The destruction in the wake of Hurricane Katrina has been massive. The cost in human lives is not yet known but will certainly be in the hundreds if not the thousands and the physical and evironmental destruction is catastrophic.

One thing looks to be increasingly clear: people who are African American and poor will suffer more than others. One of the lessons we learn from sociology is that social position matters and this disaster demonstrates how high a price people some will pay. News reports are beginning to point to the significance of race and class in this disaster.

Jack Shafer writing for Slate notes an unwillingness by reporters and news anchors to directly address the issue head on:

…broadcasters covering the New Orleans end of the disaster demurred from mentioning two topics that must have occurred to every sentient viewer: race and class.Nearly every rescued person, temporary resident of the Superdome, looter, or loiterer on the high ground of the freeway I saw on TV was African-American. And from the look of it, they weren’t wealthy residents of the Garden District. This storm appears to have hurt blacks more directly than whites, but the broadcasters scarcely mentioned that fact.

Aaron Kinney, writing on Salon.com, reports that captions on pictures seemed to label people differently based on their race:

One of the images, shot by photographer Dave Martin for the Associated Press, shows a young black man wading through chest-deep waters after “looting” a grocery store, according to the caption. The young man appears to have a case of Pepsi under one arm and a full garbage bag in tow. In the other, similar shot, taken by photographer Chris Graythen for AFP/Getty Images, a white man and a light-skinned woman are shown wading through chest-deep water after “finding” goods including bread and soda, according to the caption, in a local grocery store.

And, Paul Simao, in a report from Reuters news service, points out that many people who are poor lacked the money to evacuate before the storm hit:

But others could not afford to join them, either because they didn’t own a car or couldn’t raise funds for even the cheapest motel.”No way we could do that,” said Willie Rhetta, a bus driver, who remained in his home to await Katrina.

Leonard Witt, demonstrating that it was known beforehand the the poor were least likely to be able to protect themselves, quotes a report from this past July that concluded:

“City, state and federal emergency officials are preparing to give the poorest of New Orleans’ poor a historically blunt message: In the event of a major hurricane, you’re on your own.”

There is a tendency to think that race and class do not matter in the U.S., but one of the lessons we learn from sociology and from this disaster is that they still do.

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