“We are what we pretend to be,” said Kurt Vonnegut. “So we must be careful what we pretend to be.” Up until late August of last year, the United States pretended to be the leader of the Free World–a nation that derived its leadership from its military power and derived its freedom from its meritocratic impulses. Indeed, the two were interlinked. Everyone who worked hard enough could get on here; that was not just the philosophy that made America what it was but the basic worldview worth exporting at the barrel of a gun, if necessary. Then came Katrina. And for a short moment, the pretense was over.
When the levees were breached, Lake Pontchartrain poured into the bowl of New Orleans and washed up the America that most Americans had tried to forget. Like Rodney King, Katrina told truths that were both long known and long denied and put them on prime time. This was reality TV at its most compelling and sickening. To be in the Crescent City the week after was to see what Haiti would look like with skyscrapers–the appearance of wealth, power and order towering over the reality of poverty, helplessness and chaos. America clearly did not have to go abroad to find the developing world, let alone fight it. It was right here. Rates of black infant mortality in Louisiana are on a par with those of Sri Lanka; black male life expectancy is the same as for men in Kyrgyzstan.
In many ways these scenes were far more ruinous to America’s international reputation than the debacle in Iraq. Anyone with a television, from Jamaica to Jakarta, got a ringside seat on the reality behind the rhetoric of freedom the Bush Administration sought to impose internationally at the barrel of a gun. A nation where people died in the street for lack of basic food, water and medical services without the removal of corpses for weeks and even months had abdicated its authority to lecture the rest of the world on how to run their affairs.
Scandalized by incompetence at every level of government and indifference at the highest levels, the nation turned its ire on the White House. This was entirely logical. Katrina was an act of nature. But almost everything that happened both before and after was an act of neglect. Not benign neglect–the careless omission of deeds by people too busy to do otherwise–but malign: the willful disregard for environment and infrastructure over several decades because the state did not care to act otherwise.
The episode exemplified all the ills of the Bush Administration. Poverty, racism, cronyism, underinvestment, inequality, militarism, ineptitude, dissembling, sectarianism, cynicism and callousness–all the hallmarks of Bush’s tenure–were on display. As the year continued, immigration, corporate welfare, democratic deficits and gentrification would be added to the list.
The light that Katrina shone on American reality burned brightly and petered out quickly. Bush was a legitimate target, but he was also a convenient one. His policies had accentuated America’s fault lines but they had not created them. Katrina revealed the problems with his Administration. But the past year has also exposed the left’s inability to formulate a coherent progressive agenda in response, galvanize a constituency for it and then sustain a campaign around it.
To truly grasp how events in New Orleans unraveled, America would have to grapple with its ahistorical understanding of race, ambivalence toward class and antagonism toward government. But those rabbit holes proved too deep and too ugly, and in the end it was a journey the country had neither the will, curiosity nor leadership to make.
Katrina revealed the need to examine the relationship between the private and the public and the responsibilities of the individual to the collective. It exposed the legacy of segregation, the prevalence of class inequality and the necessity of government. It is a mark of the country’s dysfunctional political culture that just ten months earlier, none of the key issues raised by Katrina had featured in a hotly contested presidential election in which the nation’s future was reputedly at stake.
Nonetheless, the hurricane represented a crucial political moment. With no foreign enemy to deflect attention from his shortcomings–for all her faults, and there were many, Louisiana Governor Kathleen Blanco was no Osama bin Laden–the spotlight was on Bush. And people didn’t like what they saw. Katrina became a signifier for an Administration that was heartless and clueless. The poor of New Orleans were left to sink or swim in no small part because the MBA President was out of his depth.
Neither the hurricane nor its likely effects were a surprise. In 2001 a Federal Emergency Management Agency report ranked a major hurricane striking New Orleans as one of the three most likely potential disasters–after a terrorist attack on New York City and an earthquake in San Francisco. Like the infamous presidential daily briefing of August 6, 2001, titled “Bin Ladin Determined To Strike in US,” Bush failed to heed the warnings and then pretended he had never even heard them. Moreover, unlike September 11, with Katrina he knew the approximate time and place disaster would strike. Not for the first time, he was missing in action. And while the Gulf Coast lay in ruins, he remained in Southern California trying to sell the Gulf War.
Bush’s ability to export freedom to the Middle East was brought into question by his inability to deliver food to Middle America. For the first time in his presidency, a narrow majority of people did not believe Bush was a strong and decisive leader. His approval ratings sank below 40 percent, and they have barely recovered.
This moment showed potential to raise the level of political discourse beyond flag, faith, soundbite and photo op. For a few weeks, issues of race, class privilege and poverty, which were once rarely discussed beyond the margins, became mainstream. With no government with which to be embedded, even the lame media learned to walk the walk again. Their powers of inquiry and capacity for indignation were reborn. Cameras that remained shuttered as coffins returned home from Iraq tracked bodies floating down Canal Street. Just a few weeks after the hurricane, Newsweek ran a cover story titled “Poverty, Race and Katrina,” as though the magazine had only just discovered it.
But with a few notable exceptions, the media soon left town and would not return in substantial numbers until Mardi Gras. Without any viable political expression to sustain it, the well of human compassion ran dry. The anger was there, but with no movement to harness it or ideology to advance it, the fury burned bright but fizzled quickly.
Clearly feeling the pressure, Bush delivered a prime-time speech from New Orleans’s Jackson Square just over two weeks after Katrina struck. “All of us saw on television, there’s…some deep, persistent poverty in this region,” he said. “That poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.” But as the pressure waned, so did his interest in the issue. Over the next ten months Bush would mention domestic poverty only six times. “Does he often talk about poverty? No,” his press secretary, Tony Snow, told the Washington Post. “He is focused on eliminating the barriers that stand in the way of people making progress.”
Pretense was back in vogue. Whites pretended that racism played no part in the debacle, with only 12 percent accepting that race played a factor in the slow response, according to a CNN poll two weeks after the hurricane. The proportion of African-Americans who felt it had been a factor was five times higher. The last time the nation had seen the same event and reached such entirely opposite conclusions on grounds of race was the O.J. Simpson trial.
That anyone could have witnessed the scenes outside the Superdome and Convention Center and think race did not play a part speaks to the level of denial that remains among white Americans and to the persistence and prevalence of racism. Katrina charted a path from the subtle and undramatic institutional racism that has become entrenched at every level of American society to its most crude and devastating consequences–destruction, displacement and death.
For some whites it was too subtle. In this New South, black demands for full citizenship fell foul not of the law of the land but of the law of probability. African-Americans were more likely to be flooded, more likely to be displaced, less likely to be able to return and, when the mayoral elections were held this past spring, less likely to be able to vote.
That race was a factor is beyond question–in a Southern city just fifty-one years after integration became law and forty years after the Voting Rights Act, race is a factor in almost everything. Yet to attribute the discrepancy between black and white attitudes entirely to racism is as legitimate and convenient as to blame the Bush Administration for the whole fiasco. To do so would misunderstand race not as the starting point from which to engage with broader issues but as the end point to which all problems affecting African-Americans inevitably lead. Such an approach not only allows whites, even those who are poor, to disregard every issue apparently pertaining to blacks as a discrete problem borne from race. It also has crippled the left in any bid to make connections between African-Americans and others on grounds of class, gender, sexual orientation or almost anything else that might overcome this antipathy.
So while race was clearly a factor, it was not the only factor, or even the dominant one. Those African-Americans with money could leave, and most did. Those without could not.
A basic understanding of human nature suggests that nearly everyone in New Orleans wanted to escape Katrina and survive. A basic understanding of American economics and history shows that, despite all the rhetoric, wealth–not hard work or personal sacrifice–is the most decisive factor in determining who succeeds.
In a nation that prides itself on taut bootstraps and rugged individualism, these axioms strike at the heart of one of America’s great taboos–class. Those who could not get out after the storm were the same ones who could not get on before it. Katrina arrived at the end of the month and some were waiting to get paid. One in four in New Orleans did not have a car, yet there was no public transportation out of the city. Even if they did have a car, they needed money to fill it up with gas and for a motel at the end of the trip. Of those who had the choice, many among the old and infirm and those who cared for them preferred to take the risk with the hurricane than to endure the certain discomfort of sitting in traffic for hours and then trying to find somewhere to stay.
The inability of the poor to leave New Orleans reflected not just a lack of geographical mobility but of social mobility. Far from denying the importance of race, this enriches our understanding of the various elements that might inform it at different times. Race and class in this respect are not contradictory and antagonistic but complementary and symbiotic–so closely intertwined that to try to understand either separately is to misunderstand both entirely.
In the absence of any progressive political leadership, the scope for broadening the national conversation that would make those connections was limited, to say the least. By the time of the runoff for the mayoral election in May, race had been eviscerated of substance in New Orleans politics and had taken on a purely symbolic importance. The election pitted Ray Nagin–once nicknamed Ray Reagan–against Mitch Landrieu, brother of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and son of Moon Landrieu, the last white mayor of the city. With little to choose between the two where policy and vision were concerned–neither had any–the contest became a battle between melanin content and family ties.
Melanin won. Nagin, who delayed ordering mandatory evacuation until it was too late, for fear that business would sue him for loss of trade, was back in office. It is clear how this benefited him; it is doubtful that it will improve the lives of African-Americans in New Orleans.
So when the venting was done, the right pushed ahead with its agenda to rebuild the city in its own image–an accelerated version of the gentrification patterns taking place in cities throughout the country that would make it whiter and wealthier.
The “new” New Orleans the right had in mind would be free of drugs, crime and poverty, not because the root causes of those problems were to be eradicated but because the communities from which they came were to be eliminated. “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans,” said Republican Congressman Richard Baker from Baton Rouge less than two weeks after the storm, according to the Wall Street Journal. “We couldn’t do it, but God did.”
Katrina presented a chance to reshape the political, social and economic nature of the city. Before long Bechtel, Fluor, Shaw and Halliburton were in town both literally and metaphorically cleaning up. According to census figures published in June, the black population of the New Orleans metropolitan area had fallen by 42 percent in the nine months after the hurricane; meanwhile, the median household income rose by 9 percent.
While African-Americans emigrated, Latinos immigrated. The city’s Hispanic population ballooned from 3 percent to more than 20 percent in the few months after the storm. Every morning at Lee Circle, hundreds of day laborers gathered under the watchful eye of the Confederate general and waited for work. Every night thousands slept in a tent city in City Park, Scout Island, where one standpipe and three toilets served several hundred people. Even as the xenophobic right called for mass deportation of undocumented workers, the nation’s most vital reconstruction project was being undertaken primarily by migrant workers, many of them undocumented.
But if there has been one thing more amazing than how New Orleans has changed over the past year, it is how much it has stayed the same. We’re more than halfway through this year’s hurricane season, yet it’s an open question whether the city is any better prepared. The postman returned to his rounds in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was 98 percent black, only in July; he found that many addresses no longer had houses and that many houses still had no doors. I drove through the Lower Ninth in May with Antoinette K-Doe in the hearse she bought when she evacuated to North Carolina; she kept stopping and staring at the post-apocalyptic sight of the neighborhood where she grew up. It looked as if Katrina had arrived just a week earlier: Whole houses had been washed off their moorings and into the road; cars had been washed into the houses; trees had been blown onto cars. And there they were still. “We’re the richest country in the world,” K-Doe said. “I don’t understand how we can’t fix this up.”