Color of Disaster in New Orleans: Fact Sheet for Challenging Racism Workshop

Arlene Eisen
Date Published: 
February 18, 2006

(Important note: Knowledge brings responsibility. We offer this Fact Sheet to arm you with information to use as you take responsibility for challenging racism in all aspects of your life.)


Population of New Orleans before September 2005:

  • 500,000 = total population

  • 67.9% of New Orleans population was African American


Pre-Katrina: Evidence of Systematic/Institutional Racism


Poverty in New Orleans is disproportionately Black:

  • 18.4% of total population are poor

  • 35% of African American population are poor

  • New Orleans had the 7th worst poverty rate in the country.

  • More than 90,000 people in New Orleans had incomes of less that $10,000 a year.

  • Only 5% of whites had no access to a car, but 27% of African Americans had no access to a car.

  • Nearly 50,000 poor people in New Orleans lived in areas where the poverty rate approached 40%. In these segregated neighborhoods, low quality schools and access only to low-paying jobs feed the prison-industrial complex with new recruits. For example, the majority of jobs available to the 20,000 African American residents of the 9th Ward –like the jobs available in many of the world’s neo-colonies—were for household cleaners, bellhops, busboys and others who serve tourists.

Denial of Right to Quality Education and health Care:

  • New Orleans has a 40% illiteracy rate.

  • Over 50% of African American 9th Graders won’t graduate from high school.

  • Louisiana has the 3rd lowest rank in the country for teachers’ salaries.

  • 83,000 or 19% have no health insurance. Before Katrina, the state decided to close Charity Hospital, the only full-service hospital in the City that treated poor people.


After Katrina: Evidence of Racism


Population of New Orleans:

  • 140,000 = total population as of February 2006

  • 35-40% of New Orleans population is now African American

Disaster disproportionately impacts African Americans, beyond the problem of poverty:

  • While about 35% of African Americans in New Orleans live below the poverty line, 73% of the African American population was displaced by the storm.

  • The neighborhoods with the highest proportion of African American people sustained the worst damage. Six months after the storm, the 9th Ward is the only community that remains a ghost community, unoccupied, where nearly all homes on vast swaths of land are still piles of rubble. The contrast with white sections of the city is stark.

Demonization and dehumanization of Black people resulted in preventable death, destruction and misery:

  • FEMA called off its rescue operations after three days because of “security concerns”. The media reflected and re-enforced anti-Black hysteria by labeling white people as “flood victims looking for food” and Black people as “looters.”

  • FEMA diverted resources that might have been used for rescue into providing “security” against desperate residents seeking only food and shelter.

  • Thousands of people traumatized by the floods had to wait five hours in the rain outside the Superdome—where they expected sanctuary- to be searched.

  • Residents had to go through criminal record checks before Red Cross Centers would admit them.

  • FEMA, Red Cross and other officials forced evacuees onto buses, foreceably separating families, shipping them to different cities. Evacuees who had lost nearly all their possessions to the flood, were then forced to abandon what they had left and take only one bag with them on the buses.

  • Shoot-to-kill “looters” resulted in the death of scores of people. During the first four days after the Storm, white vigilantes had carte blanche to kill Black people. At least 18 are known to be murdered by these vigilantes. Grafitti remains: “looters will be shot”.

  • Thousands of African American residents who attempted to leave New Orleans, by crossing the Gretna Bridge to higher ground were forced back into the flood by gun toting white vigilantes.

  • Curfew was only enforced against Black people. The 9th Ward is still subject to curfew which is arbitrarily enforced.

Denial of the Right of Return and Citizenship: The Governments’/Developers’ Strategy for “Ethnic Cleansing” to get African Americans out of New Orleans and stay out.

  • Bush’s Housing and Urban Development Secretary told the Houston Chronicle, “New Orleans is not going to be as Black as it was for a long time, if ever again.”

  • The President of the region’s major real estate firm, Arthur Sterbow of Latter and Blum, told Reuters, “We were one of the 25 most underpriced (housing) markets in the US. We were as far away from what they called a housing bubble as you can get. Now we’ve had three record-breaking months in a row.” Rents have tripled.

  • FEMA, in collaboration with the New Orleans city government, is delaying the distribution of 1000’s of trailers that would provide housing in New Orleans while people reconstruct their homes.

  • Profiteers like Haliburton charged $3000 per roof to put up tarps while paying undocumented workers sub-standard wages to do the work. Low-income homeowners in the 9th Ward and other African American communities have yet to receive assistance in making their homes habitable.

  • The government is taking no responsibility for redesigning the levee to withstand a Level 5 Hurricane. Instead, developers promote “greenspacing” low lying areas to provide – in the guise of sound ecology—a rationale for preventing the residents of the 9th ward and other low-lying areas from returning.

  • It is not possible for the hundreds of thousands of African American New Orleanians who are dispersed around the country to vote. A number of organizations have called for postponement of the April 22 election to ensure the right to vote of all New Orleanians.

  • The longer people are kept away by deliberate neglect that makes their former homes uninhabitable, the less likely they will ever return.


For more info check:

Michael Eric Dyson. Come Hell or High Water. Basic Civitas Books, 2006.

Greater New Orleans Community Data Center.

Times Picayune Daily Newspaper.


Prepared 2/18/2006 by arlenesreport [at] yahoo [dot] com (arlenesreport [at] yahoo [dot] com) for Catalyst Project