“Empowering People of Color in the Aftermath of Katrina — One Year Later”
Presented on Sept. 12, 2006
When Hurricane Katrina ravaged the U.S. Gulf coastline on Aug. 29, 2005, Americans watched television in the days following the catastrophe with growing dismay. The nation was jolted by both the horrendous damage wreaked by heedless nature and the heart-wrenching neglect of the poor and black citizens of the coast by a heedless government. Television news stories and specials, including a four-hour documentary by filmmaker Spike Lee, in the year since have continued to focus some attention on one of the worst crises ever faced by an American city—even as governmental attention and widespread concern have waned.
Yet, a group of concerned students on the Bloomington campus strove to remind people of the devastation and the ongoing progress—and lack of progress—in solving the human problems resulting from Katrina. Sponsored by Alpha Phi Alpha fraternity, with co-sponsorship by the Department of African American and African Diaspora Studies, the forum featured professors Valerie Grim (AAADS) and Carolyn Calloway-Thomas (Communication and Culture) and AA advisor Cameron Beatty (financial aid office).
Beatty began by noting that while Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has said there was “no race issue connected to the delayed response“ to Katrina, most black people disagree. He described the social catastrophe of race being compounded by the physical and social impact of Katrina on both the African American and Latino populations. Prior to Katrina’s landfall, the Gulf area already was deluged by the racial disparities common throughout the United States. One problem afflicting all races has been having insurance claims rejected. In addition, the high level of poverty in the states most affected by the hurricane (Louisiana, Mississippi, and Alabama) was magnified by the tragedy.
Beatty said that two pieces of legislation might help the people most affected by Katrina. One, the Emergency Act for Vulnerable Children, would protect foster children displaced by Katrina. The other, the Gas Stamp Act, sets aside gas taxes for those receiving government assistance.
Calloway-Thomas, noting how the images of post-Katrina despair and hurt are reminiscent of the scenes of black poverty familiar to Americans for long years, asked, “What story does this tell?“ The split-screen view of New Orleans is now plenty vs. poverty, boom town vs. bust, optimism vs. pessimism, safety vs. crime and violence, and expansion vs. collapse. These are media-made images that constrain the movement of blacks back to New Orleans rather than galvanize a movement toward it. For the screen is split between white and black. The focus on the negative aspects of the city get media play and scare those who would like to return. Calloway-Thomas said that the New Orleans exiles want to go home, but, she asked, “What role will the media play in their return?“
Grim began by asking “What doesn’t make it to the news?“ She gave one answer: The media make the aftermath of Katrina seem like an urban experience, but the effect on rural people has been devastating. The lack of media coverage on the plight of rural people has added to the damage they’ve suffered. She added that they are being written out of the general discussion of what being American is, yet they are historically an important component of the nation. The land where people used to live is valuable and if developers can get hold of it, New Orleans will be rebuilt—but that doesn’t mean the same people will be living there. When farms are wiped out, the banks come to reclaim the land, and families can lose the one thing that gave them a home and continuity.
While money flowed to the Gulf, the neediest didn’t get it, said Grim, and they never have. Historically, those who need most do not receive the aid they need, so we must not be too surprised at the aftermath of Katrina. Empowerment must be an internal process that grows out of the availability of external resources. Finally, she said, it’s about the land. The ability to keep land, especially for rural blacks, who paid dearly for it, is a source of personal empowerment. Rural Katrina victims need to believe that there will be long-term help for them to keep their land.
During the question and answer session, it was noted that only a few corporations control the media and, therefore, what people see and hear. This “monopoly of the knowledge base“ is part of the problem, but it is worth remembering that media functions through presenting a partial reality only; it can never cover the entire reality.