Wednesday, August 29, 2012

about race, class, and Hurricane Katrina

Adolph Reed Jr., who was called "the smartest person of any race, class, or gender writing on race, class, and gender" by Katha Pollitt in Mother Jones, wrote in New Orleans - Undone by Neoliberalism:
A critique that focuses just on race misses how the deeper structures of neoliberal practice and ideology underlie the travesty in New Orleans, as well as in the other devastated areas of the Gulf Coast. (Adjacent to the Lower Ninth Ward, St. Bernard Parish, nearly 90 percent white, working class and reliably Republican, was virtually wiped off the face of the earth. Most of the parish's housing was destroyed. No hospitals or public libraries have reopened, and only 20 percent of its schools are operating.)
Reed's take is supported by Race, socioeconomic status, and return migration to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina:
However, the racial disparity disappears after controlling for housing damage. We conclude that blacks tended to live in areas that experienced greater flooding and hence suffered more severe housing damage which, in turn, led to their delayed return to the city.
Reed also wrote Three Tremés, nailing what's wrong with Treme the show and giving me a new word, "identitarianism." He notes (italics mine):
Simon was thus primed to lap up the touristic narrative of cultural authenticity. Since Katrina, that narrative has swirled together with the powerful imagery of an impoverished and abandoned black New Orleans, victimized by racialized inequality and injustice. Despite its symbolic power, that imagery was in some ways more apparent than real. For example, blacks were displaced by the flood at only a slightly higher rate than whites.11 And it was poor people of every race who were disproportionately stranded on overpasses and at the Superdome or convention center and who have had greatest difficulty in returning to the city, restoring losses and reconstructing a normal life. Although news footage of stranded black New Orleanians immediately called forth a familiar narrative of racial injustice, the immediacy and certainty with which perception of those images linked to this narrative contrasted with an utter vagueness concerning causal processes through which the inequalities are reproduced and why, therefore, they are most accurately or effectively characterized as specifically racial.12 Easy pieties like “black and poor victims of neglect” conveyed a generic sense of injustice but provided no clue as to its nature or sources, much less possible remedies. The dramatic imagery of the stranded and displaced, and the apparent urgency of the moment, overwhelmed capacity for sober reflection or interrogation of the pietistic declarations. Analogies to clearer, explicit forms of racial oppression like slavery or Jim Crow segregation commonly stood in for examinations of causes of manifest inequalities and strategic responses to them. That rhetorical move is not restricted to application of the discourse of racial oppression to post-Katrina New Orleans but is a conventional feature of black political discourse, across the ideological spectrum. A widely touted recent book attempts to understand mass incarceration as the “new Jim Crow,”13 and anachronistic allusion is the essential trope of reparations talk. In general its function and appeal lie in asserting continuity with regimes of explicit racial subordination in the past to support claims – in the absence of direct causal argument – that manifest racial disparities in the distribution of social and economic costs and benefits are best understood and addressed through the discourse of anti-racism.
Reed has known New Orleans all his life. From When Government Shrugs: Lessons of Katrina | The Progressive:
Guardians of a stripped-down discourse of racial piety, such as Manning Marable and David Roediger, persist in taking me to task for supposedly not recognizing race as the crucial dimension of injustice in New Orleans. This is an all too familiar, tiresome canard, but in this context I find it especially bemusing. I don’t want to descend into what seems like a claim of authenticity based on personal biography. However, I do know New Orleans and its politics, racial or otherwise. I doubt that I could have overlooked the role of race in the city’s power relations during all those years on the segregated buses, streetcars, and ferries, at the segregated public park and zoo, on the segregated lakefront (our space was near the opening to the Industrial Canal), at the Jim Crow takeout restaurant window, at my segregated high school, during the year of white rioting over school desegregation, vicariously through the lives of the domestic workers and caddies who were my neighbors, or in the everyday world that reminded me at every step that any white person could do or say anything to me with impunity and I could have no expectation of due process before the law. 
Yes, I’ve seen how many, if not most of the Crescent City’s white citizens’ perspectives on politics remain shaped by a racist worldview that persists as at least a default consciousness. This is especially notable in election seasons, most dramatically in David Duke’s two statewide races. Nominally educated, upper-status white people have been no less likely to embrace him and others like him than have stereotypical rednecks. 
I’ve also closely observed the racial transition in the city’s politics over the last thirty years. I’ve seen it from the bottom up and inside out. The new black political class, including the first three black mayors, emerged from my family’s social stratum—our former schoolmates and circle of friends and associates, all part of the rising or entrenched black professional-managerial class. I’ve known many of these individuals, and certainly the stratum writ large, nearly all my life. I’ve seen the content and trajectory of their understanding of race and politics evolve over decades. I’ve seen—from the most casual banter at parties, weddings, and funerals to the crafting of public policy—how racial discourse can be a form of class capital. I know how easily the language of racial equity functions to obscure (typically without self-conscious guile; that’s the beauty of ideology) the reality of a political agenda that concentrates costs and benefits asymmetrically within the black population. A politics built on denouncing racism simply cannot help us understand these dynamics at all.

Recommended:

The photos of the "looter" and "scavenger" are explained here.
Clayton James Cubitt's Katrina
Operation Eden
via Race and Class in America