Earlier this month, a Chicago Tribune columnist wrote a piece in which she fantasized about a Hurricane Katrina for Chicago.
Lamenting her city's spending habits, Kristen McQueary said that near 10-year anniversary of the hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, she finds herself "wishing for a storm" in Chicago, so that it could hit the "reset button" and experience a "rebirth" as New Orleans did in the wake of catastrophe.
McQueary's column managed to offend the entire city of New Orleans, but the substance of her opinion on the city is in fact fairly uncontroversial among plenty of Americans. New Orleans today is a neoliberal playground: in the aftermath of the storm that killed over 1,800 people, displaced millions, and cost tens of billions in property damage, the city became a massive experiment in free-market fundamentalist reform. The budget was cut, unions were busted, affordable public housing was done away with, and public schools were swallowed up by charter schools. For people who think that the private sector is the solution to all social ills, New Orleans is an exciting place.
A new report released by the Urban League sheds light on the racial dimension of that privatization-centered recovery. The report finds that while New Orleans has been able to regain its footing socioeconomically, the city has in many realms largely preserved or widened the disparities between white and black life among its residents. From income to voting power to incarceration, the city's celebrated "rebirth" has left the yawning gap between its white and black residents mostly untouched.
Here's a quick look at some of the most significant disparities:
1. Median income for white residents has increased since the storm, while African Americans' incomes remained nearly stagnant.
Median income for black residents of New Orleans has risen less than $2,000 in the past decade, while white New Orleans have seen median income rise by over $10,000 in that time. The white-black gap on income has grown in the past 10 years.
2. The unemployment rate for black residents is more than double that of white residents.
In 2013, white New Orleanians experienced a 6% unemployment rate, while black New Orleanians were unemployed at over double that rate — 13%. This disparity is in keeping with national trends in unemployment, but it's clear that the shock therapy of private investment in the city was not a remedy for the sharp divergence white Americans and black Americans experience in the labor market.
3. More than one-third of black residents live below the poverty line, compared to about one in 10 whites.
In New Orleans, African-Americans live in poverty at about three times the rate that whites do.
4. The number black registered voters has dropped by 25%.
Katrina reshaped the political profile of New Orleans. After the storm, the black population's voter participation rate and number of political leaders dipped, but both have experienced a resurgence and have begun to match pre-Katrina levels. But voter registration is a different story. As the report points out, "New Orleans lost 53,000+ registered voters because of Hurricane Katrina, 86% of which were African-American. This loss has affected the city's ability to swing statewide elections, and a net loss of five seats in the legislative delegation."
5. African Americans make up 59% of New Orleans' population, but 90% of the city's prison population.
New Orleans has significantly curbed the overuse of its jails in the past 10 years, but the racial disparities in the incarceration system remains. Black New Orleanians are heavily over-represented in the prison system: they make up less than 60% of the city's population, but 90% of its prison population.
6. Ninety-nine percent of juveniles who are arrested are black.
The differences in the way whites and African-Americans are treated by the criminal justice system is even more evident in the experience of juveniles. The Urban League reports that 99& of juveniles arrested in the city are black. Furthermore, they are overwhelmingly transferred to adult courts, which means they at a young age huge numbers of them face the threat of serious sentences and criminal histories.
New Orleans is changing quickly, and none of these patterns are set in stone. But if American history is any guide, leaving the shape of society to the whims of the free market will amplify the effects of a history of racial prejudice, not diminish them. Perhaps the Big Easy needs a different kind of reset.