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.
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