Atelier: Hurricanes, Race, and Risk

Ray Nagin, mayor of New Orleans, has, as of yesterday, officially invited the residents of Algiers to return to their homes. Algiers, a neighborhood of 57,000 people, is situated on the other side of the Mississippi River, away from the main part of New Orleans; consequently, it was largely untouched by the massive flooding from Hurricanes Rita and Katrina, and, unlike much of the rest of the city, it has clean water and electricity. The Ninth Ward, on the other hand, perhaps the hardest hit of all the New Orleans neighborhoods, was the site of a second round of crumbling levees and massive flooding, this time courtesy of Hurricane Rita. The differences between these two neighborhoods – one predominantly white and middle class, the other impoverished and overwhelmingly black – are, of course, largely over-determined. It seems, however, that of all the differences between Algiers and Ninth Ward, the most nettlesome one continues to be the fact of their racial difference, a difference, for sure, that New Orleans, especially given its racially contentious history, is keenly aware of. It is this racial distinction, and the host of inequities that this distinction serves to cover up, that has been so ruthlessly exposed and indicted by the arrival of Hurricane Katrina.

What is unusual about New Orleans is that, historically speaking, racial segregation in U.S. cities has generally followed a purely horizontally- oriented spatial logic. Detroit provides perhaps the best example of this movement: generous FHA housing subsidies encouraged whites to migrate to the outlying suburbs, while those residents who remained in the inner city, an overwhelming number of whom were black, were left to grapple with the difficulties of an inner city that was increasingly dilapidated, de-industrialized, and under-serviced. The topography of New Orleans is a spatial manifestation of these same generous and highly racist Federal Housing Administration loans; we see a similar urban sprawl effected by the movements of whites out of the center of the city. The history of New Orleans, when seen through its longue durée, adds a particular Cajun piquancy to the normal ways in which space is meted out in relation to race. Of all the amenities available to white New Orleans, its most easily forgotten has always been its relative safety from the contingent forces of nature. While New Orleans had its last colossal flood in 1927, the Ninth Ward has suffered several smaller ones: the Industrial Canal, which cuts through the Ninth Ward, and which failed during Katrina’s onslaught, has failed three times before, once during Hurricane Flossy in 1956 and again during Hurricane Hilda in 1964 and Hurricane Betsy in 1965.

Because of its peculiar geography, New Orleans has always been a disaster waiting to happen; consequently, real estate values in New Orleans reflect and anticipate this impending danger: how badly a given flood or hurricane affects you is determined primarily by where in New Orleans you live. The Ninth Ward is both the poorest and the lowest part of New Orleans. This confluence of qualities particular to the Ninth Ward make sense once we examine those gross inequities that Hurricane Katrina served to expose. In New Orleans, differing abilities to insure against the contingencies of the future are not only bifurcated along an axis of race, but are also physically materialized within the built environment. The spatial features of New Orleans only truly make sense, however, if we take into consideration the ways in which race serves to cover over these economic and spatial inequalities.

In the context of the United States, the construction of race has historically manifested as a black and white binary; such a forced construction needs perpetual maintenance, of course: the case of Plessy v. Ferguson (1892) – brilliantly analyzed in Saidiya V. Hartman’s Scenes of Subjection– is only the most dramatic instantiation of a wide variety of legal and social mechanisms employed to maintain the fiction of racial difference. This fiction – to be cynical for a moment – continues to provide a necessary service: blackness has always functioned in this country, albeit in historically varied ways, as an alibi for those economic inequalities that are an inherent feature of capitalism.

Blackness serves to simultaneously elide the cause and corporeally represent the effect of capitalism’s inherent inequality. By reifing the equivalence between blackness and say, poverty, there is a retroactive, normative ‘logic’ that comes to the fore which precludes blackness from being seen as a bodily attribute that has been constructed to always already represent a category of people positioned as poor and unequal. This reified equivalence insists upon a direct causal relation that equates blackness in its ontological essence with the existential fact of being poor and unequal. Blackness, to function as it does, requires an illogical confluence between the realm of appearances and the realm of “essences”. To the extent that supposed cultural or economic inequalities come to be represented and representable to society by the appearance of black skin, the structural inequalities of our economic system are, to a certain extent, made to disappear.

As the flood waters recede, so too will the media coverage; perhaps it would do us all well to continue attending to a disaster whose aftermath has exposed more acutely and more incisively than perhaps any other event of the last decade the insidious function of race within the United States. Forced into the national spotlight by a gross and perhaps even criminally negligent mishandling of those worst-off residents of New Orleans, the vast majority of them both poor and black, race (accompanied as always by its steadfast companion, racism) has finally come clean: the sorry truth is that racial distinctions (and the inevitable hierarchy and exploitation that attends such distinctions) are as American as apple pie; race was violently stitched into our nation’s very fabric, right from its beginning. It is high time we looked carefully, without flinching, at that warped and misshapen pattern that our nation has woven.