Study Probes Racial Tension Between Hurricane Katrina Evacuees and Houston Community

31 August 2009

Two breeches in the Florida Street levee, looking toward the Mississippi River, are shown Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina moved through the area.
Two breeches in the Florida Street levee, looking toward the Mississippi River, are shown Tuesday, Aug. 30, 2005, in New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina moved through the area.
Four years ago a flood caused by Hurricane Katrina devastated much of New Orleans.  Thousands of evacuees took up residence in other cities, most notably Houston, Texas.  While the city was praised for its efforts to host the evacuees, not all went smoothly.  A new study shows that many Houstonians resented the newcomers.  

When Jason Shelton came to Houston from Ohio a year after Hurricane Katrina, he was surprised by some of the things he heard from fellow African Americans when referring to the mostly black 150,000 evacuees from New Orleans who had sought refuge in Houston.

While in Ohio black people expressed solidarity with the evacuees and their plight and applauded Houston's efforts to help them, Shelton found many African-American Houstonians expressed hostility towards the newcomers.

"These people are coming here and they are messing up our way of life," said Jason Shelton. "The gettings are good here in Houston and they are bringing things down here and they are making us look bad.'  And I found that really fascinating."

Shelton had come to Houston to do Sociology research at Rice University, so he decided to focus on the evacuees and their acceptance or non-acceptance by the community at large and by various racial groups in particular.

After two years of conducting surveys and analyzing data, Shelton, who is now at the University of Texas in Arlington, has published a report, along with co-author M. Nicole Coleman, titled "After the Storm: How Race, Class, and Immigration Concerns Influenced Beliefs about the Katrina Evacuees."

What the study shows is that hostility towards the hurricane evacuees remained strong for about a year and then started to subside in the African-American community, largely because of efforts by black leaders to foster a more charitable attitude towards the "brothers and sisters from New Orleans."  But Shelton says ill will towards the evacuees remained strong among Whites.

Shelton found that much of the antipathy towards evacuees was based on the idea that they were "outsiders," people who had come to take advantage of either government assistance or job opportunities to the detriment of people already in Houston.  

He says White attitudes tracked closely with views on immigration.  Those who expressed concerns about the city being flooded by immigrants also expressed dismay over the influx of evacuees, even though they were mostly natural-born U.S. citizens.

Jason Shelton says such reactions to outsiders are based on how people identify themselves in a community, group, class, religion or race and the threat they see posed by people from outside.  He cites the example of tensions that have flared in some parts of the country between blacks and Hispanics, which are often based on competition for employment.

"African Americans, maybe not all of us, but some us, look at Latinos and say, 'Hey, if they would not take lower wages maybe we would have those jobs," he said.

As for the Katrina evacuees who remain in Houston, Shelton says there is evidence that they are now losing their image as outsiders and finding their own place in the community.

"For the folks who are there now, the evacuees who have stayed, they have probably taken on some sense of identity about being a Houstonian, which is probably the reason why they are still there," said Shelton. "They are probably working in the city, they are probably part of the life of the city and they are beginning to blend in. That is the community element."

Shelton says the age-old human problem of in-group and out-group hostility is likely to continue, but he still thinks people are capable of seeing beyond their divisions and finding ways to accept one another.

"I do not know how we solve this dilemma beyond just letting life continue to naturally unfold and we get into a deeper sense of community where we do begin to realize that we are all in this together," he said. "We do have to coexist and we are all Americans at the end of the day."

Jason Shelton and M. Nicole Coleman's study of the Katrina evacuees in Houston appears in the September issue of Social Science Quarterly.