When we look at the first 15 years of the 21st century, the most defining moment in Black America’s relationship to its country isn’t Election Day 2008; it’s Hurricane Katrina. The events of the storm and its aftermath sparked a profound shift among Black Americans toward racial pessimism that persists to today, even with Barack Obama in the White House. Black collective memory of Hurricane Katrina, as much as anything else, informs the present movement against police violence, “Black Lives Matter.”
Among the first images of New Orleans after the storm were shots of low-income Black Americans, stranded and desperate to escape the floods and debris. In the narrow sense, they were there because the city’s evacuation plan—which didn’t account for massive traffic out of the region—fell apart. Rather than bring remaining New Orleansians out, officials sent them to the Superdome and the convention center, which were quickly overcrowded and undersupplied. In a much broader sense, however, they were there because in a city defined by decades of poverty, segregation, and deep disenfranchisement, poor and working-class Blacks (including the elderly, and children) would largely shoulder the burden of the storm.