By: Caitlyn Heter

In 2005, Kanye West stunned the nation when he stated on live television that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His comment, made in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, got a mixed reception by viewers of A Concert for Hurricane Relief and the millions of people who later viewed the clip online. George W. Bush called it the “all-time low” of his presidency, and news outlets discussed the remarks at length in the days that would follow.

Whether his statement was appropriate or not, West candidly identified an intersection between disaster relief policy and race in the United States that existed long before West pointed it out. For example, a 1906 earthquake led to an attempt to permanently displace Chinese-Americans in San Francisco. More recently, criticisms similar to West’s 2005 remarks mounted against the Trump administration after it responded to hurricane damage in Puerto Rico in 2017, and in 2019 after President Trump said, “We have to be very careful,” because people fleeing the effects of Hurricane Dorian in the Bahamas could be “some very bad people and some very bad gang members.”

Why does this scenario seem to recur, and what safeguards are in place to prevent discriminatory responses when environmental disasters occur?

Disparities in treatment following disasters can lead us to recognize the disparities that pre-existed those disasters. For example, historical racism in New Orleans meant that poor and minority populations there were already localized in areas prone to flooding. (p. 4). One third of the population in New Orleans did not own a car, yet no efforts were made by the government to assist residents in evacuating before the storm. (p. 113).

Not only are these communities predisposed to be hit hardest by natural disasters, they often must work harder to recover in a disaster’s wake. A New York Times study found that black survivors were more likely to have had their homes destroyed or to have lost a close friend or relative, whereas white survivors were more likely to be able to return to partially damaged homes and rebuild sooner and faster. (p. 9).

Few safeguards exist, and few remedies are in place for when disaster responses exhibit discriminatory practices. (p. 309; p. 15). Title VI of the 1964 Civil Rights Act was perceived as a promising path to recovery, but the Supreme Court held in Alexander v. Sandoval that Title VI did not create a private cause of action. 532 U.S. 275 (2001). Constitutional causes of action based on equal protection are hinged on evidence that the government intended to target particular groups, and claims based on cruel and unusual punishment apply only when the government intends to impose punishment. The government has no constitutional duty to prevent disasters or provide disaster assistance. (p. 310-311).

A 2018 panel by CDC officials identified four paths to addressing disparities in disaster vulnerability: collaboration among emergency management and social service providers, engagement with the community before emergency response teams are needed, inclusion of vulnerable populations in planning meetings, and representation of racial and ethnic minorities in programs that encourage preparedness in the wake of a variety of hazards, disasters, and emergencies. Coordination of federal, state, and non-governmental programs could also improve prioritization within the highly bureaucratic process of responding to natural disasters. (p. 2). These approaches, when combined, redistribute the power of emergency response offices and have the potential to ensure the avoidance of even the appearance of racism.

As stated by Daniel A. Farber, Faculty Director of UC Berkeley Law’s Center for Law, Energy, & the Environment, “[natural disasters] are not, of course, the products of inequality, yet their impacts can fall very unevenly on different members of society.” (p. 297). It is therefore critical to adjust our current approach to disaster response and to consider intersectional disparities in vulnerability when preparing for and responding to natural disasters. This way we can not only avoid the perpetration of racism, but also more efficiently and completely restore normalcy after hurricanes and other emergencies.