The Age of Katrina—Not Obama

By BAR executive editor Glen Ford

The more delusional Obama supporters behave as if “their candidate’s speech on Thursday will herald a crack in time, after which posterity will speak of Before-Obama (BO) and After-Obama (AO) eras, and the transcendental Age of Obama.” They draw straight lines from Dr. Martin Luther King’s 1963 “I Have a Dream” speech to Obama’s nomination acceptance oration. However, the event that far more accurately defines the age is Katrina, the unfolding catastrophe that descended on New Orleans three years ago, this week. Katrina is “the most dramatic manifestation of an implacable racism coiled deeply in the ruling structures of American society, primed to remove concentrations of Blacks from places of value.”

Barack Obama supporters would have you believe that their candidate’s presidential nomination is the glorious, straight-line culmination of the Black Freedom Struggle whose previous high-water mark, they believe, was the 1963 March on Washington, the 45th anniversary of which coincides with this week’s Democratic National Convention. Obama’s public relations agents attempt to bracket the history of modern U.S. race relations within a marketable 45-year period that begins with a snippet from Dr. Martin Luther King’s “I Have a Dream” speech and ends—for the time being—with the grand peroration of Obama’s acceptance speech before the cheering multitudes, in Denver. These dates are presented as the bookends of Black struggle—to be amended and extended when President Obama delivers his State of the Union Address, in January.

To the most hopelessly besotted Obamites, their candidate’s speech on Thursday will herald a crack in time, after which posterity will speak of Before-Obama (BO) and After-Obama (AO) eras, and the transcendental Age of Obama.

Having conjured up a nonexistent “mass movement” to describe what is actually a corporate financed and directed electoral campaign that has not championed a single issue worthy of historical note (don’t dare cite partial Iraq withdrawal and for-profit health care schemes), the Democrats now patch Dr. King’s speech into the prologue to the Book of Obama for the purpose of consigning real mass agitation strategies to the past, for all time.

Yet, the unedited version of history—the real deal—commemorates another imminent anniversary, one that starkly illuminates the true political character of the age: Katrina. The events that followed the hurricane’s arrival in New Orleans on August 29, 2005, would reveal the diabolical intentions of U.S. rulers towards African Americans: to methodically remove Blacks from the central cities of the nation. The ongoing, orchestrated catastrophe also demonstrated beyond doubt the moral bankruptcy and political impotence of Black national “leadership.” As I wrote in October, 2005:

“If Black America fails to configure its human, organizational and material resources to effectively resist the theft and ultimate disfigurement of New Orleans, then we will be forced to confront the existence of fundamental, crippling flaws in the African American polity.”

The “the man-made disaster in the Gulf” provided what may have been “the last chance to build a real Movement, encompassing the broadest sectors of Black America.” Certainly, a critical mass of “the people” were eager to intervene. Hardly a Black church was without some Katrina-aid project, thousands of students journeyed to New Orleans as soon as logistics were made available, and popular awareness of the raw injustice of government policy was universal. But pure rot pervaded national Black political circles—as was clearly evident within six months.

“The Congressional Black Caucus, which claims to be the ‘conscience of the congress,’ has shown itself to be an appendage of the White House leadership,” I wrote in February 2006. “They slavishly followed Minority Leader Nancy Pelosi’s command to make the Democratic Party look good—as opposed to the Republicans—rather than directly address the crisis that was affecting their own people.

“Forty-one of the forty-two Black members of congress obeyed Pelosi’s edict, that the House Committee on Katrina be boycotted. They accepted the order that Democratic legislators would not attend the meetings of the Katrina committee, because it was stacked against the Democratic Party.”

Only Cynthia McKinney, who was soon to lose her House seat from suburban Atlanta, bucked Pelosi’s edict to boycott the Katrina hearings. Pelosi’s unspoken, but transparent, motive was to distance the Democratic Party from issues considered too “Black” in the run-up to congressional elections in November 2006. The Congressional Black Caucus (CBC), as a body, weighed compliance with their party leader versus rescue of Black New Orleans, and chose Pelosi—who would continue to smother the Katrina issue after Democrats gained control of the House.

Katrina, that horrific assault on Black humanity, dignity and civilizational rights—the Right to Return and participate in the reconstruction of their city—was (and remains) the greatest test of Black leadership since the days of generalized White Terror in the South, following the collapse of Reconstruction. As the world watched, hundreds of thousands of African Americans were effectively evicted from their city and have since been prevented by every foul and evil means possible from returning.

There was method to this madness. The hurricane had simply provided “disaster capitalism” with an instant route to gentrification, a goal that takes years to accomplish by the usual methods of public and private urban coercion. As I wrote in May 2007, corporate Power had shown its hand:

“Corporate planners and developers believed they had been blessed by nature when Katrina drowned New Orleans, washing away in days the problem-people and neighborhoods that would ordinarily require years to remove in order to clear the way for ‘renaissance.’ Greed led to unseemly speed, revealing in a flash the outlines of the urban vision that would be imposed on the wreckage of New Orleans. As in a film on fast-forward, the ‘plot’ (in both meanings of the word) unfolded in a rush before our eyes: Once the Black and poor were removed, an urban environment would be created implacably hostile to their return. The public sector—except that which serves business, directly or indirectly—would under no circumstances be resurrected, so as to leave little ‘space’ for the re-implantation of unwanted populations (schools, utility infrastructure, public and affordable private housing, public safety, health care).”

Human rights lawyer Bill Quigley, who has documented the river of crimes perpetrated against the people of New Orleans since August 29, 2005, has compiled a “Katrina Pain Index—New Orleans Three Years Later.” It shows a city in which even the size of population is in dispute. The City Council claims 321,000 residents, the U.S. Census Bureau says only 239,000 remain—a loss of 132,000 or 214,000, depending on who you believe, from a pre-Katrina population of 453,000, 67 percent Black. No one can agree on the current racial breakdown.

Local, state and national forces, public and private, have conspired relentlessly to keep New Orleans unlivable to the unwanted classes. Public transportation is down 80 percent. A majority of Black residents were renters, yet no renters have gotten anything from the $10 billion Road Home Community Block Grant. Rents are up 46 percent, most public housing demolished or marked for destruction, while 71,657 “vacant, ruined unoccupied houses” anchor metropolitan New Orleans in social death. The city is number one in physical death by murder, while psychiatric hospital beds are down 56 percent. Three hundred Louisiana National Guardsmen patrol the streets, in lieu of cops.

Is it any wonder that only 11 percent of families have returned to the Lower Ninth Ward? The Katrina crisis continues because Power is determined that the Black and poor will not be permitted re-entry.

Barack Obama denies that racism plays any role in this. “There’s been much attention in the press about the fact that those who were left behind in New Orleans were disproportionately poor and African American. I’ve said publicly that I do not subscribe to the notion that the painfully slow response of FEMA and the Department of Homeland Security was racially based. The ineptitude was colorblind,” said Obama on his web site, September 6, 2005. He still says so.

For three years, Power has ensured that the New Orleans Black Diaspora remains scattered. For the forces of organized racism, it is a success story; there’s nothing inept about it. Barack Obama will do nothing to facilitate the return of Black New Orleans, since no “malice” was intended. “...I see no evidence of active malice, but I see a continuation of passive indifference on the part of our government towards the least of these.” But Obama is worse than “passively indifferent.” By denying the reality of racism, he transforms the monumental injustices of Katrina into motiveless mistakes that somehow continue to replicate themselves to the disadvantage of the same group of people.

There is no reason for the Black New Orleans Diaspora to expect any relief from an Obama presidency. In fact, there is no reason to expect anything historically unusual or unique from a President Obama other than his physical Blackness.

“Barack Obama will do nothing to facilitate the return of Black New Orleans.”

Katrina, on the other hand, is the most dramatic manifestation of an implacable racism coiled deeply in the ruling structures of American society, primed to remove concentrations of Blacks from places of value. This overarching imperative to “Negro removal” can become aggressively active in an instant—as we learned in the days following August 29, 2005—or proceed about its work block by block over years, until the offending population is eliminated. Fast or slow, the end results are the same: seven of the top 12 cities in Black population saw a loss in African Americans as a percentage of total residents between 1990 and 2000. (See BAR “No Black Plan for the Cities, Despite Lessons of Katrina,” May 9, 2007.)

The pattern becomes clear. As we reported:

“...the seven cities that became less Black in the Nineties [New York, Chicago, Houston, Los Angeles, Washington, Dallas, Atlanta] are all concentrated corporate headquarters locations or, in the case of Washington, DC, the headquarters of the federal government. These are places that corporate and finance capital are most keen to ‘make over’ in order to provide the urban ‘ambience’ believed most amenable to their employees, management and clients, and for the general sake of corporate prestige.”

Slow-acting Katrinas in the form of gentrification are what Black folks can expect—and must find ways to resist and defeat—from the ruling Lords of Capital for the foreseeable future, Obama or no Obama. There will be no “age” named after the handsome, articulate and oh-so-slick, but otherwise ordinary corporate candidate for president who used to call himself Barry. This is the Age of Katrina, and Barry is part of the problem.

BAR executive editor Glen Ford can be contacted at Glen.Ford@BlackAgendaReport.

—Black Agenda Report, August 27, 2008