One of these is very familiar to my fellow New Orleanians: It’s the idea that what happened to the city during the time of Katrina was a “natural disaster.” As any schoolchild in the Lower Ninth Ward can tell you, fifty-three breaches in the federally constructed system of levees is anything but natural, especially when we consider that the storm failed to score a direct hit on the city, skirting it rather to the east.
The second misconception is equally troubling. To understand it, we need to review some uncomfortable facts:
- 69 percent of black children can’t read at grade level in the 4th grade, compared with 29 percent of white children. (That 29 percent of white children can’t read at grade level in the 4th grade is itself barbarous.)
- 1.46 million black men out of a total voting population of 10.4 million have lost their right to vote due to felony convictions.
- One in three black men between the ages of 20 and 29 is under correctional supervision or control.
- 45 percent of black children live below the federal poverty line (a bar that’s set embarrassingly low).
- The net worth of black families is $6,100; the net worth of white families is $67,000.
- Of black males born this year, 29 percent can expect to spend some time behind bars. One in 14 black children has a parent in jail or in prison. One in 20 black men is incarcerated, compared with one in 155 white men. For every three black men in college, there are four in prison.*
Matched pair testing and other studies continue to demonstrate the pervasiveness of racism in hiring practices, in housing, in educational settings, and in other domains.
These are national statistics, not statistics for New Orleans proper. Which brings me to the second great misconception about Katrina.
Outside of Louisiana I frequently encounter the notion that the inequities surfaced by Katrina were endemic to the South and that it took a disaster like Katrina to expose them. This is wrong on both counts.
What happened was that a category 5 hurricane blew ashore and laid bare what was already in plain sight not only in New Orleans, but in many cities across the United States and indeed across the world. All we had to do was look and see.
Despite all the investments in the Gulf South since Katrina, despite all our hand-wringing and breast-beating, these inequities persist to this day.
Many New Orleanians are rightly committed to rebuilding “better than before.” But what will this mean when it comes to our commitment to our most vulnerable neighbors? Will a little bit of progress here and there lull us, as it’s done before, into accepting overwhelming inequities?
* These statistics and others may be found at morehousemaleinitiave.com.