Seven years after Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans has become a laboratory for government reforms. But the processes through which those experiments have been carried out have rarely been transparent or democratic, and they have often been divisive, pitting new residents against those who grew up here, rich against poor, and white against black.
Education, housing, criminal justice, health care, urban planning, even our media: systemic changes have touched every aspect of life in New Orleans, often creating a template now used in other cities. A few examples:
- In the weeks after Hurricane Katrina, the entire staff of the city's public school system was fired - more than 7,500 employees lost their jobs, despite the protection of union membership and a contract. Thousands of young teachers, many affiliated with programs like Teach For America, filled the empty slots. As charters took over from traditional public schools, the city became what then-superintendent Paul Vallas called the first 100 percent free-market public school system in the United States.
- Every public housing development has either been partially or entirely torn down, and the housing authority now administers more than 17,000 vouchers - nearly double the pre-Katrina amount. During this period, rents have risen dramatically across the city.
- The US Department of Justice has spent three years in negotiations with city government over reform of the police department. The historic consent decree that came out of these negotiations mandates vast changes in nearly every aspect of the NOPD and could serve as a model for departments across the United States, especially in its changes over policies on interactions with LGBT communities. But organizations that deal with police accountability, as well as the city's independent police monitor, have filed motions objecting to the agreement, stating that they were left out of the negotiations and that the agreement lacks community oversight.
- As the city loses its daily paper, an influx of funding - including $750,000 just from George Soros' foundation - has arrived for various online media projects. In a city that is still majority African-American, the staff of these new media ventures is almost entirely white, and often conservative. Meanwhile, the city's black media struggles to survive.
New Orleans has become a destination for a new class of residents drawn by these opportunities. For a while, they self-identified as YURPS (Young Urban Rebuilding Professionals). Now they are frequently known as "social entrepreneurs," and they have wealthy and powerful allies. Warren Buffet has invested in the redevelopment of public housing. Oprah Winfrey, Bill Gates and the Walton family have donated to the charter schools. Attorney General Holder came to town to announce police department reforms. President Obama has visited several times, despite the fact that this state is not remotely in play for Democrats.
Before the levees failed and 80 percent of New Orleans was underwater, we had some excellent teachers and great schools. We also had public housing that earned praise from architects and many residents. But in the rush toward change, those who find anything to praise in the old ways are often accused of being stuck in the past or embracing corruption.
There is wide agreement that most of our government services had deep, systemic problems. But in rebuilding New Orleans, the key question is not only how much change is needed, but more crucially, who should dictate that change.
Many residents - especially in the black community - have felt disenfranchised in the new New Orleans. They see the influx of college graduates who have come to start nonprofits and run our schools and redesign our neighborhoods as disaster profiteers, not saviors. "When I hear the word experiment, I think of Tuskegee," says civil rights lawyer Tracie Washington, evoking a history of racist experimentation performed on black bodies without people's consent.
You can hear it every day on WBOK, the city's only black-owned talk radio station, and read about it in the Louisiana Weekly, Data News and the New Orleans Tribune, the city's black newspapers. This new rebuilding class is seen as working in alliance with white elites to disenfranchise a shrinking black majority. Callers and guests on WBOK point to the rapid change in political representation. Among the political offices that have shifted to white after a generation in black hands are the mayor, police chief, district attorney, and majorities on the school board and city council.
The population is smaller and whiter and wealthier than it was seven years ago. Even neighborhoods that did not flood have smaller populations as single college graduates replace families there.
In a recent cover story in the Tribune, journalist Lovell Beaulieu compares the new rebuilding class to the genocide of Native Americans. "520 years after the Indians discovered Columbus, a similar story is unfolding," writes Beaulieu. "New arrivals from around the United States and the world are landing here to get a piece of the action that is lucrative post-Katrina New Orleans.... Black people are merely pawns in a game with little clout and few voices. Their primary role is to be the ones who get pushed out, disregarded and forgotten."
People hear the term "blank slate," a term often used to describe post-Katrina New Orleans, as a way of erasing the city's long history of black-led resistance to white supremacy. As New Orleans poet and educator Kalamu ya Salaam has said, "It's not a blank slate, it's a graveyard." Where some new arrivals see opportunity, many residents see grave robbers.
Will the new change hold, or will it lead to a polarized and ungovernable city? And is reform possible without the consent of those most affected by those changes? It may take years before we see the final results of these transformations in New Orleans. As these struggles continue and both sides dig in deeper to their positions, I am reminded of the slogan of People's Hurricane Relief Fund, a community organization led by Katrina survivors that rose up in the months after the storm and raged against many of these changes: "Nothing about us, without us, is for us."