|A view of flooded New Orleans in the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, September 2005.
It’s been ten years since, and yet it left lessons that remain to be learned.
BY CEDRIC JOHNSON
Associate professor of African American studies and political sciences at the University of Illinois at Chicago
It has been ten years since New Orleans was devastated by the catastrophic breakdown of its levee system, and the failure of government at all levels to protect the citizenry. Over the past decade, locals began calling the disaster the “federal flood,” drawing a clear distinction between Hurricane Katrina and the engineering and emergency planning failures responsible for the mass death and displacement of its citizens. Even that moniker, however, is limited as an explanation because it fails to name the various local and state actors who contributed to the specific causes and scale of the disaster. After all, mayor C. Ray Nagin waited until the eleventh hour to declare a mandatory evacuation—and only after he held court with the city’s hoteliers, who feared lost profits. Ten years later, New Orleans is indeed a new city. Ninety percent of its pre-Katrina population has returned. The city is whiter and wealthier. There are 97,000 fewer African Americans —a small city unto itself vanished—and yet New Orleans is majority black again.
The official discourse of remembering the disaster and marking the road to recovery has come to resemble the repertoire of the city’s iconic jazz funerals. There is the slow, solemn dirge that guides the procession to the gravesite, and then the decisive moment when joyous horn blasts and an up tempo drumbeat celebrate the internment of the departed, carne vale in the truest sense of farewell to the flesh, the spirit cut free from worldly travails. The reconstruction of New Orleans has featured the liberation of capital from market regulation, labor rights, and safety standards; the privatization of formerly public sector services like housing and education; and public incentivization of homeowner rebuilding, tourism infrastructure, film and television production, entrepreneurship, and private real estate development. City boosters, public officials, wealthy developers, private contractors, multinational hotel chains, anti-poverty researchers, entertainment conglomerates, charter school advocates, star architects, foundations, celebrity philanthropists, financiers, and grassroots activists have all trumpeted the resurrection of the city, its neoliberal experimentation in neighborhood revitalization, housing, and schooling, and expanding tourism-entertainment complex, the combination of the city’s long standing tourist economy, sports franchises and emergent film industry.
‘Written in the key of resiliency’
Though written in different idioms and with unique concerns in mind, the swelling chorus of press statements, op-eds, and reports touting the recovery cohere ideologically. Like the contrapuntal sounds of a sousaphone’s bass line, and cascading horn improvisations that add depth and verve to the same melody, a steady parade of mainstream commentators have helped to secure the neoliberal recovery project’s hegemony. Their anthems are mostly written in the key of resiliency. Kristen McQueary’s tone-deaf Chicago Tribune piece, “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina,” where she mused that a comparable crisis might create the opportunity for pro-market reforms, was rightfully denounced from New Orleans to Chicago and beyond. Many others who are better informed and more tactful than McQueary have seized upon the story of the city’s recovery to advance the same ideological project, with greater effect.
Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Starting Over” echoes the poverty dispersal strategy pushed by liberal social scientists and New Urbanists in the wake of Katrina, who saw the forced mass exodus as an opportunity to test the hypothesis that breaking up zones of poverty might create greater mobility for the poor through access to middle class networks, resources and tutelage. “If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place,” Gladwell asserts, “then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place.” The first option, social democracy, is off the table for Gladwell because “the things that enable the poor to enter the middle class are not primarily national considerations—like minimum wage laws or college-loan programs or economic growth rates—but factors that arise from the nature of your immediate environment.” In one sentence, he banishes redistributive policy from consideration and presents commodification of housing and education as the only alternative. It is not higher wage floors, equitable education, public works or assistance that might lift the poor into a better station, but relocation to the right neighborhood, one that resembles suburban splendor, that matters most for Gladwell and his ilk. The concluding portion of his essay praises the charterization of the city’s school system, albeit with some disclaimers (e.g., “test scores have not risen anywhere near as much as had been hoped . . .”) and more measured celebration than McQueary. “The schools of New Orleans,” he concludes, “made a necessary and painful sacrifice: they extended the pain of Katrina in order to build a better future for the city’s children.”
I disagree with most of what Gladwell and McQueary have to say. They endorse the same tabula rasa rhetoric and scorched earth policy touted by elites during the weeks when New Orleans was still filled with brackish water, and the dead were still being identified. James Reiss, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, expressed the emerging elite consensus when he said, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically, and politically.” Others, like restaurateur Finis Shellnut, Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, and deposed city councilman Oliver Thomas, made even more strident demands to rid the city of the poor, the unemployed, and public housing tenants—“the soap opera watchers,” in Thomas’s words. Gladwell’s account of privatization’s virtues lifts those ideas out of this political context, and their connection to actual, class interests operating on the ground disappears.
Gladwell, McQueary, and other champions of the market-driven recovery paper over its violence, and neglect the interests of those who bear the heaviest burden of the “necessary and painful sacrifice” of neoliberal rollback. Gladwell never mentions the current affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, where many spend 41 percent of their monthly wages on rent. Hiding behind clever storytelling and cherry-picked social science findings, Gladwell’s words justify a ruling class project that has produced mass layoffs of public employees; mass firings of middle class, unionized teachers (many of whom were African American women); the eviction and resegregation of public housing residents; the hyperexploitation of undocumented, mostly Latino and male construction laborers; and the reconstitution of a low-wage servant class of formal and informal workers who produce the phantasm of New Orleans for millions of visitors every year.
Social justice and inequality in New Orleans and beyond
In his now classic work on gentrification, the late geographer Neil Smith used the term “revanchist city”—derived from the French word for “revenge”—to describe the broader process and political impetus of neoliberal urbanization. In the closing decades of the twentieth century, Reagan Republicans and New Democrats organized in succession to dismantle the New Deal social compact and restore capital’s power over living labor, with the urban built environment, infrastructure, and governing institutions reorganized to better facilitate consumption, profit-making and capital flows. The renewal of this revanchist project in New Orleans over the past decade is distinguished only by its rapidity and perhaps by the dearth of opposition.
Some see anti-racist organizing as a way of opposing the neoliberal recovery-growth regime in New Orleans, but this approach is inadequate as social analysis and as politics. Rapper Kanye West may have offered the most memorable statement of this sensibility when he went off-script during a live telethon for Katrina survivors. “America is set up to help the poor, the black people, the less well-off, as slow as possible,” West said, before punctuating his impromptu speech with the charge that “George Bush doesn’t care about black people.” His conviction, that racism was the primary motive for the death and misery in New Orleans, has been rearticulated and expanded in a small library of books and essays over the past decade. The Nation columnist Mychal Denzel Smith even claims that for his cohort of black millennials, West’s words were “our first relatable expression of black rage on a national stage” that has since inspired resurgent waves of black political activity from the election of Barack Obama to the anti-police brutality protests in Ferguson and Baltimore. Given the media optics of the Katrina crisis, where thousands of black residents crowded the Superdome in search of relief, it is not surprising that so many concluded the disaster was caused by institutional racism and systematic discrimination in education, housing, and jobs.
The racial justice frame, however, does not discern class contradictions within the black population, and the variegated experiences of recovery. This framing fails to capture how the contra-flow evacuation process worked effectively for middle-class blacks with access to cars, as it had for whites of similar means. The property owner-centered reconstruction programs supported by city, state, and federal governments also helped middle class homeowners, black and white, to restore their homes and lives, while the same governing coalition pushed a wave of evictions and public housing demolitions that created hardship for black working class residents, and made it more difficult for them to return.
Anti-racist politics is a weak counter to the official line of pro-market recovery. At best, liberal anti-racists constitute a second line, that group of revelers who trail the brass band. In a street parade, the second line may be formal or spontaneous, but their role is always auxiliary, their shouts and energy supporting and enhancing the power of the first line. The right of return emerged as a popular slogan and demand against the designs of city elites who wanted to “right size” New Orleans by banning reconstruction in the city’s lower lying, and in most cases, black neighborhoods. Some argued that New Orleans’ cultural distinctiveness would be lost if blacks were not allowed to rebuild those neighborhoods where the sounds of Professor Longhair, Fats Domino, the Meters, Irma Thomas, Rebirth Brass Band, Katey Red, and so many others were born. Anchoring the right of return demand in relative cultural contributions rather than the right to housing, however, helped to shift public debate to familiar themes of racial diversity and recognition. Such concerns were vital to the revival of the city’s tourism industry, where place branding and authenticity form crucial linchpins uniting big real estate developers and Mardi Gras Indians alike.
Those who care about social justice need to strike up a new band, one that places the interests of the Crescent City’s dispossessed and laboring classes in the main line, and call a new tune, one that lays bare the fundamental political-economic forces producing inequality in New Orleans and other cities across the country. Otherwise, we will be left with the same ensemble of powerful investor class interests, their think tanks, foundations and second liners.
And we know they are marching down a dead-end street.
Cedric Johnson is editor of the essay collection The Neoliberal Deluge: Hurricane Katrina, Late Capitalism, and the Remaking of New Orleans and author of Revolutionaries to Race Leaders: Black Power and the Making of African American Politics. He is associate professor of African American studies and political science at the University of Illinois at Chicago.