The Colonial Continuum: A Critique of New Orleans' Rebuilding Process

August 29, 2015, marked 10 years since the landfall of Hurricane Katrina. At the height of devastation, as much as 80% of New Orleans was flooded.1  Since that time, there has been much energy and many dollars expended to rebuild the city. In “Facts for Features: Katrina Impact,” Allison Plyer writes that of the $120.5 billion in federal spending, $75 billion was spent on emergency relief, rather than on rebuilding.2 And ultimately private insurance companies covered less than $30 billion in losses.3  Despite the billions of dollars spent in the form of: (1) federal funding through organs like FEMA, the Army Corps of Engineers, and the Blue Roof Program; (2) state and city initiatives like the Bring New Orleans Back Commission (BNOBC) and Road Home program; (3) volunteer programs like Red Cross, Habitat for Humanity, Common Ground, and other faith-based initiatives; (4) private and corporate investments, like Brad Pitt’s Make-it-Right foundation and the privatization of public schools; and (5) university initiatives, development, and research, many still ask: Is the city headed for tragedy or triumph?

I say tragedy. I say this because neocolonial practices initiate forms of state violence on residents under the guise of “progress.” State violence and extra-legal violence become apparent when tracing the colonial violence that pre-dates Katrina. This neocolonialism is marked by practices that include: dispossession, the militarization of police, mass incarceration, labor exploitation, and environmental racism. These issues affect the city’s most vulnerable residents, and are all prevalent in post-Katrina rebuilding. 

Many residents have been subject to dispossession and removal.4  The city has blight initiatives and penalties for unkempt lawns that have caused people’s homes to be seized and demolished.5  Insurance companies have underpaid policies making it difficult for families to fix damaged homes.6  And even when payments are made to homeowners, they are often extremely low. The Road Home Program and comparable private initiatives have been notorious for offering small cash payments for homes.7  Moreover, even renters have been pushed out due to the demand for housing, the reduction in public housing, the ability for landlords to charge higher rent rates, and the ease of no-fault evictions.8  Airbnb’s have sprung up throughout the city, drastically reducing the amount of housing available for residents in order to cater to tourists.9  Such dispossession lays the foundation for rapid regentrification. 

For those poor and working class residents who remain, many are exploited by the tourist economy, trapped in low-wage jobs while the city profits from their labor. The New Orleans Worker’s Center for Racial Justice claims that, after Katrina “the political economy of race had made displacement, statelessness, and indentured servitude a permanent reality for poor and working class communities of color in the gulf coast.”10  The city profits by connecting the economy to tourism and by keeping masses of residents at the level of subsistence. “The New Orleans Index at Ten” found that as of 2011, 60% of the jobs available in New Orleans failed to pay a self-sufficiency wage.11

Correspondingly, the city also profits from the growing Latino population, which has significantly contributed to the city being rebuilt, while the same population has simultaneously been denigrated and demonized by officials and police. According to the Department of Justice, the New Orleans Police Department has unfairly targeted the Latino population by profiling, harassing, and brutalizing them.12 Furthermore, former Mayor Ray Nagin exacerbated racial tensions by asking at a forum with business leaders, “How do I make sure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers?”13  Such anti-immigrant sentiment is indicative of the surveillance and harassment that marginalized communities receive while being exploited for their labor.

Reinforcing these priorities, policing is extremely aggressive in the city, and it has been militarized. The National Guard is consistently redeployed to supposedly restore order in tourist areas, under the guise of creating “safe spaces” for tourists. In Safe Space: Gay Neighborhood History and the Politics of Violence, Christina B. Hanhardt argues that “the promotion and protection of white, gay neighborhoods have reinforced the race and class stratification of postwar urban space.”14  In New Orleans, this analysis maps quite easily onto tourist areas that are often seen as safe spaces for white, gay, males while local black and brown residents are perceived as threats in those same places. For example, the city is particularly infatuated with creating safe spaces by targeting areas such as the French Quarter; on several occasions the National Guard has been called in for this very purpose.15  This means that residents are often targeted for surveillance because of the city’s capitalist desire to attract tourists. Such pervasive repression of residents—before, during, and after Hurricane Katrina—is illustrated by a review of the New Orleans Police Department (NOPD) that was conducted by the Department of Justice (DOJ). In 2011, the DOJ found that, “the NOPD has engaged in patterns of misconduct that violate the Constitution and federal law, including a pattern or practice of excessive force, and of illegal stops, searches, and arrests.”16 Their poor performance caused former Mayor Mitch Landrieu to say, “I have inherited a police force that has been described by many as the worst police department.”17  

Yet, police power in the city of New Orleans, and throughout the state of Louisiana, has backing at the state level. This helps explain why Louisiana was the first state to pass a “Blue Lives Matter” law, which protects police by making assault against an officer a hate crime. About 50 similar bills have been introduced throughout the country as “Back the Badge” and “Back the Blue” bills.18  Missouri, Kentucky, Arizona, and Georgia are among the states that passed new laws, while other states have enhanced pre-existing statutes. This legislative onslaught prioritizes the lives of police officers over those of ordinary citizens. Furthermore, it creates a false panic as violence against police is at an all-time low.19  Some have posited that this surge of police protections is the result of political opportunism, whereby mostly Republican politicians feel they must cater to their conservative base.20

So these new Blue Lives Matter laws are misleading at best. They make police brutality harder for citizens to prove, and they distort who the true victims are in violent encounters between police and citizens. This disparately impacts communities of color, who are often the victims of undue force. According to a 2015 analysis by the Guardian, racial minorities made up 37.4% of the country’s population, but they made up 62.7% of unarmed people killed by the police.21  Such a dynamic lays threadbare the ways that the Blue Lives Matter movement is fashioned to usurp protections sought by the Black Lives Matter movement. It also reveals that in New Orleans blue lives receive increased legal protections that may trump the protection of endangered Black lives. 

Such repression of residents at the hands of police has led to mass incarceration, especially for the city’s Black residents. Louisiana is a leading incarceration state, with New Orleans operating as its primary nexus.22  The incarceration of Black people in New Orleans is five times the national average, making up almost 90% of the state's prison population.23  The city has also recently built a new juvenile prison to the tune of $47 million, which, similar to Orleans Parish Prison, will serve to incarcerate mostly Black and Brown people.24  The role of race in the youth detention facility is pertinent. In 2009, the New Orleans Police Department arrested 500 Black males and 65 Black females under the age of 17.25  For the same period, they arrested 8 white males and 1 white female in the same age bracket—translating to an arrest ratio of 16:1.26  Further feeding the massiveness of this incarceration is the fact that the Public Defender’s office has repeatedly been subjected to budgets cuts.27  Mental health funding and facilities have been cut as well, leading to more mentally ill people being incarcerated.28  Such budget restrictions have helped to fill the system with poor people, mentally ill people, and people of color. 

Contributing to these disparities but extending them to the region, New Orleans is a hotbed for environmental racism, injustice, and disease. The city sits at the end of the “petrochemical corridor,” which is an area of Louisiana jam-packed with chemical companies who have long discharged pollutants into the air and water. Following the storm, FEMA distributed trailers laden with formaldehyde to residents. In some cases, formaldehyde levels were nearly 40 times the customary exposure level.29  In 2006 and 2007, more than 4,000 property owners received contaminated drywall to rebuild their homes.30  The EPA collected soil samples and found high levels of lead in the soil throughout the city.31  Officials green-lighted Booker T. Washington High School to be reopened atop a former landfill.32  All of this on top of the fact that New Orleans receives the waste from cities along the Mississippi River.33  As a result of such overwhelming toxicity, New Orleanians have an escalated risk of developing cancer and the region has been nicknamed ‘cancer alley.’34

With such a prevalence of particular forms of injustice in the process of rebuilding, New Orleans shows how disaster recovery can reinforce the exploitation that is foundational to colonial practices and relationships. It is not Hurricane Katrina that is the source of the city’s problems; Hurricane Katrina is just an incident that laid bare the coloniality already operating well before the storm made landfall on August 29, 2005.

New Orleans is, therefore, the perfect site to examine the intersection between ecology, space, and politics. It is also a place where infrastructural crises and climate events have led to the reshaping of environments in tandem with the suspension of democratic institutions. However, in “White Sovereignty (…), Black Life Politics: The N****r They Couldn’t Kill,” Barnor Hesse argues that these democratic institutions are always already operating in ways that inflict violence on Black folk.35  They are not democratic from the outset and in their daily operations; rather they operate according to the demands of white sovereignty.   

It is in this context that this essay considers New Orleans as a site of antidemocratic, neoliberal, and neocolonial governance. With the rebuilding process presented as ‘progressive’ urban renewal, one can see neoliberal governance at work, where capital directly influences spatial control. This process has contributed to uneven development between more white, affluent communities and poor and working class communities of color. Considering these social issues in tandem with “natural” disasters, rebuilding blurs the lines between categories usually thought of as distinct: “acts of man” and “acts of god.” 

My larger dissertation project, “Wash. Rinse. Repeat.: A Post-Colonial Critique of Disaster in Post-Katrina New Orleans,” asks the following questions: How does the very idea of rebuilding obscure a conversation about cracked foundations?36  What processes work to conceal the colonial foundations of the city and to impede the realization of “justice” for both the people and the land in question? In what ways can rebuilding New Orleans be responsive to historical and contemporary processes of dispossession, displacement, and exploitation? In order to answer these questions, this research necessarily comes from, cuts across, and contributes to various academic fields and conversations.
These framing questions prompt an engagement in Black Studies discourse in order to utilize Black perspectives and political language to describe the experiences of Black and Brown folk. It does so in order to unsettle knowledge, make a radical intervention with the tools of a discipline based in radical activism, and participate in the Black liberation project. In considering the future of Black people in the settler-colonial space of New Orleans, it contributes to academic conversations regarding post-colonialism.37  My research parses the many ways that post-colonialism has been defined, from superseding the period and paradigm of the colonial to an ongoing political project.38  Yet, even with the term being identified as containing such ambitious activism, there is some weariness regarding the plausibility of moving beyond the grips of coloniality. So this work also necessarily covers topics such as: afro-pessimism, afro-futurism, and fugitivity. By questioning how Black populations will exist, it calls for an intersectional understanding of the way gender, sexuality, and reproduction are deployed in the rebuilding process—making this project intertwined with gender and sexuality studies as well.

By offering a critique of settler-colonialism, my research also engages with Indigenous Studies. It analyzes the ways in which settlers seize and mark land, dispossess peoples, violently alter landscapes, and build and rebuild assemblages. It contributes to conversations on dispossession, regentrification, and decolonization; by working against and across the colonial continuum, it utilizes Indigenous critiques dealing with land, environment, and ecology in order to question how people can live in mutual relation with the land in non-exploitative, non-capitalist ways. This project also invokes concerns that are foundational to critical ethnic studies in order to challenge the status quo. It demonstrates how histories of colonialism and conquest, racial chattel slavery, white supremacy, patriarchy, and heteronormativity can be incorporated into the scholarship and activism of the present.

My research engages both physics and psychology by analyzing notions of time and trauma. It interrogates the linear Western understanding of time where time is understood as a bearer of “progress.” To challenge this notion, it utilizes the concept of trauma, or the inability to progress in ways normalized via Western standards.39  Such an understanding of what Mark Rifkin calls “settler time” can easily map onto the devastation and subsequent recovery efforts New Orleanians have experienced.40  When they were in a derelict situation, progress did not come and community-wide trauma ensued. I then raise indigenous and other alternative conceptions of time that do not trap us the same bind such as cyclical time, circular time, and eternal time.

Such work links literature on settler colonialism to current conversations in and around critical disaster studies. I argue that settler colonialism is the disaster that precipitates more disasters—and its continuation allows disasters to become predictable, even necessary, for the system’s operation. Blurring the distinction between “acts of man” and “acts of God,” the project claims that it is possible for colonized areas to experience disasters without having to experience a “natural” one. By these guidelines, I argue that other cities such as Chicago, Detroit, and Baltimore can be seen as existing in a state of perpetual disaster because they too are impacted by settler colonialism’s unconstitutional policing, mass incarceration, rapid regentrification, demolition of public housing, and community-wide trauma. 

While Hurricane Katrina and the rebuilding process has been extensively covered in academic scholarship, the neocolonial lens is sorely lacking. Eric Mann, author of Katrina’s Legacy, predicts a bleak future for New Orleans if it continues down its current path. “New white affluent settlers will make demands for more police, gated communities, and just enough Black and Latino people to work in Wal-Mart and sweatshops, and to clean homes and hotel rooms—a majority white city with a low-wage Black and Latino working class…. Unless a unified movement can reverse the trend—the white-ification of New Orleans will continue to move full speed ahead.”41  I add to his analysis that we will see more cataclysms tied to the environment, and they will operate as a feedback loop, intensifying the social disaster that New Orleans’s most vulnerable residents are already experiencing. If we do not address the colonial continuum operating in our midst, then, I predict, more disaster is inevitable.

Dozens of flooded houses are shown from above, where roofs and treetops are all that's visible.

Flooded houses following Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans (White House)


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