A conversation between Dennis Parker and Marjorie Esman about Hurricane Katrina and the racial injustices that it exposed to the rest of the country.
Dennis Parker: Let me begin the conversation by asking you, Marjorie, as a New Orleans resident and rights and liberties advocate, what you think was the most important lesson learned from the disaster?
Marjorie Esman: Katrina showed the world what we here always knew: New Orleans is a city divided by race and class. Those divisions played a major role in everything that followed in aftermath of the flood. Still, we and the rest of the country were shocked by the images of thousands of poor black people trapped in terrible conditions and the never-ending stories of abuse. The ACLU did a report bringing to light the police abuse, racial profiling, housing discrimination and the dangerous lack of planning at the Orleans Parish Prison that disproportionately impacted the black population.
DP: Sadly, we didn’t learn the lesson that systematic discrimination and inequality exist not only in New Orleans but in the United States as a whole. Katrina wasn’t the first time that inequality was revealed, and sadly, it won’t be the last. Remember how surprised everyone was 20 years ago when statistical evidence confirmed what communities of color had long known, that black and brown people are subjected unfairly to racial profiling? But I’m not sure we learned any lasting lessons. Look at the extreme “show me your papers” law in Arizona that basically requires police to racially profile Latinos. Where are we five years later in New Orleans?
ME: The anniversary of Katrina offers us an opportunity to reevaluate the discriminatory systems in place and to assess whether those systems have improved. The report card is mixed. Our police force is now being monitored by the U.S. Justice Department because of longstanding police misconduct, some of which was uncovered after Katrina. It’s too soon to know whether this and other recent changes will have lasting effects. On the other hand, because of the connection between race and poverty, race has played a major factor in determining who can return to the affected areas.
DP: To illustrate your point, just a few days ago a federal court in Washington, D.C., blocked the state of Louisiana from continuing to use a discriminatory formula as part of the federally-funded Road Home program meant to help homeowners rebuild after the devastating damage resulting from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina.
The program gave relief funds based on home appraisals. The problem is that homes in poor neighborhoods, many of which are predominately black, aren’t valued as highly as similar homes in white neighborhoods. People who lived in the poorer neighborhoods didn’t receive equal relief even though materials and labor for reconstruction don’t cost any less in one neighborhood than they do in another. The program was designed by the Louisiana Recovery Authority and approved by the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development, but both Louisiana and the federal government failed to take the reality of racial and economic inequality into account.
ME: Tragically, the ruling only impacts the families who qualify for future Road Home funding. Thousands of others who lost their homes to Katrina or Rita will not be receiving any additional money to rebuild even though the court recognized that they did not receive equitable funding because of where they lived. This means that poorer areas, many of which are black neighborhoods, will remain full of destroyed and empty houses.
DP: It’s an unfortunate example of what happens when we refuse to acknowledge or forget our sad legacy of racial and economic inequality despite all of the evidence that it still persists. I believe that New Orleans and the United States will be able to more successfully address the persistent effects of racial discrimination if we stop pretending that it doesn’t exist.
ME: Yes, it’s time that as a country we honestly look at race and what it means. New Orleans remains a city divided by race, despite our shared experience in surviving this disaster. Five years later, despite significant improvements, we still fight the legacy of racial discrimination. Katrina made the world see the problem, and we need to remember that the problem hasn’t gone away.