February 2, 2006
Vol. 25 No. 9

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    Racial gaps between blacks, whites impacting future of New Orleans

    By William Harms
    News Office

    A new study by University political scientists shows that sharp racial gaps between blacks and whites are undermining the process of deciding how to rebuild New Orleans, La., in the wake of Hurricane Katrina.

    Their project, the 2005 Racial Attitudes and the Katrina Disaster Study, is one of the first to analyze racial differences in reactions to the reporting of the tragedy and people’s attitudes toward the responsibilities of the victims to avoid the disaster.

    Conducted under the auspices of the Center for the Study of Race, Politics and Culture, the study’s principle investigators are Michael Dawson, the John D. MacArthur Distinguished Service Professor in Political Science and the College; Cathy Cohen, Professor in Political Science and the College; and Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Assistant Professor in Political Science and the College.

    The research team is studying the responses of 1,300 people, evenly split between blacks and whites and selected randomly by Knowledge Networks, a firm that is using television and Internet-based technology to complete the study.

    “The data show why, four months after the disaster, we still can’t decide what to do to rebuild New Orleans. There is no political will to act,” Harris-Lacewell said.

    Some of the reasons the national consensus is still unresolved may come from the way the disaster was initially reported, Harris-Lacewell suggested. Shortly after the hurricane struck, the American public saw images of both black and white people being rescued as well as reports that either described them as refugees or referred to them as Americans.

    To test how reporting on the tragedy influenced people’s reactions, survey participants were shown separate television images of both black and white families and asked to respond to two statements: “The federal government should spend whatever necessary to rebuild the city and restore these Americans to their homes,” or “Although this is a great tragedy, the federal government must not commit too many funds to rebuilding until we know how we will pay for it.”

    Whites who viewed the images of white victims described as refugees were 6 percent more likely to support rebuilding than they were if they viewed a black family described as refugees. Blacks had similar responses, whether people were described as refugees or as Americans, but were 5 percent more likely to support rebuilding if they were shown a black family.

    Overall, blacks supported the federal government spending whatever is necessary to rebuild and restore people to their homes by 79 percent. Only 33 percent of whites held that position.

    Among blacks, 89 percent felt that the reason blacks were trapped by Katrina was that they did not have resources to escape, while 56 percent of whites held that view.

    Part of the coverage of the aftermath of the tragedy included reporting on remarks made by rap artist Kanye West that President Bush does not care about black people. While 9 percent of blacks felt his remarks were unjustified, 56 percent of whites held that view.

    In addition to the work of the team analyzing data, Harris-Lacewell traveled to New Orleans in November 2005 to interview people and attend community meetings. She found attitudes and responses divided racially as well.

    “African Americans blamed local government. They felt that the local authorities had not maintained the levees or else blew them up so that their neighborhoods were flooded,” she said. Whites were more likely to attend meetings at which a plan with modest goals to restore the core tourist section of the city was given priority, she said.