Friday, June 09, 2006

Natural Disasters in Black and White

Natural Disasters in Black and White - Washington Post

The Color of Disaster Assistance - Washington Post

The Katrina disaster certainly has evoked reasonable concerns that this country’s disaster relief tactic is, in some ways, racially biased. It is also logical to extend concerns of this governmental bias to the population as a whole. Testing this assumption in the manner pursued by Stanford University’s Political Communications Lab is indeed proper; however, their approach appears to suffer from incompleteness.

The bias shown in the reaction of the test group to the race of example Katrina victims certainly show race, and skin-tone within race, as drivers to the level of aid the subjects are willing to provide. What it does not show, however, is the influence of alternate factors that correlate to race, and which also deserve consideration.

An example of one such factor is the significance of the influence, set in legal precedent, of compensating victims in relation to their magnitude of loss. By example, the 9/11 Victim Compensation Fund was explicit in utilizing anticipated economic loss in awarding monies, $38.1 billion to-date, to relatives of the terrorist attack. Inasmuch, we would expect the amounts distributed to such victims to follow the racial disparities in wages and wealth we observe in society, which are driven by factors of education and skills, including the influence of racial bias.

The fact that the Stanford test subjects were allowed to apply not only their racial biases, but also their own empirically backed estimates of ‘compensation for loss’ to the disaster victims, is a cause for concern in methodology. Those disparities, whose origins, while correlating to race, occur via the influence of other factors, draw the study and results into question.

The influences of race, as well as factors that exist along-side race, need accurate control to make these type of studies robust, and therefore useful. Researchers do a disservice to our efforts for progress when they aggregate behaviors and make less-than-refined assignments.

James C. Collier


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