What’s Been Swept Away: Katrina at 10

Ben Casselman over at 538 has a great piece on the state of New Orleans’ black middle class. Unlike the City’s growing White and Hispanic populations, African-Americans have not returned to New Orleans in similar proportions:

More than 175,000 black residents left New Orleans in the year after the storm; more than 75,000 never came back. Meanwhile, the non-Hispanic white population has nearly returned to its pre-storm total, and the Hispanic population, though still small compared with other Southern cities, has grown by more than 30 percent. Together, the trends have pushed the African-American share of the population down to 59 percent in 2013, from 66 percent in 2005.

At the same time, not only is the black population shrinking, it’s dramatically more low-income than it was pre-Katrina. Black middle and upper-income households have not come back to the city at the same rates as white households and according to Casselman, the black median income in New Orleans is roughly $5,000 less than what it was in 2000 — sitting at just over $25,000.  


This is important especially when many have taken the 10 year anniversary as an opportunity to tout it as a recovery success story. For instance, the website Katrina Ten — a collaboration between foundations, private businesses and the mayor’s office — highlights the progress the city has made in critical areas such as criminal justice and education. The tagline for the project is ‘Resilient New Orleans.’ But in light of the data presented by Casselman and others we are forced to wonder Resilient for who?

This is the question behind the website Katrina Truth which lays bare the racial disparities that are still so rampant in New Orleans. From poverty, “50.5 percent of black children live in poverty, more than before Katrina,” to housing “4 in 10 New Orleanians pay at least half their income in rent” Katrina Truth pushes back convincingly against the narrative that rising flood waters lifted all boats.

So now, as the ten year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina — and the tragedy of government failure which ensued — collides with a burgeoning movement for black lives, we have an opportunity at hand. Not only for the movement to lift up and support a city which has meant so much to black culture — and therefore American culture — but also an opportunity for those who so easily, and perhaps eagerly, forget to understand why black folks across the nation are so angry, so tired, and so fed up with being forgotten and abused.

The narrative we’re asked to believe is that a hurricane which killed and displaced thousands of residents eventually washed dirty streets clean and placed a struggling city on a stronger path. We’re told that the pain and suffering experienced in the past decade has resulted in new prosperity for all. But many black and brown people know better — 70 percent of white residents think the city has mostly recovered, less than half of black residents see it that way — and so must we all.

James Baldwin, in a letter to his nephew, implored him to see white americans as his ‘brothers’ and that, through love, must “force our brother to see themselves as they are, to cease fleeing from reality and begin to change it…”

We cannot fall into narratives that wash away the dismal outcomes of black and brown people. We cannot forget how Black residents were portrayed as flood waters destroyed their homes and communities. The racist and corrupt police practices which — according to a 2011 Department of Justice report “present a significant threat to the safety of the public.” The unwillingness to ensure that adequate and affordable housing was provided to those who wanted to come back to the city.

We cannot continue to ignore these truths. To do so is to condone and support oppression. And pushes us one step closer to the flood which will consume us all.

Check out Ben Casselman’s piece here. The Katrina truth website here. And a new report on the state of black New Orleans from the Urban League of Greater New Orleans here.


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