“Where'd All You White People Come from”: Alienation through Aid in the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the Federal Levee Failures

Wednesday, July 16, 2014: 11:00 AM
Room: Booth 63
Oral Presentation
Daina HARVEY , Department of Sociology and Anthropology, College of the Holy Cross, Worcester, MA
In the immediate aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and the federal levee failures, Michael Brown, then director of FEMA, explained on national television that the reason for the disastrous relief effort was that “we are seeing people we didn’t know exist[ed]”. Thus while most who watched those disgraceful days unfold on television in late August realized, that race and alienated consciousness instructed the short-term response to Katrina, less well known has been how the two have constructed relations and rebuilding in the long-term. The economic and political abandonment of New Orleans’s most marginalized communities resulted in an outpouring of support from civic groups, religious organizations, and non-profits. Much of this aid, while well intentioned, nonetheless reproduced conditions that lead to structural and symbolic racism. The result has been a curious form of double alienation. White volunteers (who comprise the overwhelming majority of volunteers) come with historic and stereotypical assumptions of “the ghetto” and black communities. They discount and alienate residents by assuming that the community was long “broken” and that they (and not the black residents) can fix it. They often feel alienated from residents who do not want or seem to question their “aid”. Residents, on the other hand, feel alienated as their lay knowledge is devalued over expert knowledge. Their community and ways of doing things have become a “problem”. Furthermore, they do not understand why it took one of the worst disasters in American history for whites to care about them and their neighborhood. In this paper, based on thirteen months of field work in the Lower Ninth Ward, I explore the causes and outcomes of this double alienation and present policy recommendations for overcoming alienation in future disastrous situations.