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Racist Neoliberal Response to Hurricane Katrina Foreshadowed Response to COVID

We must learn from the U.S.’s apartheid response to Hurricane Katrina to reimagine our response to COVID.

Stranded victims of Hurricane Katrina wait outside the Superdome to be evacuated September 2, 2005, in New Orleans, Louisiana.

Part of the Series

We are in the middle of an alternative world struggling to be born while the nastiness of a decaying one adapts to the currents of change. This is evident within the United States as COVID-19 and structural racism coinfect our communities. In a short period of time, the novel coronavirus has mutated in its pursuits to circulate and infect human life. U.S. racial domination has also mutated, albeit over a much longer span of time, adapting from earlier forms of chattel slavery, Jim Crow segregation and “colorblind” multiculturalism. In this moment, we witness racism’s altered expressions in the heightened disdain for Black humanity, the systematic detention of immigrant children, revamped expressions of anti-Asian xenophobia and shameless enunciations of white supremacy. While communities continue in their struggle against structural racism — including a rising Black-led youth movement calling to defund the police — there is optimism that the development of a coronavirus vaccine can free us from this global pandemic. Yet, even if a vaccine were to be safely manufactured in a timeline unprecedented in human history, it cannot save us from COVID apartheid.

Identifying our current condition as COVID apartheid puts into proper focus a social order that historically has bred various ills and inequities. COVID apartheid is not only a fitting description of our current global crisis, it also points to possible remedies that can enable us to go beyond medical developments to advance the visionary policy objectives, necessary solidarities, and political will required so that we may live a healthy and dignified life. Broadly defined, apartheid is a term for an unjust society built on a foundation of racism and settler colonialism that systemically privileges and extends white minority rule in various spheres of social life, including but not limited to: private property rights, economic processes, educational opportunities, political-legal institutions, cultural assumptions, health care access and police protections. There is a rich archive of intellectuals and activists who have analyzed apartheid’s manifestation in 20th-century South Africa as well as its parallels in a contemporary world system where the richest minority (the 1 percent) own more than twice as much wealth as nearly 7 billion people. One important contributor is the late Black intellectual Manning Marable, who declared the “problem of the twenty-first century is the problem of global apartheid.”

From Global Apartheid to COVID Apartheid

Marable argues that global apartheid is a consequence of neoliberal governance, deployed in a variety of ways throughout the globe to satisfy the needs of transnational capital. In a post-9/11 world, the neoliberal project has accelerated the consolidation of wealth and power in the hands of a small few through measures that include military interventions in the Middle East, structural adjustment programs imposed upon the countries of the Global South, and austerity measures that have reduced worker and environmental protections as well as defunded public education, health care, and other vital social programs. Inside the United States, Marable argues that global apartheid is represented through structural racism, or what he calls the New Racial Domain. At the height of neoliberal globalization, the New Racial Domain was expressed in the deadly triad of mass incarceration, mass unemployment and mass disfranchisement that created “an ever-widening circle of social disadvantage, poverty and civil death, negatively affecting the lives of tens of millions of U.S. people.”

Catastrophic events brought on by natural and unnatural disasters have exposed the racial asymmetries of this neoliberal social order and its intrinsic racism and anti-Black logic. The events that transpired before and after Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in the summer of 2005 are an important case in point. The hurricane’s death toll has been debated, widely reported to be at least 1,833 people. However, much of the death and destruction cannot be attributed to the Category 3 hurricane. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers admitted that due to insufficient public funding, the levee created to safeguard the predominantly Black community of New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward was improperly constructed. As a result, when Hurricane Katrina made landfall, the levees collapsed, resulting in much of the devastation. Yet, even before the levees came down, federal and local officials were inept in coordinating evacuations as tens of thousands of people — predominantly Black, poor, elderly and disabled — were left behind. Governmental relief efforts were just as ineffectual, as survivors were forced to subsist for days without food or medical attention in the Louisiana Superdome or atop roofs, holding up signs pleading for help.

In the ruins of disaster, with the city’s most vulnerable forsaken by local, state and federal governmental agencies, journalists would reveal how senior officers of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) authorized the shooting of looters in efforts to “take back the city.” Subsequently, a series of police killings would result in the death of many unarmed Black men, foreshadowing the ongoing historical conditions that have given rise to the Black Lives Matter movement. I elaborate upon three known cases.

On September 2, 2005, Henry Glover was at a strip mall in search of baby clothes when he was shot in the chest by a rookie NOPD officer. Another officer would later put Glover’s bullet-riddled body in a car, set it ablaze, and leave it discarded along the Mississippi River. The next day, in the early morning of September 3, Danny Brumfield Sr., a grandfather, was shot at close range and abandoned by two officers in front of the New Orleans Convention Center. On September 4, 2005, police officers in civilian clothing arrived at the Danziger Bridge in a rental truck and opened fire upon a group of civilians, wounding 10 and killing 17-year-old James Brissette and 40-year-old Ronald Madison.

What transpired in New Orleans is linked to not only the individual decisions of those who hold power but the larger social relations, which reproduce and privilege the values of individualism, whiteness and private property above mutual aid, solidarity and the common good. Naomi Klein explains: “[W]hen you systematically wage war on the very idea of the public sphere and the public good, of course the publicly owned bones of society — roads, bridges, levees, water systems — are going to slip into a state of such disrepair that it takes little to push them beyond the breaking point. When you massively cut taxes so that you don’t have money to spend on much of anything besides the police and the military, this is what happens.”

Fifteen years later, our country is pushed to a breaking point much larger in scale as it addresses the coronavirus pandemic. Sadly, the neoliberal schema that informed the governmental response to Hurricane Katrina’s relief efforts is being refurbished to entrench personal interests and corporate gain. As I write, our country has exceeded 5.3 million confirmed cases and 168,000 deaths. In fact, the United States has less than 5 percent of the world’s population, yet nearly a quarter of its COVID-19 deaths. Our country’s existing structures of individualism, inequity and racial domination have helped to feed the pandemic in this country. In light of our country’s failed response to the pandemic that disproportionately affects communities of color, as well as the anti-Black manner in which state forces are violently seeking to discredit and deter anti-racist protest, we are witnessing the rise of COVID apartheid.

A Time for Radical Imagination

How we diagnose our problems informs the ways in which we choose to confront them. At present, at least two very different political imaginations and corresponding methods exist in this country that offer conflicting visions for our future. The first is a reactionary imagination to a failed neoliberal project that accepts escalating forms of authoritarianism to create a certain kind of order from crisis; espouses the freedom of individuals to choose within a market-based society; and views corporate innovation and entrepreneurship as the primary means to address our ills.

The second is radical imagination informed by a tradition of protest and solidarity movements; grounded in the ideas of egalitarianism and anti-racism; and determined to fund public schools, health and science advancements, child care, renewable energies, and social programs at the expense of the military and the police. Radical imagination is finding form in the uprisings driven by young Black abolitionist organizers and their allies signaling that we must not only defund police forces, but also shift that funding toward life-affirming priorities.

A reactionary imagination is a large canopy of ideologies struggling for dominance in this country. Broadly speaking, such an imagination views outsiders, immigrants, people of color and foreigners as the primary source of our country’s problems and deteriorating values. Its redecorated nativist and xenophobic historical methods are evident in the labeling of COVID-19 as “the China Virus” and “Kung Flu,” or in its advancement of policies that enable the federal government to separate and incarcerate immigrant families. Reactionary tendencies are beholden to market forces in advancing strategies to address the global pandemic. This was evident at the onset as the federal government responded to the shortages of testing and protective medical equipment by promoting market competition between state and local governments. Furthermore, a reactionary imagination views governmental regulation on a local, state or federal level as a threat to the freedoms of individuals to act within a “free market” society. This has manifested in people’s unwillingness to comply with, and even militaristically resist, statewide mandates to wear facemasks in public. A reactionary imagination accepts the taking back of society through the enhanced policing of Black and Brown bodies at home and increased militarism abroad.

A radical imagination is likewise an umbrella of ideological perspectives mapping a different course from how things used to be. Akin to how a vaccine helps the human body to create memory cells after defeating a weakened antigen so that the body can remember how to fight the disease in the future, a radical imagination is equipped with the gift of historical memory. Such an imagination remembers and revitalizes a tradition of public protest in this country in fashioning change. As such, a radical imagination builds upon historical social movements in contemporary efforts to abolish poverty, prisons and pandemic profiteering. Such struggles are attuned to how such oppressive structures have been made possible through anti-Black police and military industrial apparatuses. The calls to defund such machineries are to protect life throughout the world and to realize universal health care, infrastructure projects, public housing and educational guarantees for Black and Brown youth here at home. In sum, a radical imagination seeks not to revive an old-world withering away before us, but the creation of a new one worth dreaming and struggling into existence.

Author’s note: The phrasing of “COVID apartheid” was suggested by Dr. Suzanne Schmidt, without whose feedback, ideas and support this essay could not have been written.

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