The observances, commemorations and analyses are underway. Five years ago, America and the world witnessed a massive natural and man-made disaster when Hurricane Katrina struck Louisiana and the Gulf Coast with devastating fury. The toll in loss of human life and destruction of property was horrific. Vast sections of New Orleans, one of America’s storied centers of culture and commerce, were underwater and in ruins. However, what much of the world remembers are the searing images of thousands of people stranded on rooftops, waving American flags, pleading for help. Thousands more were packed into the Superdome and Convention Center like cattle with little food, water or attention from their government. These were the thousands of mostly poor and Black people left behind to bear the brunt of the disaster because they lacked the means to flee the coming storm like the more affluent residents of the city. In one of the most morally repugnant chapters in the history of this nation, thousands of mostly Black poor people were abandoned with virtually no lifeline from the Bush administration and the federal government; a fact that prompted Rapper Kanye West to spontaneously blurt out in a ceremony, “George Bush doesn’t like Black people.”
If there ever was a textbook case of “institutional or structural racism” in America, the impact of Katrina on Blacks in New Orleans is it. The lower Ninth Ward, home for thousands of working class and poor Blacks for generations, was decimated. New Orleans East and Pontchartrain Park, well-heeled middle class Black neighborhoods, were also in shambles. When the federal, state and local governments finally got their act together, thousands of Black people were relocated to Baton Rouge, Dallas, Houston, Atlanta and far-flung places like New York, Washington, D.C. and Ogden, Utah as part of a mandatory evacuation. Katrina had a “disparate impact” and “discriminatory effect” on Blacks in New Orleans. Therefore, the obvious question was what would happen to displaced residents of the city once the rebuilding process began. Would the reconstruction plan and process be designed to facilitate the return of Black poor, working class and middle class folks, or would Katrina be viewed as an opportunity to reinvent New Orleans with a much smaller Black population?
Mayor Ray Nagin provoked a firestorm of criticism when he suggested that New Orleans should remain a “chocolate city.” His statement captured the fear held by many Blacks that there were schemes afoot to transform New Orleans into a different kind of city. Indeed, the intensity of the reaction to the Mayor’s remarks may well have been an indicator that the fix was on for a de facto ethnic cleansing to dramatically reduce the Black population and change the social, economic and political landscape of post-Katrina New Orleans. Despite some of the glowing reports about the resurgence of the City, viewed through the eyes of the Black majority that once made New Orleans the most African city in the country; their suspicions have been validated. New Orleans is no longer a Chocolate City and it is clear that the powers that be never want it to ever be a majority Black city again.
The Superdome and convention center have been rebuilt better than they were before the storm. The French Quarter is all the way live again and business is bustling in the central business district. Most of the predominantly White areas have been rebuilt or restored, and the residents have returned to live the good life in the “city that care forgot.” By some estimates, 90% of White residents have returned compared to about 65% of Blacks. With rare exceptions, the lower ninth Ward remains abandoned and desolate. New Orleans is back, but large numbers of displaced Black people are not.
Katrina provided the pretext for business interests and developers to achieve what would never have been possible prior to the storm, ridding the city of thousands of poor Black people. Not only was the Black population dispersed/displaced, the “road home” was made difficult by a gauntlet of bureaucratic barriers and procedures that only the most determined residents would muster the resolve to navigate. Moreover, a large percentage of displaced Blacks were renters, and yet under pressure from the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) and to the delight of developers, the City agreed to demolish hundreds of usable public housing units to “de-concentrate” poverty. In fact, one suspects that public housing developments like the historic St. Bernard and Lafitte Projects were destroyed because they were too close to the French Quarter and central business district. There was a need to remove poor Black people from proximity of the tourist playgrounds of the City.
The net effect of the demolition of public housing and the failure to build sufficient affordable units to replace them has been a dramatic rise in rents. Units that once rented for $400 now command $750 to $1,000, putting them far out of reach of the majority of renters displaced by Katrina. A recent Brookings Institution Study touted the fact that the poverty rate in New Orleans has declined. However, it also revealed that this reduction is due to the fact that many of the displaced poor and working class Blacks are unable to return to the city because of the high rents. The refusal to re-open Charity Hospital, which largely served poor people, is another example of the scheme to push out the dispossessed to make room for more affluent residents.
New Orleans is on the rise again, but it is not being rebuilt to accommodate the Black poor and working class people who comprised the base of New Orleans famed culture. As I predicted, New Orleans is being transformed into a Disneyland like city where tourists can come to sample a culture largely created by Black people without having to deal with the “problems” associated with the Black poor. New Orleans is no longer a chocolate city. It has a White Mayor for the first time in decades and a 5-2 White majority City Council. These dramatic changes were unthinkable as long as Blacks were the decisive majority in the city. Katrina changed that. The de facto ethnic cleansing of the African population means that the New Orleans we once knew is not likely to exist again. The story of Katrina and its aftermath is a shameful chapter in America’s history.
However, there is another painful side of this tragedy. In the face of one of the most egregious indignities ever heaped on our people, we were unable to translate our anger and indignation into the collective power necessary to prevent the ethnic cleansing and gentrification of New Orleans. In addition, it is even more tragic because chocolate cities across the country are vanishing in the face of the onslaught of gentrification, and we appear utterly impotent to combat and reverse the tide. The ultimate lesson of post-Katrina New Orleans may well be reflected in the words of Frederick Douglass: “Find out just what a people will submit to, and you have found the exact amount of injustice and wrong which will be imposed on them; and these will continue until they are resisted with either words or blows, or with both.”
Dr. Ron Daniels is President of the Institute of the Black World 21st Century and Distinguished Lecturer at York College City University of New York. His articles and essays also appear on the IBW website and www.northstarnews.com. To send a message, arrange media interviews or speaking engagements, Dr. Daniels can be reached via email at email@example.com.