Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina—among the most crippling natural disasters in the history of the United States—produced a disturbing stock of images: floating corpses, body bags left on highways, and the overall destruction of life depicted through the ravaged city of New Orleans. Yet the most unsettling picture it painted was of race in America, a cataclysmic reminder of how minorities are marginalized by the government and the media. Arriving dead in the middle of the previous decade, Hurricane Katrina was a prism that shaped attitudes about racial equality moving forward. Looking back at its aftermath, somehow little has changed.
A few weeks after Hurricane Katrina's impact, the late David Carr noted that "disaster has a way of bringing out the best and the worst instincts in the news media." As devastating as Katrina was, it yielded an unnecessary, gross amount of sensationalism. In the following days, desperation stemming from the government’s neglect resulted in some New Orleans residents robbing stores. Some absolutely used the disaster as an opportunity, but others resorted to those extremes for the purpose of sustenance. The word "thug" was used in the spotlight by Bill O’Reilly (no surprise there) in reference to the city’s low-income residents, and off the record, allegedly, by Brian Williams (whose every claim will henceforth be vetted thoroughly). Further highlighting the media’s twisting of events were the vastly different descriptions of images showing blacks and whites essentially doing the same thing.
The black kid is "looting," a word loaded with negative connotation that’s noticeably absent from the characterization of what the two whites are seen doing. It’s an egregious example of the slanted narratives that Van Jones called out in the days after the levees broke:
Repeatedly, reporters refer to white victims clinging to life as "survivors" and "residents," while African-American victims doing the same things are called "looters" and "criminals." Disproportionately, the humanizing, "heart-breaker" stories feature white victims and families. Meanwhile, images of African-American crowds are almost invariably in the background during discussions of "criminal activity."
The same tactic has been deployed in the coverage of current events that, despite being less catastrophic than Katrina, tell similar truths about the stasis of racial perception.
Responses to demonstrations following Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson, Mo. last summer were exemplary of how problematic it is for blacks to object to police brutality. Due to isolated incidents of looting and violence, terms like "Lynch Mob" were spread across every protestor like a blanket. For minorities, the actions of a splinter group cast an incriminating cloud over an entire movement’s efforts, and the media is all too willing to generalize. The toxic label becomes unshakable, yet whites are able to evade it with ease. Penn State University students responsible for the school's most expensive riot in 15 years after Joe Paterno’s 2011 firing weren’t branded a "mob." The liquor-fueled chaos of last fall’s Pumpkin Festival in Keene, N.H. produced dozens of arrests and violence, but the participants weren’t pegged as menaces. One reveler even described antagonizing law enforcement as "a rush," adding "it's a blast to do things that you're not supposed to do."
That quote reinforces the notion that white privilege not only shields its owners from consequence, it can condition them to find amusement in encounters that have cost their black counterparts their lives. Duke University students burned benches on campus after winning the national title in basketball this spring—a practice accepted as tradition, not a possible felony. It’s dismissed as youthful exuberance, not thuggery. And that word—"thug"—surfaced again this year around the same time that another black man’s exchange with law enforcement led to his unnecessary demise.
On the day of Freddie Gray’s funeral in Baltimore this spring, riots left the city in tumult. Peaceful protesters of Gray’s death in police custody two weeks prior were overshadowed by a vengeful sect who pillaged stores, warred with police, and destroyed property. They were referred to as "thugs": by O’Reilly, unsurprisingly, and even by Baltimore Mayor Stephanie Rawlings-Blake and President Obama. Self-destruction in the form of violence is unjustifiable, but "thug" has become so loaded with racial overtones at this point, that it’s used when people mean to say "nigger." It’s telling that the six cops indicted on charges ranging from assault to murder in connection with Gray’s death haven’t been tagged as thugs—nor has Dylann Roof, the 21-year-old white male who killed nine African Americans in a Charleston, S.C. church in June.
While inexcusable, the actions of the Baltimore rioters are indicative of a larger issue. Their exploits represented an eruption of fury from people anchored down by years of socioeconomic imbalance, poverty, and segregation—issues present in Ferguson and New Orleans, before and after Hurricane Katrina. Although Katrina was a pivotal indicator of how America views blacks, its wake was equally important in shaping how blacks viewed their position in the U.S.
In a piece for Slate, Jamelle Bouie references a July New York Times and CBS News poll which reveals that black satisfaction with race relations in America is at 28 percent. Gallup data shows that 68 percent of blacks found some satisfaction one year prior to Katrina, a figure that dipped to 62 percent the year following the storm, then to 55 percent in 2007. The same year, an annual Gallup Minority Rights and Relations poll found that merely 11 percent of blacks were content with conditions in the U.S. Furthermore, a Pew Research Center survey done in conjunction with the March on Washington’s 50th anniversary showed that President Obama’s first term only signaled a brief spike in positivity among the black community. After climbing to 39 percent in 2009, research showed that any feelings of advancement among blacks had dropped to 26 percent by 2013. This marked their lowest point since 2007, just before the nation was besieged by the Great Recession. These numbers, coupled with those showing the feelings of black New Orleans residents regarding the city's alleged recovery, represent a downward spiral for which Hurricane Katrina was the catalyst.
In recounting the decade since Hurricane Katrina, the recuperation of New Orleans will be the symbol used to gauge progress since the tragedy. What can never be overshadowed or erased is its ugly exposition of racial inequity in America. The suffering and alienation of blacks in crisis was put on display by the same media that chided them from ivory towers. That tendency to disparage and vilify—something that’s long been as American as the national anthem—has carried over into the next decade, attributed to those who confront the institutional and overt racism that Katrina unearthed. Nothing has changed, besides the dwindling patriotism and increased frustration within the black community. Kanye West’s infamous post-Katrina outburst was applicable to America as a whole, not just George W. Bush. The idea of progress has no place here—because everything’s just as fucked up today as it was 10 years ago.