Skip to main content

“THE STORM DIDN'T DISCRIMINATE”: Katrina and the Politics of Color Blindness

  • Robert C. Lieberman (a1)

Hurricane Katrina exposed the politics of race, poverty, and inequality to broad public view for the first time in a generation. But the storm and its aftermath also constituted a metaphor for the deep tension between color-blind and race-conscious models of politics that has long been one of the central and defining themes of U.S. politics. In this essay, I explore Hurricane Katrina as a window onto this fundamental dualism in U.S. political culture, its ambivalent embrace of both color blindness and race consciousness. In the storm's immediate aftermath, President George W. Bush became the unlikely mouthpiece of this dualism, and I examine his contradictory statements about race in the storm's wake and place them in historical context. I connect these presidential statements to the broader political context that shapes race policymaking in order to ask whether Katrina and the political response it provoked might generate a policy response that takes seriously the problem of racial inequality exposed by the storm. A brief account of a parallel historical example of race-conscious policy emerging from political conditions apparently dominated by color blindness, the emergence of affirmative action in employment in the 1960s and 1970s, emphasizes the mixture of ideological and strategic, political factors that shape U.S. race politics and policy, and suggests a set of ideological and institutional conditions that may be necessary to generate such a dramatic change in policy direction. I conclude by drawing some lessons from this history for post-Katrina race politics.

Corresponding author
Professor Robert C. Lieberman, Department of Political Science, 420 West 118th Street, Columbia University, New York, NY 10027. E-mail:
Hide All


Appiah, K. Anthony and Amy Gutmann (1996). Color Conscious: The Political Morality of Race. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Bell, Derrick (1992). Faces at the Bottom of the Well: The Permanence of Racism. New York: Basic Books.
Bleich, Erik (2003). Race Politics in Britain and France: Ideas and Policymaking since the 1960s. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Bobo, Lawrence, James R. Kluegel, and Ryan A. Smith (1997). Laissez-Faire Racism: The Crystallization of a Kinder, Gentler Anti-Black Ideology. In Steven A. Tuch and Jack K. Martin (Eds.), Racial Attitudes in the 1990s: Continuity and Change, pp. 1542. Westport, CT: Praeger.
Bobo, Lawrence and Ryan A. Smith (1998). From Jim Crow Racism to Laissez-Faire Racism: The Transformation of Racial Attitudes. In Wendy F. Katkin, Ned Landsman, and Andrea Tyree (Eds.), Beyond Pluralism: The Conception of Groups and Group Identities in America, pp. 182220. Urbana, IL: University of Illinois Press.
Brown, Michael K., Martin Carnoy, Elliott Currie, Troy Duster, David B. Oppenheimer, Marjorie M. Schultz, and David Wellman (2003). Whitewashing Race: The Myth of a Color-Blind Society. Berkeley, CA: University of California Press.
Burstein, Paul (1985). Discrimination, Jobs, and Politics: The Struggle for Equal Employment Opportunity in the United States since the New Deal. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Bush, George W. (2005a). Address to the Nation on Hurricane Katrina Recovery from New Orleans, Louisiana, September 15, 2005. Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Administration of George W. Bush, 2005, pp. 14051409.
Bush, George W. (2005b). Remarks on the Aftermath of Hurricane Katrina and an Exchange with Reporters in New Orleans, Louisiana, September 12, 2005. Weekly Compilation of Presidential Documents, Administration of George W. Bush, 2005, pp. 13821385.
Button, James W. (1989). Blacks and Social Change: Impact of the Civil Rights Movement in Communities. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Caraley, Demetrios James (1992). Washington Abandons the Cities. Political Science Quarterly, 107: 130.
Carmines, Edward G. and James A. Stimson (1989). Issue Evolution: Race and the Transformation of American Politics. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Caro, Robert A. (2002). Master of the Senate. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Clinton, William J. (1995). Remarks on Affirmative Action at the National Archives and Records Administration, July 19, 1995. Public Papers of the Presidents, William J. Clinton, 1995, pp. 11061114.
Congressional Record (1964). 88th Congress, Second session. Volume 110, part 6.
Cronon, William (1983). Changes in the Land: Indians, Colonists, and the Ecology of New England. New York: Hill and Wang.
de Moraes, Lisa (2005). Kanye West's Torrent of Criticism, Live on NBC. Washington Post, September 3, C1.
Edley, Christopher F., Jr. (1996). Not All Black and White: Affirmative Action and American Values. New York: Hill and Wang.
Edsall, Thomas Byrne and Mary D. Edsall (1991). Chain Reaction: The Impact of Race, Rights, and Taxes in American Politics. New York: W. W. Norton.
Erikson, Robert S., Michael B. MacKuen, and James A. Stimson (2002). The Macro Polity. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Farhang, Sean and Ira Katznelson (2005). The Southern Imposition: Congress and Labor in the New Deal and Fair Deal. Studies in American Political Development, 19: 130.
Frymer, Paul (1999). Uneasy Alliances: Race and Party Competition in America. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Frymer, Paul and John David Skrentny (1998). Coalition-Building and the Politics of Electoral Capture During the Nixon Administration: African Americans, Labor, Latinos. Studies in American Political Development, 12: 131161.
Frymer, Paul, Dara Z. Strolovitch, and Dorian T. Warren (2005). Katrina's Political Roots and Divisions: Race, Class, and Federalism in American Politics. SSRC Forum on Understanding Katrina: Perspectives from the Social Sciences. 〈〉 (accessed April 19, 2006).
Gilens, Martin (1999). Why Americans Hate Welfare: Race, Media, and the Politics of Antipoverty Policy. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Glazer, Nathan (1997). We Are All Multiculturalists Now. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Gratz v. Bollinger (2003). 539 U.S. 244.
Greenstone, J. David and Paul E. Peterson (1973). Race and Authority in Urban Politics: Community Participation and the War on Poverty. New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Grutter v. Bollinger (2003). 539 U.S. 306.
Hacker, Andrew (1992). Two Nations: Black and White, Separate, Hostile, Unequal. New York: Charles Scribner's Sons.
Harris, Fredrick C., Valeria Sinclair-Chapman, and Brian D. McKenzie (2006). Countervailing Forces in African-American Civic Activism, 1973–1994. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Hartz, Louis (1955). The Liberal Tradition in America: An Interpretation of American Political Thought since the Revolution. New York: Harcourt, Brace.
Herbert, Bob (2005). Bush's Pledge? The Joke's on the Poor. New York Times, October 13, A27.
Herrnstein, Richard J. and Charles Murray (1994). The Bell Curve: Intelligence and Class Structure in American Life. New York: Free Press.
Hirschman, Albert O. (1991). The Rhetoric of Reaction: Perversity, Futility, Jeopardy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer L. (1984). The New American Dilemma: Liberal Democracy and School Desegregation. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Hochschild, Jennifer L. (1999). You Win Some, You Lose Some: Explaining the Pattern of Success and Failure in the Second Reconstruction. In Morton Keller and R. Shep Melnick (Eds.), Taking Stock: American Government in the Twentieth Century, pp. 219246. Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press; Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Horton, Carol A. (2005). Race and the Making of American Liberalism. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
Johnson, Lyndon B. (1965). Commencement Address at Howard University: “To Fulfill These Rights.” June 4, 1965. Public Papers of the Presidents, Lyndon B. Johnson, 1965, pp. 635640.
Katznelson, Ira, Kim Geiger, and Daniel Kryder (1993). Limiting Liberalism: The Southern Veto in Congress, 1933–1950. Political Science Quarterly, 108: 283306.
King, Desmond (1995). Separate and Unequal: Black Americans and the US Federal Government. Oxford: Oxford University Press.
King, Desmond (2000). Making Americans: Immigration, Race, and the Origins of the Diverse Democracy. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
King, Desmond S. and Rogers M. Smith (2005). Racial Orders in American Political Development. American Political Science Review, 99: 7592.
Kryder, Daniel (2000). Divided Arsenal: Race and the American State During World War II. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Lieberman, Robert C. (1998). Shifting the Color Line: Race and the American Welfare State. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Lieberman, Robert C. (2002). Ideas, Institutions, and Political Order: Explaining Political Change. American Political Science Review, 96: 697712.
Lieberman, Robert C. (2005). Shaping Race Policy: The United States in Comparative Perspective. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Lublin, David (2004). The Republican South: Democratization and Partisan Change. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Massey, Douglas S. and Nancy A. Denton (1993). American Apartheid: Segregation and the Making of the Underclass. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Mendelberg, Tali (2001). The Race Card: Campaign Strategy, Implicit Messages, and the Norm of Equality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
Miroff, Bruce (1981). Presidential Leverage over Social Movements: The Johnson White House and Civil Rights. Journal of Politics, 43: 223.
Morgan, Edmund S. (1975). American Slavery, American Freedom: The Ordeal of Colonial Virginia. New York: W. W. Norton.
Morone, James A. (1990). The Democratic Wish: Popular Participation and the Limits of American Government. New York: Basic Books.
Myrdal, Gunnar (1944). An American Dilemma: The Negro Problem and Modern Democracy. New York: Harper & Brothers.
Nagourney, Adam, Richard W. Stevenson, and Neil A. Lewis (2006). Glum Democrats Can't See Halting Bush on Courts. New York Times, January 15, A1.
Nincic, Miroslav (1988). The United States, the Soviet Union, and the Politics of Opposites. World Politics, 40: 452475.
President's Initiative on Race Advisory Board (1998). One America in the 21st Century: Forging a New Future. Report to the President. Washington, DC: U.S. Government Printing Office.
Prewitt, Kenneth (2003). Higher Education and the Diversity Initiative. Council of Graduate Schools Communicator 36(2): 2.
Quadagno, Jill (1994). The Color of Welfare: How Racism Undermined the War on Poverty. New York: Oxford University Press.
Schuman, Howard, Charlotte Steeh, Lawrence Bobo, and Maria Krysan (1997). Racial Attitudes in America: Trends and Interpretations, Revised edition. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Sherman, Arloc and Isaac Shapiro (2005). Essential Facts about the Victims of Hurricane Katrina. Washington, DC: Center for Budget and Policy Priorities.
Skocpol, Theda (2003). Diminished Democracy: From Membership to Management in American Civic Life. Norman, OK: University of Oklahoma Press.
Skrentny, John David (1996). The Ironies of Affirmative Action: Politics, Culture, and Justice in America. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Sleeper, Jim (1997). Liberal Racism. New York: Viking.
Smith, Rogers M. (1997). Civic Ideals: Conflicting Visions of Citizenship in U.S. History. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.
Sniderman, Paul M. and Thomas Piazza (1993). The Scar of Race. Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press.
Soss, Joe, Sanford F. Schram, Thomas P. Vartanian, and Erin O'Brien (2001). Setting the Terms of Relief: Explaining State Policy Choices in the Devolution Revolution. American Journal of Political Science, 45: 378395.
Sowell, Thomas (1984). Civil Rights: Rhetoric or Reality? New York: William Morrow.
Sowell, Thomas (1994). Race and Culture: A World View. New York: Basic Books.
Steinberg, Stephen (1995). Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy. Boston, MA: Beacon Press.
Thernstrom, Stephan and Abigail Thernstrom (1997). America in Black and White: One Nation, Indivisible. New York: Simon and Schuster.
Tienda, Marta, Kevin T. Leicht, Teresa Sullivan, Michael Maltese, and Kim Lloyd (2003). Closing the Gap?: Admissions and Enrollments at the Texas Public Flagships Before and After Affirmative Action. Working Paper, Texas Higher Education Opportunity Project, Princeton University. 〈〉 (accessed April 19, 2006).
Toobin, Jeffrey (2004). Poll Position. New Yorker, September 20, pp. 5662.
U.S. Commission on Civil Rights (2004). Redefining Rights in America: The Civil Rights Record of the George W. Bush Administration, 2001–2004. 〈〉 (accessed April 19, 2006).
Weir, Margaret (1998). The Social Divide: Political Parties and the Future of Activist Government. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Williams, Linda Faye (1998). Race and the Politics of Social Policy. In Margaret Weir (Ed.), The Social Divide: Political Parties and the Future of Activist Government, pp. 417463. Washington, DC: Brookings Institution; New York: Russell Sage Foundation.
Wilson, Charles Reagan (1980). Baptized in Blood: The Religion of the Lost Cause. Athens, GA: University of Georgia Press.
Wilson, William Julius (1996). When Work Disappears: The World of the New Urban Poor. New York: Alfred A. Knopf.
Young, Richard P. and Jerome S. Burstein (1995). Federalism and the Demise of Prescriptive Racism in the United States. Studies in American Political Development, 9: 154.
Recommend this journal

Email your librarian or administrator to recommend adding this journal to your organisation's collection.

Du Bois Review: Social Science Research on Race
  • ISSN: 1742-058X
  • EISSN: 1742-0598
  • URL: /core/journals/du-bois-review-social-science-research-on-race
Please enter your name
Please enter a valid email address
Who would you like to send this to? *



Full text views

Total number of HTML views: 10
Total number of PDF views: 47 *
Loading metrics...

Abstract views

Total abstract views: 224 *
Loading metrics...

* Views captured on Cambridge Core between September 2016 - 17th March 2018. This data will be updated every 24 hours.