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“So Poor and So Black”: Hurricane Katrina, Public Administration, and the Issue of Race


Camilla Stivers is a Professor and Distinguished Scholar of Public Administration in the Maxine Goodman Levin College of Urban Affairs at Cleveland State University. She is the author of Governance in Dark Times: Practical Philosophy for Public Service (forthcoming from Georgetown University Press) and several other books. She is a former associate editor of Public Administration Review and spent 20 years working as a practicing administrator in the nonprofit sector.


Does racism ever shape the way public administrators make decisions? The story of Hurricane Katrina is an opportunity to consider this neglected question. Discriminatory government policies and processes over decades ensured that African Americans were disproportionately harmed by the storm and its aftermath. In contrast to the literature on bureaucratic discretion, when the crisis came, administrators at all levels chose to take refuge in regulations rather than act creatively to save lives and reduce misery. Images of desperate black New Orleanians juxtaposed with massive government failures raise, even for skeptical observers, issues of race and racism that must no longer be ignored. The essay urges that we explore the extent to which “masked” racism affects the practice of public administration.

The Impartial Administration of Justice is the Foundation of Liberty.

 —Inscription on the Orleans Parish Courthouse

You simply get chills every time you see these poor individuals … so many of these people … are so poor and they are so black.

 —Wolf Blitzer, CNN, September 1, 2005