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Specifically, I find that the actual number of white deaths in each of the three parishes is lower than

would be expected based on the size and age of the white population in the affected areas;

by contrast, the actual number of black deaths is larger than would be expected. 



Were whites really more likely than blacks to die in Katrina?

A re-analysis of data on race and the casualties of Hurricane Katrina

By Pat Sharkey


In the months since Katrina swept through New Orleans, conservatives have been on a mission to convince us that our initial impressions were wrong, that the hurricane had nothing at all to do with race.  This effort to deny a link between race and Hurricane Katrina gained steam with the release of a recent report claiming that whites, not African-Americans, seem to have been disproportionately likely to die in Hurricane Katrina.  

The report, conducted by staff from Knight Ridder Newspapers, appears to show that blacks represented only a slight majority of those who died in the storm, despite the fact that they comprise a substantial majority of the population in the areas hit hardest by Katrina.  This finding compelled one columnist to write that suggestions of a link between race and the effects of Hurricane Katrina are driven by nothing more than “racial paranoia.”

The problem with these claims is that they are based on an analysis of the data that is seriously flawed.  After re-analyzing the data, I find that African-Americans died in numbers that equaled or exceeded what would be expected given their population and age distribution in the affected parishes.   (The full report is available at  

This becomes apparent when one considers two essential factors that are overlooked by the Knight Ridder analysis: 1) old age is the single most important factor in determining who fell victim to Katrina; and 2) the white populations in the affected areas contain a much larger share of the region’s elderly than the corresponding black populations.

Put simply, the elderly were much more likely to die in Katrina, and whites living in the areas hit hardest were much more likely to be elderly than blacks.  When one takes into account the size of the elderly population of whites and blacks in the three parishes hit hardest by Katrina, it becomes clear that whites were actually under-represented among Katrina’s casualties.  

Specifically, I find that the actual number of white deaths in each of the three parishes is lower than would be expected based on the size and age of the white population in the affected areas; by contrast, the actual number of black deaths is larger than would be expected. 

Thus, the impression that this storm took the largest toll on New Orleans’ black population appears to be validated empirically.  And while race is clearly not the only story here, these findings confirm that it is deeply implicated in this and every aspect of the tragedy of Hurricane Katrina.  When Katrina swept through New Orleans, it exposed the hidden racial inequalities that characterize urban America.  Americans saw with their own eyes what urban scholars have long known: relative to whites of similar socio-economic status, racial and ethnic minorities live in communities that are severely disadvantaged.  These communities have fewer economic opportunities and less political influence, they are poorer and more violent, and they are more vulnerable to a disaster such as Hurricane Katrina. 

By recognizing Katrina as both a social and a natural disaster, we reinforce the role that public policy can play before a disaster occurs.  In particular, policies designed to de-concentrate poverty and create viable, safe communities have the potential to mitigate the vulnerability of any single population to the dangers of a tragedy such as Katrina.  

On the other hand, if conservatives are successful in denying the importance of race and portraying Katrina as a random, purely “natural” disaster, it becomes much easier to ignore the needs of the black population that was disproportionately impacted by Katrina, to leave their neighborhoods in rubble and to forget that they ever were a part of the city. 

Pat Sharkey is a doctoral student in Sociology and Social Policy at Harvard University.  He is also a doctoral fellow in the Multidisciplinary Program in Inequality and Social Policy.  His research examines the stratification of urban neighborhoods by race, and the consequences of residential stratification for youth development. 

posted 20 February 2006

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The New Jim Crow

Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness

By Michele Alexander

Contrary to the rosy picture of race embodied in Barack Obama's political success and Oprah Winfrey's financial success, legal scholar Alexander argues vigorously and persuasively that [w]e have not ended racial caste in America; we have merely redesigned it. Jim Crow and legal racial segregation has been replaced by mass incarceration as a system of social control (More African Americans are under correctional control today... than were enslaved in 1850). Alexander reviews American racial history from the colonies to the Clinton administration, delineating its transformation into the war on drugs. She offers an acute analysis of the effect of this mass incarceration upon former inmates who will be discriminated against, legally, for the rest of their lives, denied employment, housing, education, and public benefits. Most provocatively, she reveals how both the move toward colorblindness and affirmative action may blur our vision of injustice: most Americans know and don't know the truth about mass incarceration—but her carefully researched, deeply engaging, and thoroughly readable book should change that.—Publishers Weekly

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Salvage the Bones

A Novel by Jesmyn Ward

On one level, Salvage the Bones is a simple story about a poor black family that’s about to be trashed by one of the most deadly hurricanes in U.S. history. What makes the novel so powerful, though, is the way Ward winds private passions with that menace gathering force out in the Gulf of Mexico. Without a hint of pretension, in the simple lives of these poor people living among chickens and abandoned cars, she evokes the tenacious love and desperation of classical tragedy. The force that pushes back against Katrina’s inexorable winds is the voice of Ward’s narrator, a 14-year-old girl named Esch, the only daughter among four siblings. Precocious, passionate and sensitive, she speaks almost entirely in phrases soaked in her family’s raw land. Everything here is gritty, loamy and alive, as though the very soil were animated. Her brother’s “blood smells like wet hot earth after summer rain. . . . His scalp looks like fresh turned dirt.” Her father’s hands “are like gravel,” while her own hand “slides through his grip like a wet fish,” and a handsome boy’s “muscles jabbered like chickens.” Admittedly, Ward can push so hard on this simile-obsessed style that her paragraphs risk sounding like a compost heap, but this isn’t usually just metaphor for metaphor’s sake. She conveys something fundamental about Esch’s fluid state of mind: her figurative sense of the world in which all things correspond and connect. She and her brothers live in a ramshackle house steeped in grief since their mother died giving birth to her last child. . . . What remains, what’s salvaged, is something indomitable in these tough siblings, the strength of their love, the permanence of their devotion.—WashingtonPost

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The White Masters of the World

From The World and Africa, 1965

By W. E. B. Du Bois

W. E. B. Du Bois’ Arraignment and Indictment of White Civilization (Fletcher)

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Ancient African Nations

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Related files: Missing School in the Big Easy  The Cost of a Chocolate City: Blacks and the Need   The Contradictions of Black Comprador Rule    The Impact of Katrina Race and Class