HOW DISASTER, FEDERAL NEGLECT, AND THE MARKET COMPOUND RACIAL INEQUITIES

by Kristen Buras

Four years after Katrina, Malik Rahim, co-founder of Common Ground Collective, was taking a group around New Orleans to hear about unresolved challenges facing the African-American community. The back of his t-shirt said, “We the people must help each other!” Below was an image of several Black people submerged neck high in Katrina’s waters. Elevated on dry ground, a fellow community member is portrayed tossing a rope to save those drowning. The front pictured the U.S. Capitol with the words, “The government does not care.” 

We are seeing this same disregard for Black life by the government with COVID-19, as African Americans risk infection as low-paid workers; struggle to access food and healthcare; worry about rent and eviction; confront a digital divide with shuttered schools; and die at higher rates.  

Katrina was cast as a “natural” disaster, but much of the destruction was wrought by policies aimed at rebuilding a whiter, supposedly brighter New Orleans. James Reiss, chair of New Orleans Business Council, told the Wall Street Journal in 2005: “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, politically, and economically.” The politics of race would powerfully influence the city’s rebuilding.  

In the same way, COVID-19 is portrayed as a “natural” disaster. We are told that we are fighting a biological enemy, which will ultimately be defeated by a vaccine. To inspire support for public health directives, public officials emphasize that the virus does not discriminate. Everyone’s susceptible. Ads chime that “we are all in this together.” Much like Katrina, the reality of COVID-19 is more complicated. To say that no one is unaffected by this crisis does not mean that everyone is equally affected. And the effects are not natural. They are mediated by a history of unequal racial and economic power.

New York governor Andrew Cuomo described COVID-19 as “a slow-moving hurricane.” As it makes its way across the nation, he lamented, there has been little advanced preparation by the federal government. The failure to protect vulnerable communities from a known threat is what defined Katrina. Day after day, African American citizens drowned in floodwaters and dehydrated on rooftops and bridges. The federal government was ill prepared or perhaps consciously neglectful in its initial response. That’s happening again now.

With Katrina and COVID-19, government inaction and the legacy of white supremacy have been most responsible for the harms suffered by communities of color, not ecological or biological threats. We must envision and demand a different future.

The Effects of Disaster Are Not Natural: Federal Neglect Kills—and Kills Unequally

What happened in New Orleans with Katrina, and what is happening now with COVID-19, is not adequately explained by forces of nature. Consider the confluence of race and geography in New Orleans. New Orleans is generally regarded as a city below sea level. However, as urban geographer Peirce Lewis reveals in New Orleans: The Making of an Urban Landscape, there are elevation differences across the city. 

Over time, Lewis writes, the Mississippi River produced a natural levee along its banks, where “the crest…is about ten to fifteen feet above sea level.” He explains patterns of settlement along racial lines: “With whites occupying the highest and best part of the natural levee…Blacks were pushed…where drainage was bad, foundation material precarious, streets atrociously unmaintained, mosquitos endemic, and flooding a recurrent hazard.” 

In 2001, journalist Mark Fischetti reported in Scientific American: “New Orleans is a disaster waiting to happen…Scientists at Louisiana State University who have modeled hundreds of possible storm tracks on advanced computers predict that more than 100,000 people could die [from a big, slow-moving hurricane].” Despite such knowledge, the federal government decreased funding for flood protection in New Orleans

Fast forward to Katrina in 2005 and it is evident why uptown homes suffered substantially less damage, while downtown areas were deluged with water that destroyed homes and schools. 

At the time, New Orleans ranked 4th out of 297 cities in the proportion of households without cars. While 17 percent of poor White New Orleans did not have cars, 53 percent of poor Black New Orleanians did not. In sum, race, income, and geographic location affected whether one would be more likely to live or die. 

Similarly, with COVID-19, the federal government has failed to protect communities from a known threat—with fatal results. In this case, the Trump White House ignored the National Security Council’s (NSC) pandemic playbook. Completed in 2016, this 69-page handbook contained guidance on how the federal government should prepare for and respond to a pandemic. The Trump administration was briefed on the handbook in 2017 but ignored its value for protecting citizens. 

Who would be most prone to die during Katrina was predictable—people of color located in low-lying areas. Ironically, the Trump administration discontinued funding for a pandemic warning program called PREDICT in September 2019. PREDICT was initiated in 2009 by the U.S. Agency for International Development as part of its Emerging Pandemic Threat program. It analyzed samples from wildlife across the globe to detect zoonotic diseases that may transfer from animals to humans, like COVID-19. In fact, PREDICT discovered 160 different coronaviruses that could potentially cause pandemics. With COVID-19 resident in the United States, PREDICT got emergency funding, but the loss of human life was already escalating.

Communities of color, particularly African American, are disproportionately dying from COVID-19. In Louisiana, where there were over 600 deaths from COVID-19 by the first week of April, 70 percent occurred in the African-American community, despite Black Louisianans representing less than a third of the state’s residents. Similar patterns are emerging in Chicago, Detroit, Milwaukee, and New York City, but racially disaggregated state data remains partial, another way we continue to deny that racism is a life-and-death matter. 

Crisis Reveals Pre-existing Inequities and Exposes Tolerance for Racism

Katrina rendered longstanding inequities highly visible and made transparent the level of inequity that dominant groups are willing to tolerate as “normal.” The same dynamics are apparent in the context of COVID-19. Calls to “reopen the economy,” without any consideration of what that economy is like for those on the bottom, make clear who and what matter.   

Burnell Colton, who runs a small grocery in New Orleans’ Lower 9th Ward, has extended credit to neighbors unemployed due to COVID-19. They can’t afford the basics. 

“I know how this goes. I lived in a FEMA trailer for three years after Katrina,” Colton says. “I went from having 48 neighbors on my block to having three. They can talk all they want about how we’ll bounce back…but not everybody bounces back. Some people are already standing in quicksand. There might be a recovery on Bourbon Street, but when will it show up here?

He stresses that African-American communities are more at risk for COVID-19 “because of what we’ve had to deal with,” concluding that “wearing a mask won’t protect us from our history.”

COVID-19 has revealed that many workers—not just those at Burnell’s grocery—live check-to-check. These are folks laboring in low-wage service industries and the gig economy. It is clear white policymakers’ targeted disinvestment in urban education—specifically schools attended by poor Black and Latino students—undermines educational opportunities and feeds a labor market premised on rock-bottom wages. This translates into disproportionate hardship for African Americans, who are now out of work at alarming rates without savings to fall back on. 

In 2012, Lance Hill, director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, distributed data on race and unemployment. In New Orleans, the unemployment rate of Black males was 53 percent. When the media reports unemployment statistics related to COVID-19 and compares them with the Great Depression, those statistics are portrayed as a radical and upsetting deviation from the norm. The larger question is why we as a nation do not express similar dismay when unemployment rates far above those experienced during COVID-19 are regularly experienced by African American communities in New Orleans and other major cities. The capacity to tolerate an unemployment rate exceeding 50 percent under “normal” conditions—so long as it only affects African Americans—speaks wholeheartedly to tolerance for racism.

One challenge of passing the CARES Act in Congress was Republican concerns that payments to households, especially poor ones, would encourage reliance on public welfare, as if COVID-19 is a chance to lay back and chill rather than an earth shattering reality for working people. This kind of thinking, which singularly blames the poor for poverty and people of color for their struggles, must be questioned.

There is an understandable but largely uncritical call to “reopen” the economy as soon as possible, for things to “return to normal.” There is, however, a failure to recognize that “normal” has not been a good thing for everyone. As a society, questions have not been raised about what kind of work people will be returning to and why it is that the jobs so many worked left them without a dime in the bank. Rather than calling for a “return” of the economy, we should be asking what kind of economy we want to build—perhaps one that pays a living wage or offers a universal basic income. 

Profiteering and Privatization Dispossess Communities of Color 

Reliance on the “invisible hand” of the market to remedy crisis has only worsened the effects of racism, turning already oppressed communities into sites of not only neglect, but plunder. With Katrina and COVID-19, those things most needed for community survival—education, medical supplies, and even federal assistance—have been treated as private, for-profit ventures rather than public assets.

In Charter Schools, Race, and Urban Space, I chronicle the takeover and chartering of New Orleans public schools by Louisiana’s state-run Recovery School District (RSD). Plans for takeover began just days after the hurricane’s landfall on August 29, 2005 and ultimately shifted most of the local board’s resources to the RSD and privately operated charters.  COVID-19 may likewise function to redistribute assets in troubling ways.

Just weeks after Katrina, following recommendations issued by the conservative Heritage Foundation, President George Bush advocated the creation of a “Gulf Opportunity Zone” in which government “will take the side of entrepreneurs as they lead the economic revival of the region.” The very next day Heritage stressed that Congress should use federal funds to “encourage the development of charter schools.” The U.S. Department of Education made $20 million available to state leaders to rebuild schools, but funds were designated for charters only. While policies were being set to hand over Black public schools to “entrepreneurs,” bodies were still floating in the water. 

In November 2005, Louisiana governor Kathleen Blanco called a special legislative session in Baton Rouge. This was the occasion for passing Act 35, which redefined what constituted a “failing” school and enabled 107 of the 128 schools in Orleans Parish to be folded into the state-run RSD. A Louisiana Federation of Teachers representative on the floor of the state legislature when Act 35 was circulating later reported: “The powers now had a very clear charge. And the charge was these schools are going to be taken over and they’re going to be sold out, they’re going to be chartered.”

It was also announced that 7,500 New Orleans teachers and school employees—a substantial portion of the city’s Black middle class—would be fired en masse in early 2006. They were fired without due process or regard for the teacher union’s collective bargaining agreement. Meanwhile, the state education board approved a Teach for America (TFA) contract. TFA recruits who replaced veteran teachers from the community were young, white, inexperienced, without certification, and generally hailed from other states.  

Locally, Nagin established the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOB), with BNOB’s leaders drawn from the business elite. BNOB’s education committee issued its plan advocating an all-charter-school district. New Schools for New Orleans (NSNO), a charter school incubator, received millions from national foundations financed by wealthy white philanthropists.

After 15 years of charter school experimentation, almost half the city’s charters are rated D or F by the state. Allowing the “invisible hand” of the market to orchestrate public education in New Orleans has compounded inequities, dispossessed communities of color, and undermined an entire generation of young people. This should prompt us to ask: Is expanded marketization the best COVID-19 recovery plan? 

In the era of COVID-19, Trump has demonstrated a comparable commitment to decentralization and the unfettered market. One of the earliest COVID-19 press conferences occurred at the White House Rose Garden, where Trump was flanked by corporate leaders from the pharmaceutical, lab, and medical supply industries. They were praised for their “great” contributions to the nation and potential to remedy the current crisis. Trump places unconditional faith in the magic of the market: array corporate leaders, unleash private innovation, and ABRACADABRA! COVID-19 will be solved without the federal government issuing directives. Yet letting the unregulated market govern is a deadly approach, especially for communities already struggling and in a time of national crisis. 

Fifty states and the federal government “compete” for overpriced medical supplies, with the highest bidder getting the goods. Cuomo reported that N95 masks went from 70 cents to $7 dollars while ventilators more than doubled from $22,000 to $50,000. Free marketeers have price gouged the public and government officials on hand sanitizer. As new supplies vital to handling the crisis are manufactured, they are put on the open market rather than stockpiled by the federal government and distributed for life-saving purposes. As in post-Katrina New Orleans, profiteering is rampant while the best interests of the most vulnerable are thoroughly ignored.

This same kind of COVID capitalism shaped the CARES Act, which dispensed $2 trillion to mediate the economic shutdown. Partly framed as a rescue package for out-of-work families and small businesses, the legislation is more broadly a “slush fund” for big business. Industry lobbyists representing airlines, hotels, oil and gas, and other powerful corporations, set out to make certain of this. Much of what transpired in post-Katrina New Orleans was discursively framed around the needs of everyday people, but who were the primary beneficiaries? 

With COVID-19 circulating, it is again an auspicious time for profit seekers. The National Alliance for Public Charter Schools advised charter schools to apply for part of the $350 billion under the small business loan program of CARES. The program is intended as a Paycheck Protection Program (PPP), with the goal of retaining employees by covering approximately two months of salary. Although charter schools continue to receive public funding and are often flush with philanthropic contributions, they were encouraged to submit applications. Louisiana blogger Mercedes Schneider posted data compiled by the Network for Public Education. In addition to numerous charter school operators in New Orleans, New Schools for New Orleans received between $5 to $10 million. (The Small Business Administration only provides ranges for distributed funds).  

Who Has a Voice in Rebuilding the Economy is Critical

When the floodwaters of Katrina receded, a series of consequential decisions about what was worth rebuilding and who should play a role remained. The BNOB commission was comprised of business elites. The state-run RSD and New Schools for New Orleans enabled a host of entrepreneurs from beyond the city to takeover and commercialize public schools. Similarly, the economic shutdown precipitated by COVID-19 will require recovery plans. If the New Orleans experience signals anything, it underscores that the question of who has a voice in rebuilding is critical to the shape of the future.   

Three years after Katrina, RSD superintendent Paul Vallas attended a community meeting about the possible closure of Frederick Douglass High School. Veteran teachers, students, and parents—members of the Douglass Community Coalition—met in the school’s auditorium. They were troubled by the School Facilities Master Plan under development by RSD officials and consultants. 

The community coalition did not want the school closed and made it known at the May 2008 meeting. Vallas repeatedly emphasized the community would be able to respond to “recommendations” in August—prior to the master plan’s finalization. A coalition member pushed: “We know in the world of government there are recommendations, and then there are recommendations. There are recommendations that are advisory and there are recommendations that are actually conclusions.” “They’re advisory,” Vallas assured the community. 

Despite promises that community input would be part of the process, two weeks later and several months before the draft plan was released for public comment, state superintendent of education Paul Pastorek issued a letter to the Douglass Community Coalition, writing: “The Douglass school will be repurposed.” Douglass would be closed. The building was handed over to the Knowledge Is Power Program (KIPP), a national charter school network with a “No Excuses” model known for the harsh punishment, suspension, and expulsion of Black youth.

Like Katrina, the economic shutdown resulting from COVID-19 will alter neighborhood landscapes. Many local businesses may be unable to reopen. If the unemployed cannot pay their bills, they may be evicted, leaving residential properties vacant. Federal monies will be flowing to local and state authorities from the CARES Act and other legislation. It is essential that everyday people from the neighborhood have substantive input into the process of “reopening the economy” and rebuilding. Just as the post-Katrina “Gulf Opportunity Zone” enabled outside entrepreneurs to remake physically and economically compromised neighborhoods, the same could happen post-COVID if communities do not demand a voice in rebuilding. Rather than “hot spots” referring to places where COVID-19 cases have escalated, “hot spots” will be areas ripe for gentrification due to economic upheaval. 

As with Katrina, when people are worried about life’s basics—where the next meal will come from, whether the home will be lost, when the child can return to school—it isn’t easy to think about wider political struggles. Yet it is imperative to do so. How we move forward, and who has a say in developing the post-COVID-19 vision, will shape the nation’s landscape for decades.

Negligence Is Racist and Criminal

Government inaction is a racialized strategy. Sometimes its effects are immediate and at other times gradual, but its effects are real and frequently recognized, if not calculated.  Such neglect may indeed be criminal. 

In After the Storm, Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina, legal scholar Katheryn Russell-Brown explains: “‘Crime’ is generally defined as an act (or failure to act) that violates local, state, federal, or international law. Applying this definition to Katrina provides us with a fresh opportunity to reconsider how we ‘see’ crime and justice.” She goes on to outline events that potentially constituted criminal acts before, during, and after Katrina:

• Failure to construct an adequate levee system in a city that, according to all indicators, would face a deadly hurricane (negligence, wrongful death)

• Delay in the search and rescue efforts for hurricane victims (negligence, wrongful death)

• Adoption of a New Orleans rebuilding plan that allows for substantial rebuilding in most areas except the Lower Ninth Ward (negligence, unlawful taking)

Russell-Brown insightfully concludes: “Prosecutions targeting those responsible for the poor planning and execution of disaster relief would send a clear message that the wide-scale offenses committed against Katrina victims, mostly Black and poor, did not escape notice.”

With COVID-19, people of color are disproportionately losing their lives. Many have disproportionately lost their livelihoods and stand to lose much more as the economic shutdown and recession grind on. If Trump and other public officials choose to ignore this, not only are such actions racist, they may also be criminal.

On May 12, 2020, the Senate Committee on Health, Education, Labor, and Pensions held a hearing on reopening the economy. Senator Chris Murphy, a Connecticut Democrat, questioned members of the White House Coronavirus Task Force about federal reopening guidelines and suggested guidelines were “criminally vague.” Murphy’s criticism came on the heels of reports that the Trump administration suppressed CDC guidelines for reopening because they were perceived as too restrictive, potentially impeding Trump’s plan to reopen as quickly as possible. Later questioned about why he described the guidelines as criminally vague, Murphy said this:

The fact is that this administration is not allowing the CDC to provide us with that guidance because President Trump just doesn’t want to have his hands on the response, so that he can blame everybody else. That is not just criminally vague, that is criminally negligent because ultimately it’s going to result in potentially thousands of my constituents dying because we didn’t have the benefit of that expert advice from the federal government.   

A public tribunal should be organized to assess federal, state, and local responses to COVID-19. The tribunal should investigate whether sufficient evidence exists that willful neglect occurred and/or policy decisions caused disproportionate harm to communities of color without concern for redress. Cases should be brought before the U.S. courts and/or international bodies if the preponderance of evidence suggests gross negligence.  

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