Residential Dynamics in the Wake of Katrina: Revisiting Residential Segregation among Racial and Ethnic Groups in New Orleans, Louisiana 2000–2010

Residential Dynamics in the Wake of Katrina: Revisiting Residential Segregation among Racial and Ethnic Groups in New Orleans, Louisiana 2000–2010

John Byron Strait (Sam Houston State University, USA) and Gang Gong (Sam Houston State University, USA)
DOI: 10.4018/978-1-4666-6256-8.ch013


The increased racial and ethnic diversity experienced by the United States in recent decades has vividly transformed this nation's urban landscapes. In New Orleans, Louisiana this transformative process was dramatically enhanced and accelerated by the disruptive impact of Hurricane Katrina, a tropical storm that devastated many of the area's residential neighborhoods. The displacement and turmoil brought on by this event, and the rebuilding efforts that followed, generated a residential geography that varied considerably from the one that existed prior to the storm. This chapter builds upon earlier work that investigates the impacts these processes had on the changing levels of residential segregation evident among racial and/or ethnic groups in New Orleans from 2000 to 2010. Empirical analysis entailed the measurement of two dimensions of segregation evident among Non-Hispanic whites, African-Americans, Hispanics, and Asians. Measures of residential exposure were decomposed in order to investigate the relative impacts of metropolitan-wide compositional change and intra-urban redistributive change on segregation among the four groups. Irrespective of media reports suggesting otherwise, New Orleans did exhibit very modest forms of residential integration during the decade. However, results also suggest that some groups within New Orleans continue to exhibit “ethnic (or racial) self-selectivity,” a form of residential behavior that concentrates these groups residentially. This chapter provides compelling evidence that residential landscapes across New Orleans continue to be impacted by complex forces operating at both the neighborhood and metropolitan scales.
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In the immediate aftermath of the 2012 U.S. presidential election political pundits, social scientists and journalists, alike, focused considerable attention on the role that immigration has had in terms of changing the demographic make-up of the United States. This demographic change is perhaps most evident within the nation’s metropolitan areas and nowhere are its manifestations more striking than at the neighborhood-level. The perpetual roles that neighborhood dynamics play in terms of fostering and reflecting social relations among urban populations make it imperative to understand the impacts that this increased diversity has on contemporary residential landscapes. As a consequence of increased urban diversity, scholars investigating racial and ethnic dynamics within urban areas no longer rely on the traditional bi-racial approaches commonly utilized during the “chocolate city, vanilla suburbs” era of urban geography (Farley et al., 1978; Farley et al., 1994; Strait, 2001). For example, rather than focusing exclusively on the African-Americans and whites, urban scholars investigating dimensions of residential dynamics having increasingly broadened the scope of analysis to include the residential experiences of both Hispanics and Asians (Strait 2002, 2006).

New Orleans, Louisiana represents one metropolitan region where the impacts of immigration have only recently garnished much attention. New Orleans has indeed mirrored trends evident nation-wide, as an influx of immigrants has significantly influenced urban residential patterns across the urban region in recent years. However, unlike the Sunbelt’s other burgeoning multi-ethnic centers, such as Houston, Atlanta and Miami, New Orleans has not functioned as a traditional immigrant “magnet.” Rather than being a response to a booming local economy, changes in both the residential and ethnic geographies of the New Orleans reflect a direct response to the transformative effects of Hurricane Katrina. Beyond the immediate devastation it had on the city’s physical landscape and infrastructure, the 2005 hurricane also significantly influenced the public discourse in regards to urban social relations. For instance, in the wake of the storm, the consequences of racial and ethnic disparities within New Orleans, and across the entire nation, were brought into stark relief. In fact, the swiftness to which New Orleans collapsed into social anarchy after the storm led many commentators to refer to Katrina as a socially induced tragedy that exposed America’s racial legacy, rather than simply a ‘‘natural’’ disaster (Dixon, 2005; Hartman and Squires 2006).

One of the most significant impacts that Katrina has had on racial discourse pertains to the role it played in reinserting the importance of residential segregation onto the national radar. For example, media images in the aftermath of the storm vividly documented the disproportionate impacts it had on highly segregated neighborhoods in low lying areas of the city, such as the Lower Ninth Ward. Moreover, the storm and its immediate aftermath were followed by considerable controversy concerning the demographic changes evident during the recovery period that followed the storm. This controversy was aptly represented by the controversial comments made by then-mayor Ray Nagin, who after publically asking what he could do to keep the city from being “overrun by Mexican workers,” pledged that New Orleans would forever remain a “chocolate city.” Nagin even went so far as to invoke religion by claiming a New Orleans with an African-American majority was the “way God wants it to be.” These comments reflect a response to the widespread recognition that a post-Katrina New Orleans was potentially destined to be less black, primarily due to the influx of Hispanic workers engaged in recovery efforts, and the more rapid rates-of-return among Asian and white residents, relative to African-Americans (Fussell, 2007). The intense negative reaction generated by his speech led Nagin to quickly offer a public apology, yet the underlying debates generated by his comments have continued. A recently released documentary and upcoming book by Latino performance artist and author Jose Torres-Tama entitled “From Chocolate City to Enchilada Village” will ensure that issues of race and ethnicity will remain a topic of conversation within any dialogue focused on the city’s future.

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