Racism and inequity in the aftermath of natural disaster? You can count on it

It was four hours and 27 minutes into the late shift when a tornado hit a candle factory in Mayfield, Kentucky on December 10.

“All you could hear was screams from people,” Chelsea Logue told a reporter from the Courier Journal the next day. She was standing amid the wreckage, searching in vain for the belongings she’d left in her car, which included her debit cards, Social Security card, and other essential identification. 

There were about 110 people working inside Mayfield Consumer Products (MCP) last Friday night, among them were currently incarcerated people who were participating in a work-release program. A corrections officer was among the eight people who died in the wreckage. 

The monstrous storm that introduced the people of Mayfield, Kentucky to the rest of world included 34 confirmed tornados across eight states, one of which traveled through four states for 227 miles, wreaking havoc across 200 miles of Kentucky alone.

There is much we don’t yet know about the full extent of the damage and death toll but there are some things we can reliably predict about what happens next.

First, is that white disaster victims will be more likely to receive federal aid than people of color—and in higher amounts—even when the level of damage is the same. Studies indicate that it is true both on the individual and community level. 

We can also reasonably predict that severe weather events are likely to increase, and the communities most vulnerable to their effects will continue to suffer disproportionately. 

Finally, an ongoing homogeneity crisis in disaster relief agencies will likely ensure that the inequities currently enshrined in disaster planning and response will not be improving anytime soon. “An overwhelming number of individuals designated as emergency managers are white males,” Curtis Brown, the emergency management coordinator for Virginia, told a Congressional committee in July 2020. “Diversity in emergency management will help to reverse the existing failure to enact equitable practices before, during and after disasters.”

Because disasters both reveal and amplify existing inequities in society, it is essential that everyone from policymakers, emergency personnel, agency leaders, to donors and particularly employers understand whose expertise to center when formulating their response to this and future crises. 

The experts who care about and understand the complicated lives of the kind of people who labor through the night for $8.00 an hour for a 10-12 hour shift—with frequent mandatory overtime—to make the candles we use to punctuate our tranquil spaces. 

People like Kyana Parsons-Perez, a 40-year-old MCP employee who filmed her horrifying plight on Facebook Live while trapped under five feet of debris. 

Or people like Deandre S. Morrow, 28, of St. Louis, Missouri, who was one of six people killed after a powerful tornado hit their Amazon warehouse in Edwardsville, Ill. “There, too, workers had been toiling in the midst of severe weather,” says New York Times columnist Jamelle Bouie. “Had either of these groups of workers been empowered to say no — had they been able to put limits on work and resist unsafe working conditions — they may have been able to protect themselves, to leave work or miss a shift without jeopardizing their jobs.”

And that’s a change that can happen immediately. It doesn’t, or shouldn’t, take an act of Congress for employers to put the safety of their employees first. So, what are the odds of that?

Ellen McGirt

This edition of raceAhead was edited by Wandy Felicita Ortiz.

On Point

Five ways to take racism out of disaster recovery This resource-filled guide was written by Hurricane Harvey survivors looking to prepare Houston, Texas to better survive coming storms. While some of the prescriptions are specific to place, plenty are universal. For one, make specialized evacuation plans for vulnerable neighborhoods and include residents in those preparations. And fund the right people. “Community-based groups, which have higher levels of trust and accountability to the people they serve, must receive funding to provide a wider range of services.”
Kinder Institute

Medical illustrations so white Funny how nobody ever noticed this before... Medical illustrations, the powerful images that define medical practice, almost always use white, typically male, bodies. Enter Chidiebere Ibe, 25, a Nigerian medical student heading to Kyiv Medical University in Ukraine. The self-taught medical illustrator dazzled the internet recently with his image of a Black fetus in a Black woman’s womb. “I wasn’t expecting it to go viral,” he said. “I was just sticking up for what I believe in, advocating for equality in health through medical illustrations.” Ibe hopes to specialize in pediatric neurosurgery.
NBC News

Vicente Fernández has died Long considered Mexico’s national treasure, he was the king of ranchero music, a style rooted in rural Mexican life. The artist known to fans as “Chente,” sold more than 50 million records in his prolific career, he won three Grammys and eight Latin Grammys, and appeared in over 30 films.  His best known hits include, “Volver, Volver,” “El Rey” and “Por Tu Maldito Amor.” He died the same day Mexico celebrates the feast of the Virgen de Guadalupe; Spanish-speaking networks interrupted live coverage of the celebrations to announce his passing. Que Descansen en el poder.
NBC , Telemundo

On Background

Freedom as a white construct I’ve added this fascinating-sounding book to my winter reading list, in part because it feels like a case study playing out in real time. White Freedom: The Racial History of an Idea by Tyler Stovall explores the relationship between freedom and race, and in particular, the necessity of defining “liberty” as a white construct that purposely excludes the Black and brown enslaved. “As I devoured White Freedom over the coming days, I couldn't stop thinking about how the Capitol riot was directly linked to one of the book's central ideas and, even more specifically, to its opening anecdote about the official recognition that the U.S. Capitol building was built by enslaved people,” writes reviewer Ilana Masad.

A white man explains white, male privilege Author and scholar Michael Kimmel says the moment he realized he was part of the problem was when he understood what happened when he looked in the mirror. "Well, when I wake up in the morning and I look in the mirror, I see a human being. I'm kind of the generic person,” he said. “I have no race, no class, no gender. I'm universally generalizable." Except… no. “So I like to think that was the moment I became a middle class white man, that class and race and gender were not about other people, they were about me. I had to start thinking about them, and it had been privilege that had kept it invisible to me for so long.”

Mood board

Mexican singer, actor and film producer Vicente Fernandez sings
El Rey of ranchera music—wherever you are, Chente, we know it's a little more musical. 
Ulises Ruiz—AFP/Getty Images

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