November 2-4, 2006

Two weeks after Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, President Bush denied that race was a key factor in the event. 'The storm didn't discriminate,' he declared, 'and neither will the recovery effort.' To many people, however, it seemed clear that the storm did discriminate: the news media, in particular, presented powerful evidence that the disaster did not level but instead exposed or exacerbated existing inequalities. This seminar will begin from these divergent perceptions of the disaster, to examine the relationship between social, political, economic, and natural forces in such an event. To what extent and in what manner did factors like race, class, gender, history, and place determine who was hardest hit by the storm?

In the wake of Katrina, scholars have also raised a related set of questions, about the role of such factors in shaping public responses to the disaster. Immediately after the storm, many people registered shock at the situation in New Orleans: 'shock,' as a New York Times article put it, 'that poverty persists, especially among African-Americans.' Since then, scholars have asked about the cause and meaning of this response: Who was shocked, and who was not? What was revealed, how, why, and to whom? Some look for answers to these questions by exploring the complex psychological and sociological relationships between ignorance and indifference; others look to tensions between race-conscious and color-blind models of social policy; still others focus on the deep divide between white and black public spheres. All of these analyses consider what will be a key question for this seminar: what do different responses to and opinions about Katrina' differences that are often marked along racial lines'tell us about the state of civil society(ies) in the United States today?

In recent months, researchers have gone on to connect debates about racial and economic inequality to a variety of other theoretical and practical questions about Katrina. Pointing to failures of governmental response and of intergovernmental cooperation before, during, and after the storm, many political scientists suggest that Katrina poses important questions about the respective responsibilities of and relations between public and private sectors, as well as between local, state, and federal levels of government. Sociologists and geographers, meanwhile, examine how factors like residential segregation, environmental racism, and community organization can either aggravate or minimize the impact of large-scale events on various persons and populations. This seminar will draw on these different disciplinary approaches to Katrina, which together cast the storm as an important test case for our dominant social and political ideologies and institutions. What kinds of reforms'local or national, public or private'are needed in order to avoid such a catastrophe in the future?

Throughout this seminar, we will conduct our inquiry in two central directions. On the one hand, we will look 'outward' from Katrina, to trace the major issues this event raises for citizens and intellectuals across the United States. On the other, we will also look 'inward' from our different disciplinary, social, and geographical perspectives, to try to understand this particular event and its context. For Hurricane Katrina is both a national and a profoundly local event; as such, it raises crucial questions about the specificity and significance of place. In conversations about the disaster, New Orleans is often depicted as both unique and exemplary, a place unlike any other and one that stands for America at large. How do we understand the relation between city and country, between New Orleans and the nation? How do issues of cultural heritage and historical preservation shape discussions of urban renewal? What is the meaning of a place like New Orleans, and how is this preserved, or rebuilt, or lost?

Participants will include Shannon Lee Dawdy (Anthropology), Michael Dawson (Political Science), Melissa Harris Lacewell (Political Science and African-American Studies, Princeton University), Mae Ngai (History, Columbia University; Visiting Scholar, American Bar Foundation), Virginia Parks (School of Social Service Administration).


  • Shannon Dawdy, “The Taphonomy of Disaster and the (Re)formation of New Orleans,” American Anthropologist 108.4 (Dec 2006) [Download]
    • Drawing on her recent participation in post-Katrina recovery efforts in New Orleans, Dawdy argues that taphonomic processes such as trash removal, deposition, earthmoving, and demolition are a primary medium through which individuals and communities reconstitute themselves following a disaster. The article then reflects on the study of disasters more broadly, suggesting that its “ethonoarchaeological” approach can yield important insights into the ways that disaster and recovery can illuminate key features of societies and social processes.
  • Peter Drier, “Katrina and Power in America,” Urban Affairs Review 41.4 (March 2006) 528-49. [Download]
    • Drier’s article looks at Hurricane Katrina from the point of view of urban studies. Drier considers what Katrina reveals about the broader urban policy and poverty issues facing contemporary America, and outlines key public policy questions that should be considered as the rebuilding process goes forward.
  • Du Bois Review, special issue on Hurricane Katrina, 3.1 (March 2006), selections: Lawrence Bobo, “Unmasking Race, Poverty, and Politics in the 21 st Century” [Download]
    • Bobo’s editorial introduction to the Du Bois Review’s special issue on Hurricane Katrina notes that many hoped Katrina would function to unmask fundamental problems in contemporary American society: problems of racial segregation, hard-core poverty, and long-standing political indifference. Bobo presents the special issue as an attempt to consider these problems, outlining the various contributions of economists, ethnographers, historians, linguists, public policy analysts, political scientists, and sociologists.
  • Michael Dawson, “After the Deluge: Publics and Publicity in Katrina’s Wake” [Download]
    • Dawson’s editorial afterward to the Hurricane Katrina special issue looks at the deep racial divide in opinion that is evident in Black and White evaluations of Katrina, and examines what this indicates about the state of publics, counterpublics, and their relation to civil society(ies) in the United States. The full issue is available online here.
  • Juliette Landphair, “‘The Forgotten People of New Orleans’: Community, Vulnerability, and the Lower Ninth Ward” DRAFT, October 2006. [Download]
    • Landphair traces the history of the Ninth Ward, to show that the seemingly disparate characterizations of the area—as vibrant community and as isolated backwater—have both shaped how the area has grown, flourished, and suffered. She considers how the narrative of two Ninth Wards continues to affect current debates about rebuilding after Katrina.
  • Mae Ngai, “San Fracisco’s Survivor’s,” New York Times April 18, 2006, A27 [Download]
    • This op-ed piece looks at the impact of the 1906 San Francisco earthquake on the city’s Chinese community. It charts the responses of both nativists, who attempted to use the situation to drive the Chinese out of the city, and of the Chinese community, who were able to rebuild a new, reformed Chinatown after the disaster.
  • Adolph Reed, “Class-ifying the Hurricane,” The Nation October 3, 2005, online.
  • “Undone by Neoliberalism,” The Nation September 18, 2006, online.
    • In two brief articles, Reed argues that race alone is an insufficient analytical tool to understand this disaster. In “Class-ifying,” written one month after the hurricane hit, Reed speculates that class will be a better predictor than race of who was able to evacuate, who drowned, who would be randomly dispersed, and whose interests and emotional attachments would be factored into plans for reconstruction. In “Undone,” he continues, a year later, to see Katrina as a lesson in the devastating consequences of neoliberal ideology and policy.
  • Transforming New Orleans and Its Environs: Centuries of Change, ed. Craig E. Colton (Pittsburgh: U of Pittsburgh P, 2000), selections: Gay M. Gomez, “Perspetive, Power, and Priorities: New Orleans and the Mississippi River Flood of 1927” [Download] (Note: Contains both the Gomez and the Shallat readings)
    • This article looks at the clash between urban and rural interests, as New Orleans and its neighbour, St. Bernard Parish, responded to the Mississippi River Flood of 1927.
  • Todd Shallat, “In the Wake of Hurricane Betsy”
    • Shallat’s article looks at the role that human development and planning plays in natural disasters, focusing specifically on the causes and effects of Hurricane Betsy, which hit New Orleans in September 1965.
  • Richard Wright, “Down by the Riverside,” in Early Works (New York: Library of America, 1991) 277-327.[Download]
    • Drawing perhaps on accounts of the 1927 Mississippi River flood, Wright’s “Down by the Riverside” tells the story of Brother Mann and his family as they are caught in flooding river waters. The story was first published in Wright’s collection, Uncle Tom’s Children (1938).
  • 2005 Racial Attitudes and the Katrina Disaster Study [Download]