New Orleans, once seen as a museum-piece for tourists, is now widely celebrated as an “economic miracle” that for the first time in decades is attracting new, entrepreneurial blood. But ten years after Katrina left 80% of the city underwater and wreaked large-scale devastation, there is another story to be told about the city: an estimated 100,000 of the city’s poorest African-American residents, notoriously vilified in 2005, have been unable to return.
While many black New Orleanians were treated as criminals by their host communities, they are now being congratulated in some quarter for leaving behind supposedly dysfunctional communities and seeking their own version of the American dream elsewhere. Somehow, the glossy “new” New Orleans, lauded for its recently cultivated social mobility, did not spell opportunity for them.
This story tells of a pre-Katrina city stalked by crime, violence and intergenerational poverty. By this account the storm was an “opportunity” for those otherwise mired in black “ghettoes,” long pathologized by sociologists and policy makers, to make a lucky escape. Meanwhile, their hometown was proving to be a site of opportunity for a very different face of the American dream.
As many noted soon after the storm, New Orleans became a hub of disaster capitalism, a neoliberal laboratory in which public housing, health and education came under attack. New Orleans’ large public-housing projects were shuttered and eventually razed amidst a sea of storm-battered and flooded homes and soaring homelessness rates. Katrina also became the excuse for the closure of Charity Hospital, a lifeline for low-income residents in the city for generations, in the midst of an emerging public health crisis. The firing of thousands of unionized public school teachers in Katrina’s immediate aftermath and the rapid creation of large numbers of charter schools similarly subjected the school system to market logic while denying traumatized children the familiarity of neighborhood schools. This virtual erasure of the public sphere has overwhelmingly affected black residents – including black homeowners, who have been subjected to widespread discrimination in the rebuilding process.
Social justice lawyer Bill Quigley, who took a leading role in challenging the demolition of public housing in New Orleans, commented in December 2013: “we’re a smaller town, we’re a whiter town, we’re a richer town, we’re the charter school capital of the world. We’ve privatized as much as we can privatize but we’re still looking to do more.”
Advocates of New Orleans’ market-driven transformation argue that they have saved the city’s impoverished residents from living in islands of “concentrated poverty.” But this supposedly noble mission overlooks the inconvenient fact that New Orleans hosts some of the most close-knit African American neighborhoods in the country whose roots can be traced back several generations – these communities are fiercely proud of and attached to the city they call home.
In an October 2014 interview, education activist Ashana Bigard explained: “the idea that black New Orleanians hate this city and want to leave – it is not true. This is an attack on everything that we are.”
In fact, there is evidence that the federal rollback of public housing that began in the 1970s was linked not to concern for concentrated poverty but rather to political dissent. Large numbers of black people living in close quarters increased the possibilities for community organizing and political activism and played into the Nixon administration’s fear of black urban insurrection.
Arguably New Orleans’ working-class black communities have for some time been carrying out a quiet urban insurrection in their daily celebration of a distinctive street culture that more closely resembles the Caribbean than the rest of the US. This culture has long been denigrated by conservative elements in US political culture as inextricably associated with crime and violence. In this sense the newly “cleansed,” gentrified New Orleans is more of a microcosm of the nation than it’s ever been. But contrary to the triumphalist success story, the city’s supposed “rebirth,” just like the scenes of devastation in 2005, showcases a story of US decline.
This is a story in which the post-1945 dream of rising living standards for all has been abandoned to a reality that redistributes wealth upwards while rendering those at the bottom of the social pyramid disposable. Those who insisted in 2005 that the scenes in New Orleans – which exposed extreme levels of racialized poverty – were “un-American” were in denial about the American provenance of the tragedy.
Ten years on, post-Katrina New Orleans is currently one of the most unequal cities in America, making it a leader in the ever-widening gulf between rich and poor across the US. On almost all indexes, the life chances of African-Americans in the city remain shockingly low in comparison with their white counterparts, and this can now be traced in part to the grotesquely unequal conditions fostered by the “recovery” itself.
The vast majority of black New Orleanians, who lost the most in 2005, are now locked out of the vision of the future that the reconstructed city is supposed to represent. But we should not make the mistake of jumping to the self-serving conclusion that they would prefer to be elsewhere – as so many disaster opportunists have done. The future of New Orleans is not yet a done deal, and many continue to struggle for an alternative that might better sustain them.