Panelist: Katrina Exposed Racial Inequity

Daily Pennsylvanian
University of Pennslyvania

When Hurricane Katrina hit, University of Washington history professor Nikhil Singh was in Cape Town, South Africa, discussing the legacies of apartheid with students.

Ironically, the natural disaster in New Orleans and the surrounding area uncovered similarly distressing racial divides back home.

Singh, along with Political Science Department Chairman Rogers Smith, discussed American democracy and issues of race in the aftermath of Katrina with about 30 students yesterday.

The event was part of the United Minorities Council’s Unity Week, which runs until Nov. 13.

Smith said the hurricane brought out problems associated with state and local control and demonstrated the “ugly side” of American federalism.

“There are real difficulties in coordinating federal and state relief,” he said.

He also told attendees that there is no easy way to create a society that protects its marginalized citizens.

“Anything I say could seem utopian,” he said. “But if you don’t try, you can be sure nothing is going to happen.”

Racial divides, such as those in New Orleans, exist in populations throughout the world, Singh said.

He encouraged students to think about how Hurricane Katrina, which struck Aug. 28, “might relate to something like apartheid in South Africa or the riots in the [suburbs] of Paris.”

Neo-liberalism, a popular political ideology that supports the free reign of market forces, prevents the government from properly addressing issues of social inequality, Singh said.

“We are in desperate shape,” he said. “We are under the most incompetent political regime of the last half-century.”

Singh added that significant social change takes many years of effort and planning.

“The civil-rights movement was decades in the making. Someone like Rosa Parks doesn’t just decide she is tired and doesn’t want to get up from her seat and start a movement,” he said.

Smith encouraged students to think positively about the future of racial inequality in the United States.

“Amazing and surprising changes do happen in politics over time,” he said. “It seemed like communism would last forever, but it fell.”

College junior Elaine Braithwaite, who is one of three programming chairs of the UMC, said she intended for the event to look at Katrina in a different light.

“The goal was not to hear why Katrina happened or who is at fault, but what Katrina exposed about our existing society,” she said.