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RACIAL APATHY AND HURRICANE KATRINA: The Social Anatomy of Prejudice in the Post-Civil Rights Era

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  09 August 2006

Tyrone A. Forman
Department of African American Studies and Institute of Government and Public Affairs, University of Illinois at Chicago
Amanda E. Lewis
Department of African American Studies and Department of Sociology, University of Illinois at Chicago


During the crisis that followed Hurricane Katrina, many Americans expressed surprise at the dramatic levels of racial inequality captured in the images of large numbers of poor Black people left behind in devastated New Orleans. In this article we argue that, to better understand both the parameters of contemporary racial inequality reflected in the hurricane's aftermath and why so many were surprised about the social realities of racial inequality that social scientists have known about for decades, it is essential to recognize the shifting nature of Whites' racial attitudes and understandings. There is widespread evidence that in the post-civil rights era the expression of White racial prejudice has changed. In fact, during the post-civil rights era subtle and indirect forms of prejudice have become more central to the sustenance and perpetuation of racial inequality than are overt forms of prejudice. We draw on both survey and qualitative data to investigate current manifestations of White racial attitudes and prejudices. Our results indicate that racial apathy, indifference towards racial and ethnic inequality, is a relatively new but expanding form of racial prejudice. We further show that Whites' systematic “not knowing” about racial inequality (White ignorance), which was manifest in the reaction to the crises after Hurricane Katrina, is related to this racial indifference. Racial apathy and White ignorance (i.e., not caring and not knowing) are extensions of hegemonic color-blind discourses (i.e., not seeing race). These phenomena serve as pillars of contemporary racial inequality that have until now received little attention. We conclude with a discussion of the theoretical and the practical implications of our results for understanding racial dynamics in the post-Katrina United States.

© 2006 W.E.B. Du Bois Institute for African and African American Research

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This research was partially supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation (SES-0317740). We gratefully acknowledge the helpful comments of several seminar participants at Brown University and Duke University.



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