Although it has been a decade since the flooding of New Orleans, black folks are still living through the aftermath. And what happened on August 29, 2005 and the weeks, months and even years that followed have resonated with black people and those who suffer from injustice and fight inequality.
Hurricane Katrina was both a natural disaster and a human made catastrophe that exposed early twenty-first century black suffering for the world to see. What happened in the Gulf Coast–of which black people in New Orleans bore the brunt—became a symbol of American shame and neglect, a manifestation of the badge of slavery that has left us with little more than the short end of the stick every time. Katrina reflects the larger system of violence that is waged against black people through institutional racism, economic and racial segregation, government neglect, lack of educational and job opportunities, health disparities, and much more. The killing of black people by police is perhaps the most conspicuous and glaring example of injustice to people of African descent, but we are attacked in other, equally destructive ways that kill us, including the levees breaking.
The Lower Ninth Ward of New Orleans was hardest hit by flooding from the breach of the floodwalls built by the Army Corps of Engineers–the largest civil engineering disaster in the history of the U.S. This catastrophe also represented a failure by this nation to invest in infrastructure and the other needs of society, with the most vulnerable suffering as a result. Those who had means and transportation had already been evacuated and had left the city, while those who were left were the poor and the black, those who had nowhere else to go.
And those who remained were packed under the sweltering heat, squalid conditions and deprivation of the Louisiana Superdome. It is hard to imagine 25,000 white Americans languishing under such conditions. These refugees were relocated to the Houston Astrodome, during which time Barbara Bush, the mother of then-President George W. Bush, said “What I’m hearing, which is sort of scary, is they all want to stay in Texas.”
“And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, are underprivileged anyway,” she added, “so this is working very well for them.” President Bush–who according to Kanye West “doesn’t care about black people”—was a symbol of government incompetence in responding to the disaster, as he looked below at the devastation of New Orleans from inside his presidential plane. Moreover, Bush was also a symbol of conservative white indifference to black suffering, and a hatred of government, particularly any government efforts to benefit people of color. The Federal Emergency Management Authority, or FEMA, which at the time led by Michael Brown, the former failed head of an Arabian horse association, was cited for being unprepared. “Brownie, you’re doing a heck of a job,” Bush told Brown during a tour of Louisiana. To make things worse, the more than 120,000 FEMA trailers meant for temporary housing– yet have been bought and sold since 2010–were tainted with the carcinogen formaldehyde. The chemical-laden trailers have caused their occupants eye and nose irritation, cancer, asthma and skin conditions.
Nearly 2,000 people died during Katrina and its aftermath, amid inhumanity and raw racism. Prisoners were abandoned in their cells and left to die. White vigilantes were prepared to shoot and kill black people, as were white police, who barricaded a bridge crossing the Mississippi River, shooting at black evacuees and blocking them from fleeing the city to the white suburbs. On the Danziger Bridge, members of the New Orleans Police Department killed two unarmed civilians and wounded another four—all African American.
When the floods came, 800,000 people were displaced, and over $80 billion worth of property was damaged. Many thousands still live [in exile] and have not returned to New Orleans, which lost a substantial chunk of its black population. The sentiment of white racists– who assess the benefits of the ethnic cleansing of a predominantly black city in order to rebuild it in their white neoliberal image–was reflected in a recent op-ed in the Chicago Tribune. Kristen McQueary wrote in the August 13, 2015 edition of the paper that she wished Chicago would suffer the same fate as New Orleans, in order to break up the unions and enact free-market privatization of the public schools. Black people are not benefiting from the recovery or the so-called renaissance in the city, but their misery certainly fuels the gentrification boom. Ironically, white newcomers are lured by a New Orleans black culture that their presence is only eroding.
Katrina exposed the deep, festering wounds of institutional racism that keep blacks separate and unequal, invisible and forgotten. The aftermath of the storm revealed there are other ways to erase a people, in addition to shooting them with police bullets.
Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove