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Is This America?

Is This America?
Katrina as Cultural Trauma

Using cultural trauma theory, this book explores how a wide range of media and popular culture producers have challenged the meaning of Katrina, in which the massive failure of government officials to uphold the American social contract exposed the foundational racial cleavage in our society.

Series: The Katrina Bookshelf, Kai Erikson, Series Editor

September 2015
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183 pages | 6 x 9 |

From police on the street, to the mayor of New Orleans and FEMA administrators, government officials monumentally failed to protect the most vulnerable residents of New Orleans and the Gulf Coast during the Katrina disaster. This violation of the social contract undermined the foundational narratives and myths of the American nation and spawned a profound, often contentious public debate over the meaning of Katrina’s devastation. A wide range of voices and images attempted to clarify what happened, name those responsible, identify the victims, and decide what should be done. This debate took place in forums ranging from mass media and the political arena to the arts and popular culture, as various narratives emerged and competed to tell the story of Katrina.

Is This America? explores how Katrina has been constructed as a cultural trauma in print media, the arts and popular culture, and television coverage. Using stories told by the New York Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, Time, Newsweek, NBC, and CNN, as well as the works of artists, writers, musicians, filmmakers, and graphic designers, Ron Eyerman analyzes how these narratives publicly articulated collective pain and loss. He demonstrates that, by exposing a foundational racial cleavage in American society, these expressions of cultural trauma turned individual experiences of suffering during Katrina into a national debate about the failure of the white majority in the United States to care about the black minority.

  • Acknowledgments
  • 1. Breaking the Covenant
  • 2. Print Media
  • 3. Arts and Popular Culture
  • 4. Television Coverage
  • Conclusion
  • Notes
  • Bibliography
  • About the Author and Series Editor
  • Index

New Haven, Connecticut

Eyerman is a professor of sociology and codirector of the Center for Cultural Sociology at Yale University. His previous books include Cultural Trauma: Slavery and the Formation of African American Identity and Narrating Trauma: On the Impact of Collective Suffering.


“The title of Mr. Eyerman’s book about Katrina — Is This America? — is a question many have been asking lately. It’s a telltale sign of collective trauma, a grasping for identity when the usual bases for community aren’t there anymore. If research on other collective traumas is any indication, it may take years, and a great deal of political imagination, for us to figure out where to go from here.”
The New York Times

“A fine piece of scholarship. It’s clearly written and plainly argued, and it’s based on a remarkably thorough research project that covers more media representations of Hurricane Katrina than I’ve seen analyzed in a single place. It engages important cultural questions as well as emerging themes about trauma and the impact of disasters.”
Eric Klinenberg, Professor of Sociology and Director of the Institute for Public Knowledge, New York University, and author of Heat Wave: A Social Autopsy of Disaster in Chicago