Like many others, my response to reports of hundreds of thousands of mostly black people stranded in a flood was shock and outrage. My anger grew as I learned of the horrific conditions many of these people endured for days in the New Orleans Superdome and Convention Center—conditions that Jesse Jackson likened to the “hull of a slave ship.” Anger is not an inchoate emotion, but rather directed. Being angry means being angry at. Justified anger usually seeks culprits—the individuals and organizations who should be blamed for the wrongs people suffer. In the aftermath of Katrina, much public discussion focused on whether anyone was to blame for the suffering, and if so, who. Some suggested that “the blame game” is unproductive, and that we should accept that when disaster hits, no humans are to blame for the hurt that follows. A few, such as a senator from my state, Barack Obama, argued that blame is indeed unproductive, but that all of us should think about the responsibilities our government and citizens have to people vulnerable in the face of natural disaster.
I want to explore this line of thinking here. The events and discussion around Katrina revealed shared responsibilities that existed long before—and still exist. Rhetorics of blame can get in the way of taking action against structural injustices for which many of us share responsibility. Katrina opened a new discussion about government capacity and spending priorities that we should keep going.
I don’t mean that no one should be blamed for some of the awful things that happened in the wake of Katrina. According to some reports, for example, the operators and employers of some nursing homes in New Orleans abandoned the residents to the flood. That is a crime. Perhaps Michael Brown and other high Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) officials should be blamed for not knowing that tens of thousands of people were sweltering and starving in the Superdome. But I want to argue that, for the most part, in the aftermath of Katrina (and Rita)—as in other social processes involving many events, institutions, and actors—seeking culprits is bad politics. We should think instead in terms of responsibility and accountability, as distinct from blame or fault. I have four reasons to be wary of a political discourse of blame in this case and in many other situations of justified public outrage.
Focus on IndividualsPractices of blaming look for “whodunit.” As in mystery novels, when we find who did it, we absolve other people, who by implication didn’t do it. In the context of social processes and political discussion, this focus on individual agents deflects attention from the structural processes to which large numbers of individuals and organizations contribute.
I don’t mean to invoke structural processes as a means of denying responsibility. In response to outrage at the slow response to this catastrophe, some off...
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