New Yorker Aug. 24, 2015
By Jelani Cobb
In April, 1927, after spring thaws and weeks of heavy rain, dozens of swollen tributaries poured into the Mississippi River, pushing it beyond its boundaries and initiating the twenty-seven-thousand- square-mile catastrophe that came to be known as the Great Flood. The river breached levees, funneling as much as thirty feet of water into the surrounding areas; swept away homes; and wrought devastation unfathomable even in a region long accustomed to cyclical flooding. Bessie Smith etched the memory of the disaster into popular culture with “Backwater Blues,” a song written during the turbulent season that led up to the flood: “When it thunders and lightnin’ / and the wind begins to blow, There’s thousands of people / ain’t got no place to go.”
The waters wound through a South that was still defined by agricultural labor and debt peonage. Like the Mississippi itself, tumbling along a route constructed for it by a primitive levee system, the disaster followed a path that had been engineered beforehand, disproportionately affecting the poor, mostly black laborers who were anchored to the land by sharecropping contracts. In some instances, Red Cross supplies were disbursed to landlords, who sold them to tenant farmers. Tent encampments (then known as concentration camps) allowed entry to blacks fleeing the storm but required that they obtain special passes in order to leave. The black labor force was already diminished by the Great Migration, and the main concern was to insure that blacks would not use the flood as an opportunity to flee North. Herbert Hoover, the Secretary of Commerce, was appointed to head the recovery effort. In response to allegations of racism and mistreatment, he appointed a commission led by Robert Moton, a protégé of Booker T. Washington’s, and his successor at the Tuskegee Institute, to examine the charges. That report was not issued until 1929, safely after the 1928 election, in which Hoover had feared losing the traditionally Republican black vote, but the damage was inescapable. In 1932, African-Americans deserted the G.O.P. to support Franklin Roosevelt, beginning a major realignment in American politics, and Hoover’s handling of the catastrophe was part of the reason for the shift.
As Richard Mizelle writes, in his history of the flood (also titled “Backwater Blues”), what happened in 1927 is “part of a much longer narrative of how race, class, gender, and questions of social worth are framed through an environmental disaster.”That pattern has grown only more apparent. History, social science, and common sense have made it increasingly difficult not to consider the term “natural disaster” as a linguistic diversion, one that carries a hint of absolution. Hurricanes, earthquakes, and floods are natural phenomena; disasters, however, are often the work of humankind. The earthquake that struck Haiti in 2010 was two orders of magnitude weaker than the one that struck off the coast of Japan in 2011, yet it resulted in fifteen times more fatalities. The disparity was largely due to the relative geopolitical and economic standings of the two nations, and the corresponding standards of housing.
A decade after Hurricane Katrina, the images that it produced remain fresh in memory: bodies floating by major thoroughfares, the horrorscape of the Superdome, people stranded on rooftops like urban castaways. Official estimates hold that eighteen hundred and thirty- three people died as a result of the hurricane and the subsequent breaches of the levees. There is a temptation to say that the storm also swept away a particular kind of innocence about American poverty, but, in the days afterward, polls showed stark disparities in how blacks and whites viewed the federal government’s tardy response to the crisis and the role that race played in it. Sixty per cent of blacks said that the response was slow because of the race of the storm’s primary victims; only about twelve per cent of whites concurred. Sixty- three per cent of blacks felt that the response was slow because the victims were poor, a sentiment shared by just twenty-one per cent of whites.
Katrina didn’t usher in a new narrative about race in America as much as it confirmed an old one. In 2006, Lil Wayne, a New Orleans native, released “Georgia . . . Bush,” an indignant screed in which he claimed that the hurricane should have been named for the President who had presided over the mismanagement of the calamity. In the song, Wayne repeated a commonly held belief that the levees in the Lower Ninth Ward didn’t fail but were detonated, so that the more valuable white neighborhoods would be spared—a rumor that also spread about the flood that engulfed the city after Hurricane Betsy, in 1965. The past haunts at the peripheries. For one set of people, Katrina was a tragedy compounded by ineptitude; for another, it was a recasting of a drama that stretched back at least eight decades and suggested that, if the past is prologue, the disaster was not just predictable but possibly inevitable.
Residents of St. Bernard Parish, who blocked the roads in order to keep black residents leaving the city from coming through their community, were playing a part similar to that of those who, nearly eighty years ago, refused to allow blacks to leave the relief camps. In 2013, the Parish paid $2.5 million to settle lawsuits, one filed by the Department of Justice, alleging that it had contrived ordinances to prevent African Americans from moving there after the storm. The population of New Orleans went from being sixty-seven per cent black, in 2005, to fifty-nine per cent, in 2013, which literally changed the color of the electoral politics in the city. The ghosts of the past remain discernible in at least one other way. Media reports often referred to New Orleanians displaced by Katrina as “refugees,” a word that, in a CNN/USA Today/Gallup poll, seventy-seven per cent of blacks, and just thirty-seven per cent of whites, took exception to. The term, with its connotations of foreigners crossing borders to seek asylum, cut closer to the bone in a population whose citizenship has so frequently been challenged. Katrina can be viewed as the first of a series of crises that seem to have become a referendum on black citizenship. The poll respondents were asked if they were “bothered” by the word “refugee.” The presumption was that many took issue with a loaded term being applied inaccurately. A decade later, it’s worth wondering whether they were “bothered” by a fear that “refugee,” not “citizen,” had been the most apt description all along. .
Jelani Cobb has been a contributor to The New Yorker and newyorker.com since 2013, writing frequently about race, politics, history, and culture.
New Yorker Aug. 24, 2015