New Orleans’ connection to Black people runs marrow-deep. It is as old as the slave ships that docked at its ports; as audible as the trombones of the Rebirth Brass Band; as aromatic as the scent of shrimp gumbo. This connection between history, art, music, food, people, and place paints New Orleans in the collective American imagination as a predominantly Black city.
It is this connection between race and place that George W. Bush evoked in his 2005 Hurricane Katrina speech mentioning the city’s “history of racial discrimination.” It is the same one that Kanye West pulled from when he said, “George Bush doesn’t care about Black people,” in reference to the Federal Emergency Management Agency’s response.
And it is the same connection that encourages most people to register the news of New Orleans’ improved housing, education, and employment in the wake of Katrina as a victory for Black people.
But it is here where the shorthand begins to break down. Using place (New Orleans) as a proxy for race (Black) is only accurate so long as the same people live in the same location—a situation that, because of massive demographic shifts, no longer applies to the Crescent City.
After Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005, New Orleans lost more than 250,000 residents to displacement caused by the storm. The damage was catastrophic and would take years and billions of dollars to repair. But as journalist Peter Moskowitz wrote about New Orleans’ comeback in his 2017 book, How to Kill a City, “When it came back, it came back differently.”
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“By 2010, the city’s white population had just about returned to its pre-Katrina levels, while today approximately 100,000 Black people are still missing from New Orleans,” Moskowitz wrote.
The absence of 100,000 people from a city with under 400,000 residents is palpable. Many of the Black residents who remain feel pushed to the margins as they watch their culture erode.
“Now you’re not allowed to be a New Orleanian here,” Ashana Bigard, a Black New Orleans native, told Moskowitz during an interview for the book. “Yeah, this was high crime and high poverty. But the crime and poverty haven’t gone anywhere. You’ve just spread it around, and you’ve just taken away the beauty.”
Bigard’s bleak assertions hold true. In a 2015 town hall meeting at the Aspen Institute, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said that the city’s murder rate remains eight times higher than the national average. “Ninety-five percent of the victims of [violent] crime in my city are African American men,” the mayor said at the forum. Additionally, a 2015 report studying U.S. Census data found more than 50 percent of the city’s Black children live in poverty.
Furthermore, other data suggests that the city’s institutions are leaving poor Black residents behind. A 2013 survey conducted by the Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives found that more than half of white and Hispanic parents believed public schools had improved after Katrina; only 29 percent of Black parents agreed. A common explanation for this disparity is that “school choice” requires tedious applications and paperwork. Therefore, the school selection process often gives preference to the families with the most resources and free time. The system often leaves the most disadvantaged students in the worst schools.
Likewise, after Hurricane Katrina, the housing market failed Black residents too. In 2007, the city council voted to destroy 4,500 units of public housing, displacing what Moskowitz estimated as being roughly 12,000 low-income Black residents. And the city’s new mixed-income developments designed to replace the public housing have failed to keep pace: As of 2014, New Orleans was the second-least affordable housing market in the United States.
But more than just the retention of disadvantage and the loss of culture, gentrification has transformed the city’s entire ecosystem.
Tracing demographic shifts, Tulane School of Architecture’s Richard Campanella detailed how during the recovery, between 15,000 and 20,000 upwardly mobile, primarily white millennials saturated the city’s population. “Some today are new-media entrepreneurs,” Campanella wrote. “Others work with Teach for America or within the highly charter-ized public school system … or in the booming tax-incentivized Louisiana film industry and other cultural-economy niches.”
It’s important to note that the city’s drastic transformation wasn’t passive happenstance. “Those who want to see this city rebuilt want to see it done in a completely different way: demographically, geographically and politically,” James Reiss, a New Orleans businessman, told the Wall Street Journal just weeks after the storm in September 2005. “I’m not just speaking for myself here. The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out.”
The city quickly codified Reiss’ credo into policy. “The chaos of Hurricane Katrina provided an opportunity to enact gentrification-friendly policies on a condensed timeline. Politicians and the developers who supported them were able to ram through laws that likely wouldn’t have been passed otherwise,” Moskowitz wrote. The post-Katrina era, he notes, was a legislatively distinct period that saw the fast-tracking of privatized schools and housing, busted unions, and tax breaks.
In Moskowitz’s account, the policies helped turn post-Katrina New Orleans into a drastically different place—one that is much richer and much whiter than it was a decade ago.
“To be sure, the economy is doing better, and the population is approaching pre-storm levels.” Moskowitz wrote, “But back is the wrong word, because the people here now are in large part not the same people who lived here before the storm.”
Perhaps the most insidious part of New Orleans post-Katrina gentrification is that the city has branded it as a victory for racial equity—an illusion made possible by the strong association between race and place.
In an 2013 op-ed commemorating the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, former Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal touted New Orleans’ improving employment prospects and population growth without mentioning how these improvements had disproportionately left Black residents behind.
Likewise, in his 2015 Katrina speech, then-President Barack Obama celebrated the new success of the city’s education system, while eliding mention of displaced former students. “We have data that shows before the storm, the high school graduation rate was 54 percent. Today, it’s up to 73 percent,” he said crediting parents, educators, and school leaders for the gains. “New Orleans is coming back better and stronger,” Obama said.
Most recently was Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s critically acclaimed May 2017 speech denouncing white supremacy and defending the removal of Confederate statues from the Crescent City. And even while Landrieu’s remarks stamped an important victory in addressing New Orleans’ past transgressions, they—along with other politicians and pundits lauding the city’s transformation—failed to account for its present ones. Looming among those: the displacement of tens of thousands of Black residents.
By omitting and downplaying the story of Black displacement and focusing on the improving regional statistics, politicians have made it easy for onlookers to conflate gentrification with legitimate racial progress. Their rhetoric, which celebrates the city’s diverse history and economic resurgence, effectively deflects criticism about inequitable investments in New Orleans historically poor Black communities.
But if the city leaders decided to pursue a different route, they’d find no shortage of tools to address New Orleans’ racial inequality and gentrification. For example, one 2015 ProPublica report highlighted how Montgomery County, Maryland, implemented strict affordable housing zoning ordinances to create diverse communities. And other proposals from research centers find policies like the vigorous enforcement of civil rights and fair housing laws, increased spending on public housing, expansion and protection of public lands, and creation of community development oversight boards can effectively increase equity in rapidly gentrifying urban areas like New Orleans. But while the Crescent City’s potential gentrification solutions are plentiful, the wherewithal to implement them has thus far remained scarce.
Today, the lesson from New Orleans is clear: Geography is an imperfect metric for racial equity because populations of color can be moved. In New Orleans, this gentrification has skewed statistics. It has erased culture. And after a decade, it has transformed the city as much as Katrina itself. Moving forward, city leaders confronting a legacy of discrimination must decide what is most important—investing in the creation of equality or the illusion of it.