Reexamining Perceived Discrimination between Blacks and Whites Following Hurricane Katrina: A Racial-Conciliatory Perspective

Article excerpt

Many Americans view Hurricane Katrina as one of the greatest U.S. tragedies. In addition to the human lives lost, the devastation and destruction of thousands of homes, and millions of dollars spent on reparations, perceptions of racial discrimination during the Gulf Coast rescue efforts were prevalent (e.g., Adams, O'Brien, & Nelson, 2006; Brown, Mistry, & Bigler, 2007; Henkel, Dovidio, & Gaertner, 2006; Marable, 2006; Voorhees, Vick, & Perkins, 2007; White, Philpot, Wylie, & McGowen, 2007). Initially, however, independent polls conducted shortly after the hurricane indicated that Black- and White-American respondents disagreed with regard to the well-documented slow government response times in providing support to shelters such as the New Orleans Convention Center and Superdome (e.g., Page & Puente, 2005; Pew Research Center for the People and the Press, 2005). A frequently cited study entitled Huge Racial Divide Over Katrina and Its Consequences, conducted by the Pew Research Center for the People and the Press on September 6-7, 2005, revealed that 66% of Black-Americans, compared to 17% of White-Americans, believed the rescue efforts would have been faster had the predominant race of the victims been White as opposed to Black. In response to these findings, White et al. (2007) pointed "to the unwillingness of most White-Americans to see the racial implications of the event, illuminating the frequently distinct realities experienced by White- and Black-Americans" (p. 530).

In the current paper we present a racial-conciliatory perspective arguing that Black- and White-Americans are more similar than dissimilar in regard to perceptions of discrimination, particularly concerning Hurricane Katrina. While we do acknowledge that a difference in perceived discrimination between the two races exists and should be expected to some degree (Adams et al., 2006), we emphasize that collectively speaking, 1) the two races share more similar perceptions regarding discrimination than dissimilar, and 2) the perceived and reported distance between them may not be representative of the actual differences. These general predictions are based on two primary factors, statistical framing and questionnaire format, that may have contributed to the perception that Black- and White-Americans differ substantially with respect to perceptions of racial discrimination and injustice.

The first factor concerns the tendency for both the media and academic research to highlight differences between races as opposed to areas of agreement when presenting statistical findings. The media are driven by approval ratings whereas academic research is driven by statistically significant results. Although academicians cannot control how the media present information, research findings should be unbiased and presented objectively particularly with respect to racial issues. We contend that it is necessary to promote more representative perceptions of racial relations by presenting agreement when present with equal fervor within the context of the representative disagreement. Moreover, even if statistically significant differences do exist, the differences must not be presented in a manner that overstates the actual differences via framing. We argue that magnifying differences, especially in cases in which a larger degree of agreement exists, may influence an exaggerated perception of racial discord or at least one that is not entirely representative of opinion. The current paper introduces a descriptive statistical method that compares the margin of agreement with disagreement among respondents in order to more accurately display perception of discrimination among races with the hope of minimizing perceived intergroup polarization (Sherman, Hogg, & Maitner, 2009), regarding the notion that Black- and White-Americans view the world through extremely different lenses.

A second, less conspicuous factor under investigation in the current study is the nature of poll data such as the Pew data (2005) previously reported. …