The chaos following Hurricane Katrina showed millions of Americans that deep racial divides, poverty and racism persist in their country.
Images of seas of black faces begging for help that took days to arrive, and stories of sheriffs from adjacent white suburbs turning desperate evacuees away at gunpoint as they tried to flee New Orleans, horrified the nation.
But for many who grew up in a city that had hosted the slave trade and clung to segregation, the initial shock was transformed into fury that their deepest fears and suspicions were true: the government does not care about black people.
“The racism is so raw here,” said Barbara Major, a community activist who co-chaired Mayor Ray Nagin’s Bring New Orleans Back commission.
“People were outraged that people were dying. People been dying,” she said. “They should have been outraged that children didn’t get a decent education. That there wasn’t decent housing here (just) like in every other city in the United States.”
More than 140 years after the abolition of slavery, and more than 40 years since the passage of the civil rights act, New Orleans remained a highly segregated city. Blacks held significant political power, but economic power remained the domain of whites.
Poverty was widespread, as those educated in crumbling public schools were stuck in the low-wage service sectors that supported the city’s massive tourist industry. Drugs, gangs and violence were rampant.
Major said nothing is being done to rectify the social ills and inequalities that plagued New Orleans before Katrina. She blames the weakness of local leaders and systemic racism she encountered when trying to create a reconstruction plan for the city.
Meanwhile, more than half the population remains scattered across the country, and a city that was once two-thirds black has become majority white.
Many whites in the city respond defensively to questions of race. When Spike Lee’s documentary premiered ahead of Katrina’s anniversary, the city’s newspaper ran a front-page review complaining that the voices of white victims were not heard.
And suburban sheriffs continue to make ugly headlines: in June Sheriff Jack Strain of neighboring St. Tammany complained to a television reporter about the influx of “thugs and trash from New Orleans” and warned people with dreadlocks or “chee wee” hairstyles to stay out of town.
A sense of social isolation and frustration has helped fuel the area’s rising violence, said John Penny, a criminology professor at the predominantly black Southern University at New Orleans.