Race and Class: Katrina vs. Iowa

Concentrated poverty and hypersegregation generate wide-ranging costs in almost every major U.S. city, particularly for less favored populations. New Orleans clearly fits this description. Cedar Rapids less so.

The problems facing residents of New Orleans in the face of Hurricane Katrina and its aftermath were less the result of overt racism and racist stereotypes than the outcome of decades of public policies and private practices that contributed to the uneven development of that region. Concentration of public housing in poor central-city neighborhoods, exclusionary zoning laws in the suburbs, redlining by mortgage lenders, and steering by real-estate agents are just some of the forces that have long shaped — and continue to shape — the demography of New Orleans.

Coupled with the failure to maintain the levees, just as we have failed to maintain the infrastructure and other critical public services in cities across the nation (including schools, parks, police and fire protection, and other services that poor and working families are more dependent on than are the wealthy), the race and class effects of Katrina were fore-ordained.

Consequently, in New Orleans lower-income families and people of color generally were less likely to own cars and to have places to go or possess the means to get anywhere after the storm hit. The failures of FEMA and outright racism no doubt fueled these problems. But the longstanding public policies and private practices that nurtured the uneven development of metropolitan areas resulted, once again, in a disproportionate price being paid by lower-income and minority families.

These problems are not unknown in Iowa. But they are far more prevalent in the Gulf Region.

The race and class effects of Katrina should have come as no surprise. We have been planning them for decades.

Gregory D. Squires is a professor of sociology and public policy and public administration at George Washington University. He previously served on the board of the National Housing Institute, publisher of Shelterforce.


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