How Whiteness tells the Story of Katrina 10 Years Later

Malcolm Gladwell’s essay on New Orleans ten years after Hurricane Katrina is but one of the many narratives that center whiteness as the protagonist of the city during and after Katrina. The purchase this essay has by virtue of its publication in The New Yorker, a nationally renowned news, politics and culture magazine, holds lessons not just about how whiteness craves and tells the story of black vulnerability but the fertile reception there is still for this mythic rendition. Whiteness is a default to white people as the referent for intelligence, beauty and objective truth. It operates by naming these explicitly. But it also works, arguably far more impactfully, by implicitly communicating white ideals not as specific but simply the norm, barely uttering it. Gladwell’s essay, “Starting Over,” is an abject lesson in this overt naming and whispering.

Gladwell begins his essay through the perspective of a phenotypically white sociologist, an outsider to the city. Gladwell names this person, qualifies him as an expert sociologist through his pedigreed institution, and includes quotes from this man about his take on being a newcomer to the city after Katrina. Why would the first move to discussing New Orleans be to position a white transplant first? Answer: whiteness. By framing this essay on the effects of Katrina on what is widely known as the Blackest city in the United States through the portal of a white outsider, Gladwell basically pulls the same whiteness move that launched Orange is the New Black, and countless other works of fiction and nonfiction. The sociologist here is parallel to white upper class Piper in the TV series; we have to know her first to then know racially minoritized characters. It must have seemed impossible to tell the story of the city through the eyes and perspectives of the city’s thousands of current and former Black residents, residents who emphatically do not use the words “random” and “natural” to describe the breaking of the levees, as Gladwell does. In fact, the only instances in which readers hear from Black New Orleanians, their words are siphoned through Gladwell’s piecing of research done by social scientists that he validates through affiliation. It is an egregious erasure through layered annotating.

Gladwell samples from published studies and available data while making sweeping statements about social science that work to erroneously delimit what social science is and benefit inquiries that play fast and loose with how context operates on large and small scales. Several of Gladwell’s statements stand out in this way, for example:

“If a group of poor Americans are stuck in a bad place, then either the place they are stuck in needs to be improved or they need to move to a better place.”

In this statement, Gladwell, works from the premise of the social science he’s chosen to represent as Science with a capital S. It starts its analysis of generational poverty by erasing the generational, policy-created and durable nature of poverty. While that is itself reason enough to dismiss this statement, which acts as the basic thesis of the essay, it is deeply troubling to continue reading the details of this thesis exploration with the slimmest grasp of U.S. history and its ongoing investment in attempting to contain and limit Black life. This superficial analysis relies on a claim made early in the essay that it’s not so much national policies (e.g., minimum wage laws, housing policies, healthcare) but just the specific neighborhood you might find yourself in that determines “how you turn out.”

Neighborhoods do not spontaneously generate themselves nor are their relative opportunities set apart from larger contexts. Particularly in an era of unprecedented housing inequality, gentrification, and 2nd and 3rd generations of white flight, such a simplistic claim erases systemic structures of policy, culture, and ideology. It also woefully misses the complex relationship between municipal policies, national policies, and cultural practices. Gladwell facilitates this by consistently presenting short-sighted questions and findings under the mantle of Social Science . This is the view of systemic vulnerabilization through the lens of whiteness: it begins the story in the current moment, whittles away the structures that have shaped that moment and then poses irresponsible research questions about choice, preference, and better offness. And yet, Gladwell surreptitiously bolsters this as science by noting the scholars he represents through their institutional affiliations and making false statements such all social scientists seeing “a major move” as a “good thing.” All while ignoring the tradition of equally impactful sociologists, such as W.E.B. duBois, who insisted on reversing the gaze of social science from pathology to structural analysis.

Echoing the choice Gladwell makes to introduce New Orleans after Katrina through the eyes of a white man who is an outsider to the community, Gladwell then introduces the complexity of the education system through experiences of charter personnel. The nation’s first successful private erasure of public schooling is again erased as Gladwell tells the tale of the ways that the adults and children involved in this private charter school worked to reform the school. This is not to say that there aren’t committed and sincerely pained professionals, including professionals of color, working in charter schools. But the fronting of the educational struggles in New Orleans through a charter school misses the key historical turn from public education to privatized schools. Because market approaches to social organization in the United States have always worked in the favor of whiteness, Gladwell’s narrative selection colludes subtlely with these logics. He notes that following Katrina, “all the city’s public-school teachers were fired.” This is true, but also woefully incomplete without telling the story of demographics. The firing of all the city’s teachers is one the nation’s only large-scale, sweeping removals of Black middle-class professionals from their career pathways and into vulnerability. In a recent gathering of scholars, parents, educators, and stakeholders in New Orleans, teachers spoke of having been fired, now, three and four times under the various ‘reforms’ that private corporations have tinkered with in the wake of Katrina. The scholars who are documenting and studying these experiences are termed, ‘critics’ in Gladwell’s essay, not named individually nor the institutions they are associated with. Whiteness works here to erase the city’s residents and the work of social scientists who are using systemic analyses, through qualification and disqualification.

Gladwell maintains a consistent theme of ‘radical’ in his retelling of the impacts of Katrina. He terms the wholesale collapse of public education into privatized entities as the ‘most radical’ educational experiment in the country. He talks of people being “all of a sudden thrown out of that whirlpool” of New Orleans having the opportunity to reinvent themselves, and this is painted with the same patina of radical opportunity. It begs the question if Gladwell understands the word, ‘radical,’ which means to go to the root. Gladwell’s conflates ‘radical’ with simply being large in scale. It echoes the ways that the CEO of Starbucks recently claimed that the corporation’s race dialogue initiative was worthwhile because of scale, despite providing no training or support for hourly wage employees. In fact, a basic grasp of the word ‘radical,’ going to the root, would lead to a structural analysis of race and class inequality revealing, quite quickly, that scale has been essential to the ongoing vulnerablization and containment of possibility for Black America.

Whiteness has always worked to obscure the iniquitous system by regularly refreshing logics of individualism, grit, meritocracy, and happenstance. In this essay, and so many like it, the retelling of New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina are thinly veiled judgments of Black life and absolution of the projects of whiteness as property that flowed in when the waters receded.

This tale of whiteness predominates when thousands upon thousands of current and former residents of this city have been anything but quiet narrating their experiences and their analysis. In fact, in the afore-mentioned gathering around education 10 years after Katrina, one of the city’s parent organizers said poignantly, “we were never allowed our analysis of the system.” In Gladwell’s essay, they are further denied. Instead, the people who were unable to return to their homes are cast as success stories, having been spit out from harsh circumstances and thereby gaining what is framed as the benefit of living in more socially upward [re: white] cities. As Barbara Bush said in September of 2005, “so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway,” she said, “so this is working very well for them.” The disconnect of this statement is nothing short of astounding in the face of the largest failure of the highest levels of government in both the engineering of the levees and then the basic shrug at the suffering and vulnerability of thousands of New Orleanians. And yet, this, an ahistorical and therefore absolved frame of whiteness lives on in Gladwell and others’ reporting of the city ten years after Katrina.

New Orleans has a beautiful history and contemporary life of Black survivance. In 1890, a mutli-racial group of prominent citizens formed and strategized a legal challenge to anti-blackness by violating edicts of separate train cars for Blacks and whites. Plessy v. Ferguson is now studied as one of the foremost challenges to deference of whitness as humanity. I wonder, if Gladwell, or more broadly understood, whiteness, were telling the story of Plessy as it has told this story of New Orleans, what the takeaway would be. “It’s good that you were trying to get into the white train car, Plessy. Keep trying for that is where salvation lies.” Thank goodness so many of the city’s residents have long since known better.

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