Study on Race and Rebuilding New Orleans
ED GORDON, host:
Louisiana governor, Kathleen Blanco, says, she's forming a so-called dream team to help the southern part of the state rebuild after last year's devastating hurricanes. Governor Blanco unveiled a $4.5 million project last week. Participants include the well-known Brookings Institution and various national planning firms. But, new research conducted by political scientists from the University of Chicago, suggest the effort could be compromised by huge racial differences on how to rebuild.
Now, to get more about that study, we're joined by Melissa Harris-Lacewell, one of the co-authors of the report. Professor, thanks for joining us, appreciate it.
Professor MELISSA HARRIS-LACEWELL (Professor, University of Chicago): Absolutely, nice to be here.
GORDON: We heard from Tracie Washington just a moment ago, many of her clients are African American, the fight just to save the ability to go in and recoup anything that you can from these devastating areas is ongoing. When you look at that story and look at all of what your study has found, we should note the study is called The 2005 Racial Attitudes and Katrina Disaster Study, what did you find most glaring?
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, this is something that, in certain ways, isn't new, and yet, in the context of Katrina is actually surprising. So, the central finding is that African Americans and whites live in vastly different perceptual worlds. Although all of us saw what happened in New Orleans, blacks and white perceive what happened very differently. The stories that they draw from what happened are very different.
African Americans, regardless of gender or income or class or region, tend to see Katrina as a story about continuing racial inequality in this country. They continue to see that the federal government and local government responses were, that the botching of those responses, was related to the race of the victims. Whites, on the other hand, overwhelmingly reject those notions. They don't see Katrina as a story about race, and they don't believe that the government would have behaved differently, in, in fact, the victims had been white.
GORDON: Let me ask you this, and here's something that perhaps is, is not as big of a surprise as some would say at face value. One of the numbers I found interesting is that blacks support the federal government spending whatever is necessary to rebuild and restore people to their homes, 79%. Thirty-three percent of whites held that position. Yet, when you talk about government involvement, some might find it interesting, even with dollars involved, that blacks would, that highly, want the federal government associated with the rebuilding of this project.
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Yeah, I think that what we have here is a real question around issues of citizenship. And I think this is part of the important findings of our study, is that we gave both blacks and whites in our survey an opportunity where they either saw a white family or a black family being rescued from the flood, and they either got the word American or the word refugee, so in either - in other words, they either got American plus white, refugee plus white, black plus American or black plus refugee. And guess what? It turns out that if whites see an African-American family and they have it paired with the word refugee, they are less likely to support government spending whatever is necessary to rebuild. African-Americans, on the other hand, when they see black families, whether they're described as Americans or as refugees are more likely to support the federal government spending whatever is necessary in order to rebuild.
This is really a question about who deserves something. African-Americans understand this as a question of citizens and homeowners displaced through no fault of their own who deserve the support of a government into which they have paid all these years.
ED GORDON, host: Professor, how do we make sure that issue of race is not lost on this mirror that Katrina allowed us. I often say after the Simpson trial, it would have been a wonderful opportunity for this country to really talk about race. You saw the division, and somehow we let that fall by the wayside. How do we make sure that that does not happen this time?
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, we do a very, very poor job of talking about race in this country. As this study shows, we don't have a common language. We don't have common perceptions, and this is a moment, right, largely lost. And I'll tell you, the group that I think did the biggest favor here was the Democratic party. It was the Democratic party that had the most to gain by building the interracial coalition that was possible in the aftermath of Katrina, and instead, they moved onto other topics. They didn't keep a domestic focus on what was happening at Katrina. I think we need leadership from the very top to say we've got to keep talking about this.
GORDON: What do you anticipate will be the end result of the findings of this study in terms of how it assists African-Americans and other minorities in that region to move forward?
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, I have to laugh a little bit because, you know, we're academics, so it's shocking to you that anyone even reads the work that we do, but what I do hope is that it demonstrates that there are real divisions here that are not just about chocolate cities and vanilla suburbs. There are differences here about what this even meant, which means we've got to go back and do the work of once again rebuilding the story and the narrative so that we're telling the right story about what happened and it's not lost on good-hearted American citizens who want to help.
GORDON: Yeah. And we should note, Professor, you talk about chocolate city. When Mayor Nagin brought that up last week, a lot of controversy surrounding that, but that really does personify the notion of how different things are seen, doesn't it?
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Well, yeah. I'm mean, I'm not a fan of the comments because I think they move us away from the fact that people have a right to return to New Orleans, not because they're black and that it's a God-ordained space for a black city. They have a right to return because they're citizens, homeowners and taxpayers. Their right to return is because they paid into building that city. They worked in that city. They served that city. They are that city. So their right to return is based on their position as citizens, not on their racial identity.
GORDON: All right. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Assistant Professor, Political Science at the University of Chicago. Thanks for joining us and letting us peek into the study. Appreciate it.
Professor HARRIS-LACEWELL: Absolutely.
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