My following article appears in Al Jazeera America:
“Envy isn’t a rational response to the upcoming 10-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina,” Chicago Tribune editorial board member Kristen McQueary wrote in a recent column, referring to the monster storm that nearly wiped out the city of New Orleans in 2005. “Hurricane Katrina gave a great American city a rebirth.”
McQueary wished for a storm to wipe away Chicago’s corruption, slash the city’s budget and introduce private education. However, she did not mention how African-Americans in New Orleans were disproportionately affected by the disaster or how race became a determining factor in what was rebuilt, how and where.
A decade on, much remains unfinished. New Orleans still has one of the highest incarceration rates in the country, though a recent study by the Data Center found a 67 percent drop in the city’s prison population since Katrina. The private prison industry appears pleased with its successes, contracting many facilities with troubled records. At least a quarter of New Orleans’ population gets by at or below the national poverty line. Illiteracy is rife. But not everyone agrees: According to a new study by Louisiana State University, a majority of white residents in New Orleans said they believe that the city has mostly recovered, while black residents reported the opposite.
McQueary’s column received a deluge of criticism. “I wrote what I did not out of lack of empathy or racism but out of long-standing frustration with Chicago’s poorly managed finances,” she explained in a follow-up post the next day. But it was too late: No amount of call for “revolutionary change” in Chicago and an end to “borrowing our way into bankruptcy” would repair the damage.
None of this should have been surprising. McQueary was being honest about a phenomenon that Canadian writer Naomi Klein termed disaster capitalism, which profits from vulnerable people’s misery. McQueary was tone deaf to the human cost of her preferred policies. For example, she endorsed dismissing labor contracts and teacher unions,calling for “a free-market education” model and “a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur.”
In practice, this means deregulating and privatizing companies and services with lower pay for employees, fewer unions and inflexible working hours. The prevailing neoliberal economic order ensures that the profit motive is built into the delivery of services. This is why avoiding another Katrina requires examining what Klein refers to as “the reality of an economic order built on white supremacy.”
Politicians and commentators the world over see disaster capitalism as rational and necessary after a natural or man-made crisis. This is good for you, we’re told; better housing, schooling and infrastructure will follow. In reality, however, the much-vaunted austerity — sold as an answer to economic woes in Greece, Puerto Rico and cities across the United States that lack a secure safety net for the poor — simply doesn’t work. But it lines the pockets of corporations that see the crisis as a financial opportunity.
Since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans, many myths have developed around the crisis and its aftermath. The news isn’t uniformly negative. Studies show that New Orleans residents are more able to deal with stress and express great pride in their city’s culture in the last decade. In addition, black residents now have better choices of fresh food at grocery stores than they did before the disaster hit. Yet this shift wasn’t a result of multinational corporations opening stores in the neighborhoods but an outcome of the Fresh Food Retailer’s Initiative, a cooperative plan that offers low-interest loans for grocers to get started or rebuild in troubled areas of New Orleans.
Privatization advocates contend that Katrina brought essential reforms to Louisiana’s education system. But the facts tell a different story. “A key part of the New Orleans narrative is that firing the unionized, mostly black teachers after Katrina cleared the way for young, idealistic (mostly white) educators who are willing to work 12 to 14 hour days,” wrote Andrea Gabor, a professor of journalism at Baruch College, in a detailed story in The New York Times last week. “For outsiders, the biggest lesson of New Orleans is this: It is wiser to invest in improving existing education systems than start from scratch. Privatization may improve outcomes for some students, but it also hurt the most disadvantaged pupils.”
Similarly, public housing in New Orleans remain a mess, with the state increasing rents for residents in areas that many say lack a cohesive community spirit. There is a long waiting list for subsidized housing.
To be clear, poor quality structures were blights on the city even before Katrina. But the United States’ slow economic recovery has emboldened officials in Louisiana and elsewhere who argue that privatized services are far preferable to a well-financed public system. The flood of corporate donations to politicians augments these arguments.
Disaster capitalism is a readily exportable commodity. New Orleans still pulses to a resilient rhythm, but those pushing for more private housing, schools and infrastructure are rarely held to account. Without accountability for the abuses of corporate-backed privatization policies, its advocates will simply move on to another city or country to maximize their profits at the expense of poor and marginalized citizens.
Countless companies are already cashing in as the climate crisis takes hold across the United States. For example, many New Yorkers fear that hurricane precautions are excluding the city’s poorest residents while protecting the richest homeowners. The billion-dollar disaster rescue industry, allowing wealthy customers to pay companies to, say, rescue them from a flood or fight fires during a wildfire, is thriving; this is the privatization of humanitarian aid. Corrupt politicians are making a fortune from rebuilding New Orleans and New York after hurricanes.
The most vulnerable in our society deserve to be treated as human beings and not as an experiment in social engineering. Disaster capitalism distorts democracy by elevating the voices of a few wealthy people above the desires of the majority. Even 10 years after Katrina, McQueary can still write blindly about radical change through privatization while ignoring the great determinant of public access in the United States: race.