Though written in different idioms and with unique concerns in mind, the swelling chorus of press statements, op-eds, and reports touting the recovery cohere ideologically. Like the contrapuntal sounds of a sousaphone’s bass line, and cascading horn improvisations that add depth and verve to the same melody, a steady parade of mainstream commentators have helped to secure the neoliberal recovery project’s hegemony. Their anthems are mostly written in the key of resiliency. Kristen McQueary’s tone-deaf Chicago Tribune piece, “In Chicago, Wishing for a Hurricane Katrina,” where she mused that a comparable crisis might create the opportunity for pro-market reforms, was rightfully denounced from New Orleans to Chicago and beyond. Many others who are better informed and more tactful than McQueary have seized upon the story of the city’s recovery to advance the same ideological project, with greater effect.
Malcolm Gladwell’s New Yorker essay “Starting Over” echoes the poverty dispersal strategy pushed by liberal social scientists and New Urbanists in the wake of Katrina, who saw the forced mass exodus as an opportunity to test the hypothesis that breaking up zones of poverty might create greater mobility for the poor through access to middle class networks, resources and tutelage. “If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place,” Gladwell asserts, “then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place.” The first option, social democracy, is off the table for Gladwell because “the things that enable the poor to enter the middle class are not primarily national considerations—like minimum wage laws or college-loan programs or economic growth rates—but factors that arise from the nature of your immediate environment.” In one sentence, he banishes redistributive policy from consideration and presents commodification of housing and education as the only alternative. It is not higher wage floors, equitable education, public works or assistance that might lift the poor into a better station, but relocation to the right neighborhood, one that resembles suburban splendor, that matters most for Gladwell and his ilk. The concluding portion of his essay praises the charterization of the city’s school system, albeit with some disclaimers (e.g., “test scores have not risen anywhere near as much as had been hoped . . .”) and more measured celebration than McQueary. “The schools of New Orleans,” he concludes, “made a necessary and painful sacrifice: they extended the pain of Katrina in order to build a better future for the city’s children.”
I disagree with most of what Gladwell and McQueary have to say. They endorse the same tabula rasa rhetoric and scorched earth policy touted by elites during the weeks when New Orleans was still filled with brackish water, and the dead were still being identified. James Reiss, chairman of the Regional Transit Authority, expressed the emerging elite consensus when he said, “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way, demographically, geographically, and politically.” Others, like restaurateur Finis Shellnut, Louisiana Congressman Richard Baker, and deposed city councilman Oliver Thomas, made even more strident demands to rid the city of the poor, the unemployed, and public housing tenants—“the soap opera watchers,” in Thomas’s words. Gladwell’s account of privatization’s virtues lifts those ideas out of this political context, and their connection to actual, class interests operating on the ground disappears.
Gladwell, McQueary, and other champions of the market-driven recovery paper over its violence, and neglect the interests of those who bear the heaviest burden of the “necessary and painful sacrifice” of neoliberal rollback. Gladwell never mentions the current affordable housing crisis in New Orleans, where many spend 41 percent of their monthly wages on rent. Hiding behind clever storytelling and cherry-picked social science findings, Gladwell’s words justify a ruling class project that has produced mass layoffs of public employees; mass firings of middle class, unionized teachers (many of whom were African American women); the eviction and resegregation of public housing residents; the hyperexploitation of undocumented, mostly Latino and male construction laborers; and the reconstitution of a low-wage servant class of formal and informal workers who produce the phantasm of New Orleans for millions of visitors every year.