourths of the dead (5).

But after examining the most comprehensive list of the dead, released thus far by the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals, we find support for neither Young’s claims, nor those of Cybercast, or the recent letter writer referenced above. Rather, of the 523 names of the deceased from New Orleans, which had been released as of February, 2006–this, out of a total of 650 released names at that time–blacks comprised sixty-five percent of the dead, while whites were approximately thirty-one percent: close to the two groups’ relative population percentages, at sixty-eight and twenty-eight percent, respectively, within the city (6).

However, this is not where the analysis should end, and for precisely the reason that Young mentions: namely, the disparate impact experienced by the elderly as a result of this storm. In fact, the age-skewing of the area’s deaths was so dramatic–and this makes sense, as older folks are more likely to be in bad health to begin with, less able or willing to evacuate in a crisis, and are more susceptible to a major health event (like a stroke or heart attack) during a trauma–that in order to prove or disprove a racially-disparate impact in New Orleans, we must first do something that none of those seeking to deny a racial disparity have seen fit to do, which is to age-adjust the city’s population percentages before comparing them to death figures.

Why is this important, and what does it mean? Simple. The reason that age-adjustments are necessary is that whites and blacks are not represented among the elderly in the same percentages as they are in the general population. Life expectancy for blacks is typically eight years less than for whites, so that one finds far fewer elderly blacks, per capita, than elderly whites. As such, if we want to know whether there was racial disparity among the death figures, we would first need to compare the relative percentages of the white and black population that were elderly, with the death numbers, rather than looking at the overall black and white shares of the city. And indeed, once the age adjustments are made, so that we compare whites and blacks 65 and older, whites and blacks 41-64, and whites and blacks 40 and below, we discover that the racial disparity among the dead was quite pronounced, and that blacks most assuredly bore a disparate impact, contrary to the claims of revisionists.

In New Orleans, for example, there were nearly as many white elderly, numerically, as black elderly, at the time of the last full Census: about 26,000 whites and 28,000 blacks. In terms of percentages, whites in New Orleans comprised over forty-six percent of the elderly, while blacks were only slightly more than half, at 50.4 percent. Nineteen percent of whites in the city were elderly, compared to only nine percent of blacks. In other words, the demographic of the elder population was quite different from that of the overall city at the time of the storm (7).

If, as the Department of Health and Hospitals list makes clear, two-thirds of the deaths in New Orleans were to persons 65 and older (8), and if blacks in New Orleans were 50.4 percent of all persons that age in the city, this means that 33.8 percent of the dead should have been black and elderly, if the storm’s effect on the elderly had been racially random and neutral. Numerically, this would mean that had there been no racially disparate impact upon the city’s elderly (in other words, if it was only age alone that mattered, as claimed by Young), there should have been approximately 176 black elderly listed among the dead there thus far, out of 523 listed dead New Orleanians as of February. But in fact, according to the Department of Health and Hospitals, 200 elderly blacks are listed as having died in New Orleans thus far. Conversely, if 46.4 percent of the elderly were white, thirty-one percent of the dead (or 162 persons) should have been white and elderly among the total of New Orleans’ deceased up to this point. But in truth, 135 elderly whites are listed thus far as having died in New Orleans. This means that the black elderly were hit harder than would have been expected under conditions of race-neutrality and random chance, while the white elderly were hit less hard than would have been expected, even though it is certainly the case that all elderly bore a disparate toll relative to those who were younger.

Among persons 41-64 (the next largest chunk of deaths), there are 145 fatalities in this age group, listed for New Orleans, as of February, representing twenty-eight percent of all deaths in the city. Sixty-two percent of all persons between 41-64 in New Orleans, prior to the storm were black, while approximately thirty-one percent were white. (9). So, if twenty-eight percent of the dead were from this age group, and blacks were sixty-two percent of that age group in the city, 17.4 percent of the total listed dead from New Orleans at this stage (or ninety-one persons) should have been black, between 41-64, given random chance and no racial disparity. But in actuality, there are 115 black fatalities in New Orleans, listed within this age group. Conversely, if whites were thirty-one percent of this age group in the city at the time of the storm, and twenty-eight percent of fatalities were to this age group, 8.7 percent of all deaths in New Orleans (or roughly forty-seven people) should have been whites between 41-64, if indeed the tragedy was racially neutral in its effects upon this broader middle-aged group. But in truth, there are not forty-seven, but rather, twenty-nine whites this age who are listed as having died thus far. So among the broad middle-aged group as well, African Americans have paid a higher relative cost than whites.

Now let’s turn to the remaining twenty-six persons who died in Orleans Parish, and who were 40 or younger. If we assume (as we must) that the racial shares of such persons would be slightly more black than the city as a whole (so as to balance out the larger white shares among those who are 41 and above, leaving the overall shares at 68 and 28 percent respectively), and thus estimate that perhaps seventy percent of persons in that group would be black and only twenty-five percent white, we can then examine such numbers, relative to death numbers for those 40 and below, to check for racial disparity. Given the racial share of the 40-and-under population, and the death shares for that group, this would mean that we would have expected an additional eighteen black deaths, and perhaps seven additional whites. But in fact, of the twenty-six deaths to those who were 40 or younger, all but one was black: twenty-five blacks and one white person. So among younger folks as well, blacks were hit disproportionately hard in terms of mortality, relative to what would have been expected in racially neutral and random conditions.

Combined, what the age adjustments reveal is that had the storm been racially neutral in its effects upon the people of New Orleans, of the 523 deaths that were listed from there as of February, 285 (or 54.5 percent) should have been African Americans, while 216 (or 41.3 percent) should have been white. But as indicated by the state’s own figures, 340 of the listed dead from New Orleans (or sixty-five percent) are black, while 165 of the listed dead (or 31.5 percent) are white. In other words, age-adjusted death figures suggest that blacks died at a rate that was nearly one-fifth higher than would have been expected under conditions of randomness and race-neutrality, while whites died at a rate that was almost one-fourth lower than would have been expected. What this means is that blacks at every age range suffered a disparate impact relative to their white counterparts, and that claims to the contrary–and especially claims that it was actually whites who suffered the disproportionate harm–are absurd, and can only be made behind a veil of statistical dishonesty or ignorance, or both.

But of course, gauging the relative racial impact of Katrina requires examining more than death figures anyway. Fortunately, fatalities were the least common of the effects from Katrina and its aftermath, eclipsed quantitatively by other concerns, such as displacement and property damage.

In terms of displacement, 272,000 blacks in New Orleans were uprooted by the post-Hurricane flooding (representing roughly ninety percent of all blacks in the city), as were 101,000 others. Those others are mostly white, but include several thousand Latinos and Asian Pacific Islanders as well. Considering that there were roughly 143,000 non-blacks in New Orleans at the time of the flood (according to the most recent available Census data from 2004), this means that seventy percent of non-blacks were displaced–a serious toll, but well below that for blacks. In fact if only ten percent of blacks were able to avoid displacement, while thirty percent of non-blacks were, this means that non-blacks were three times more likely than blacks to be able to stay in New Orleans after Katrina. In all, although blacks were only a little more than two-thirds of the population at the time of the flooding, they represented almost three-fourths of all persons displaced (10).

It should also be noted that blacks impacted by Katrina and the post-storm flooding were far worse off financially than whites affected: more than a third of affected blacks were poor, compared to less than fifteen percent of whites (11). This in turn has played a significant role in limiting the ability of blacks, relative to whites, to rebuild or move back to the city at all. Overall, in the pre-Katrina black population, more than a third were officially below the poverty line and the median household income was only $25,000. Among whites, only one in nine were poor and the median income was 2.4 times higher, at $61,000. Therefore even among homeowners, blacks are less likely to have the means to rebuild than are whites (12).

And of course, white New Orleanians were mostly homeowners to begin with, while most blacks were renters, further widening the gaps in the relative racial abilities to move back to the city (13). This is especially true, given the way in which average rents in the city have jumped by nearly forty percent since the storm. Three-bedroom apartments, that were going for less than $900 per month on average before Katrina, have jumped to over $1200; one-bedrooms are now renting for $800 per month on average and even efficiency apartments are renting for $725 per month: well above the range that is affordable for a low or moderate income family, and indeed, for most of the black folks who were displaced and have yet to return (14).

In terms of property damage, the disparity is also clear. According to a study from Brown University, which relied on storm damage data from FEMA, race was more predictive of property damage due to Katrina and post-storm flooding than income or any other factor. Damaged areas in the three states affected were forty-six percent black, on average, compared to only twenty-six percent black in areas that remained undamaged by the flooding (15). In New Orleans, seventy-five percent of the people in damaged areas were black, while only forty-six percent of the population in the undamaged areas was. In other words, blacks were disproportionately represented in the damaged areas, even relative to their large share of the New Orleans population (16). According to the Brown study, and referring specifically to Orleans parish, “If the post-Katrina city were limited to the population previously living in areas that were undamaged by the storm–that is, if nobody were able to return to damaged neighborhoods–New Orleans is at risk of losing more than 80 percent of its black population.” Needless to say, nowhere near that share of the white population is at risk of being lost.

Taking a few specific parts of New Orleans, and looking at them for comparison purposes: In Mid-City, eighty-three percent of the population was black, and 100 percent of the area sustained damage from the flood; in New Orleans East, eighty-seven percent of the population was black and ninety-nine percent of the community suffered damage; in the Lower Ninth Ward, ninety-three percent of the population was black, and ninety-six percent of the area was damaged. Likewise, in Treme, Gentilly, and all of the communities with public housing, save one, significant damage tracked the blackness of the community (17).

Among white communities, only Lakeview sustained massive destruction: ninety percent of the area damaged, while being only three percent black. By comparison, the almost all-white Garden District sustained virtually no damage; the nearly two-thirds white Uptown area had damage in less than thirty percent of the community; most of the Audubon and University district remained untouched; the eighty-plus percent white Marigny had damage in less than twenty percent of the area; and the almost entirely white French Quarter had virtually no damage at all. (18).

Although the damage in Lakeview (actually, several neighborhoods, including Lakeview, City Park, Lakewood and Navarre), was catastrophic, given the economic status of persons in those communities, the ability to return to the city and rebuild will obviously be easier for them than for those in mostly black areas of town. So, for example, the average household income in Lakeview prior to Katrina was $64,000, compared to less than one third of that in most of the hard-hit black communities; and in Lakewood, the average income was over $150,000: between 8-10 times the average for the most impacted African American spaces. In Lakeview, less than five percent of persons there were poor, with only seventy-two poor families in the neighborhood as of the 2000 Census. In Lakewood, there were no poor families whatsoever, and only a statistical handful of poor individuals living in so-called non-family households. This, compared to poverty rates of at least twenty-five percent in most of the devastated black communities, and sometimes as high as seventy percent! In both Lakeview and Lakewood, between seventy and ninety percent of residences were owned, as opposed to the numbers in most of the affected black spaces, where most residents were renters (19). Obviously, homeowners, those above the poverty line, and those with surplus income are going to have an easier time picking up the pieces and starting over again, returning and then rebuilding in the communities from which they were uprooted. And in New Orleans, as elsewhere, those categories relate not merely to one’s economic status, but far too often, to race as well.

Additional areas of concern also confirm the racially disparate impact of Katrina and the subsequent flooding of New Orleans. At present, only slightly more than half of the city’s hospitals are open, and Charity Hospital–the free system utilized by the city’s poorest residents, eighty-five percent of whom were black before the storm–has only recently begun to restart certain services, and remains far below pre-storm capacity. Likewise, only half of all public transportation routes are open, and only about one-fifth of buses are operating (20). Also, roughly eight out of ten child-care centers remain closed, and those that are functioning are spread out, and disproportionately in whiter areas of town (21). As has been widely reported, most schools remain closed, and black students from the public education system have been thrown into a charter school free-for-all, which although it may prove more effective than the previous system, will still hardly have the resources of the city’s far superior private and parochial system utilized by most white families. Finally, one recent study confirms that blacks are being shunned for employment in New Orleans, passed over either for whites or for newly-entering Latino migrants, the latter of whom are themselves being exploited by often unscrupulous employers, seeking to take advantage of their limited English language skills and unfamiliarity with the laws, not to mention economic desperation for decent jobs (22).

Of course, it shouldn’t be necessary to go through all of this, just to prove something that all the available evidence, not to mention common sense, tells us is true. And yet, in this day and age, when whites will go to seemingly any length to deny the existence and persistence of racism in any facet of our national life, it is sadly the case that reality requires this level of documentation. Otherwise, the cynical voices of those who would avert our gaze and tell us to pay no attention to the man behind the curtain so to speak, will gain in both number and believability. After all, those who deny racism are appealing to what so many really want to hear: namely, that we’ve conquered those demons, we’ve put that problem to rest, that we’re all in the same boat, and if black folks would just stop griping about racism, we might be able to move forward in this country.

But don’t believe it. As we approach the one-year anniversary of Katrina, let us remember and honor all those who died, regardless of race–and let us do what we can to guarantee the rebuilding of all impacted communities–while yet acknowledging that as in so many other areas of life, it was the black and brown of New Orleans who suffered the greatest losses, in both absolute and relative terms. And let us acknowledge that the disparate impact from the storm is itself a symptom of longstanding institutional racism and structured inequality of opportunity going back years, generations even. And most importantly, let us acknowledge that these racial disparities matter, and that they tell us how far removed we are from the equal opportunity society we profess to be, against all evidence to the contrary.


(1) Glen Ford and Peter Campbell, “Katrina: A Study-Black Consensus, White Dispute,” The Black Commentator, Issue 165, January 5, 2006.

(2) For a full discussion of the intergenerational denial that has been the hallmark of whites in the U.S. when it comes to racism, please see my article of April 24, 2006, entitled “What Kind of Card is Race?” at: http://www.lipmagazine.org/~timwise/whatcard.html.

(3) Mark S. Carie, “Blame ‘Ageism’ for Response,” (letter), New Orleans Times-Picayune, July 19, 2006.

(4) Nathan Burchfiel, “Statistics Suggest Race Not a Factor in Katrina Deaths,” Cybercast News Service (CNSNews.com), December 14, 2005

(5) Cathy Young, “Katrina Wasn’t Really About Race,” Boston Globe. January 18, 2006.

(6) Louisiana Department of Health and Hospitals, (LDHH) “Vital Statistics of all Bodies at St. Gabriel Morgue,” February 16, 2006.

(7) U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000, Demographic Profile Highlights, Summary Files 1 [SF1] 2 [SF2], 3 [SF3] and 4 [SF4], and calculations by the author.

(8) LDHH, Feb 2006, and calculations by the author.

(9) U.S. Census Bureau, Statistical Abstracts of the United States, 2006. The National Data Book, Table 16, also, U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey, and calculations by the author.

(10) Congressional Research Service, (CRS) Report for Congress, Hurricane Katrina: Social-Demographic Characteristics of Impacted Areas, November 4, 2005; also, U.S. Census Bureau, 2004 American Community Survey, and calculations by the author.

(11) CRS, 2005, see above.

(12) Ibid.

(13) John Logan, The Impact of Katrina: Race and Class in Storm-Damaged Neighborhoods, 2005. Brown University, p. 15.

(14) Brookings Institution, Katrina Index: Tracking Variables of Post-Katrina Recovery. July 12, 2006, Table 12.

(15) Logan, 2005.

(16) Ibid.

(17) Ibid.

(18) Ibid.

(19) Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, www.gnocdc.org, using data from the U.S. Census Bureau, Census 2000, Summary Files 1 and 3, SF1, SF3.

(20) Brookings Institution, 2006.

(21) Agenda For Children (New Orleans), data provided to GNOCDC, see url above, July 2006.

(22) Judith Brown-Dianis, et.al., And Injustice for All: Worker’s Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans. The Advancement Project: Washington DC, July, 2006

Leave a Reply