Dark Waters: Hurricane Katrina, the Politics of Disposability and the Racism of Malcolm Gladwell

Katrina does more than evoke a critical understanding of institutional racism and the politics of racial disposability[1]; it also elicits new and more dangerous justifications for racist policies. For instance, the neoliberal shill Malcolm Gladwell reaches a new low with his piece on Katrina titled Starting Over which was published in The New Yorker.[2] He argues that for many of the 100,000 poor blacks displaced by the storm involuntary displacement was a good thing because it opened up new opportunities for upward mobility for them and provided a model for public policy.

When Barbara Bush uttered a similar statement after Katrina, she was condemned roundly in the press for being morally insensitive. Greeting displaced Katrina victims in Houston in the aftermath of the hurricane and forced evacuations, she exclaimed “And so many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this – this is working very well for them.”[3] Barbara Bush’s insensitivity was viewed by many in the black community as a justification for a form of state violence and symptomatic of the racism that dominated her son’s presidency. Yet in Obama’s post-racial America, Gladwell’s racist creed provokes no moral outrage and is published without a touch of irony or a shred of historical consciousness. One exceptional critique comes from Glen Ford, editor of the Black Agenda, who zeroes in on the racist implications of Gladwell’s commentary. He writes:

Malcolm Gladwell, a biracial Canadian who made his bones promoting the hyper-aggressive “broken windows” police strategy, concludes that involuntary displacement is a good thing for people who are stuck in “bad” neighborhoods or bad cities where poverty is high and chances for upward mobility are low. Since every heavily Black city in the country fits that description, the logic is that Black people should be dispersed to the four winds and prevented from forming concentrated populations.The forced exodus of Katrina should be replicated as public policy, for the good of both the purposely displaced and society as a whole…. It is far too kind to say that Gladwell and his white supremacist sociologists and statisticians blame the victim. The logic of their reasoning is genocidal: the elimination – rather than mere deconcentration – of “bad” populations.[4]

What Ford makes clear is that there is more at stake here than a form of idiotic neoliberal racist fantasy wrapped in the logic of a churlish real-estate agent and sterile numbers cruncher, there is also a hint of the endgame many white conservatives support regarding those marginalized by race, ethnicity, and class. A positon in full-bloom with the emergence of Donald Trump and his overt message of hate and racism. Gladwell is not as crude as Trump, but his logic is the same and the message, wrapped in the discourse of social mobility, is similar. That is, the call is for one of expulsion: get rid of them whether they be poor blacks or immigrants, get them out of the suburbs, out of the cities, put them anywhere where they cannot form communities and where they will be utterly dependent on the good will of the new white missionaries—who have been blessed with quality schools, city services, job opportunities, and so it goes.  This is not only disgusting; it is also the logic of genocide with a smile. This is the reasoning in support of creating the dehumanized Other, one that rationalizes not only an intolerable violence, but also supports producing new forms of disposability, new zones of social death, and terminal exclusion.

Mobility, wrapped up in the empty language of empiricism translated into sound bites rather than measured arguments, becomes the cure-all for solving racism in America. All poor blacks have to do is move to a better neighborhood or city. Missing from this analysis is any understanding of the economic, political and social forces that create few opportunities for black in the inner city and how difficult it is to move when one lacks resources. As if poor people would not choose a better life if they had the chance! Missing in this argument is also the unchecked power of the state, one that was not only responsible for the aftermath of Katrina but also deprives poor people of social provisions, dignity, and their basic rights. There is more at stake here than character and will power, the ultimate sacred bible of neoliberals, there is also police violence, massive poverty, segregation, financial looting, poor schools, all of which has little to do with individual character and a great deal to do with a society steeped in massive inequality in wealth, income, , and power and a virulent racism that both punishes poor people and criminalizes their behavior.

Gladwell seems to live in a world in which Ozzie and Harriett define American life. This is a world that is as Dysnified as it is morally intolerable. This is a world in which the racialized incarceration state disappears, the racist drug wars cease to exist, and the disempowering of black educators is normalized. There are no corrupt financial elites in Gladwell’s vision of America. On the contrary, there are only inspired entrepreneurs and upscale white neighborhoods willing to take in a few blacks in order to give them a chance for upward mobility. Democracy is not about the sharing of power in this script, it is about the wonders of upward mobility in a society in which such mobility has all but ceased to exist, especially for poor minorities of class and color.

I guess disaster capitalism has its benefits for neoliberal cheerleaders such as Gladwell. Under the reign of neoliberalism, the forced exodus following the tragedy of Katrina is not viewed as a political disaster but as good public policy. This is really an argument that buries the all too acknowledged insight that Katrina was as much a political disaster as a natural disaster. It buries the recognition that racism was and is alive and well in America. Gladwell’s line of argument offers a new rationale for ignoring the registers of class inequality, racism, and concentrated power in the hands of the financial elite and how these forces limit choices in the face of overwhelming constraints.

While poverty is mentioned by Gladwell it only serves as a pretext for persuading poor people to move somewhere else or, maybe in a less tempered discourse, forced to move somewhere else. This is a form of poverty and racist porn, one that objectifies the poor and makes them the object of cruel neoliberal reforms. This is discourse the spectacle, liberal glitter with no examination of its underlying racist and class-based premises. Gladwell’s racist arguments suggest that all that is necessary to solve the problems of racism and class domination is to just break up communities of poor blacks, minorities of class, immigrants, and any other group considered disposable and send them off into exile where they can embrace a new level of individual responsibility and secure their place on the ladder of a fictitious upward mobility.

Gladwell’s argument sounds like an updated neoliberal rationale for gentrification reinforced by The New Yorker’s gloss on the benefits of racial genocide. Of course, what is never asked by Gladwell and his ilk is to what degree was racism, politically regressive policies, and neoliberal ideology responsible for the Katrina disaster in the first place. Rather than beginning with the exodus, Gladwell could have focused on the ideological and structural causes behind the displacements. Rather than celebrate the politics of disposability and the forced exodus of largely impoverished black people from Katrina, why not condemn the existence of a deep-seated racism and go right to the root of the problem.

Gladwell misses the real meaning of exodus in the contemporary context of the current neoliberal cultural of cruelty and spiritual debasement. The exodus that is missing from this piece is the forced exodus of black youth from schools into the prison industrial complex, the forced exodus of poor immigrants from the United States back to their war torn countries, the forced exodus of women who have to retreat into a world of suffering because of the lack of a national health care plan, the forced exodus of poor minorities in cities into their homes and apartments for fear of being assaulted by the police, and the forced trek home of blacks who are denied the right to vote at the polls. Katrina proved once again that neoliberal capitalism trades on the suffering of the most vulnerable in order to implement market-based policies that benefit the rich.

This is crystal clear in Gladwell’s praise for the transformation of the public school system in New Orleans into the first all charter school district run largely by wealthy whites. This is a school system created without public input, one that substituted inexperienced teachers for veteran teachers, and used millions in federal monies to hire teachers from the union busting Teach for America. Not only is the school system a neoliberal cost-cutting machine, it has consolidated “power and money in the hands of unelected and unaccountable private operaters.”[5] Echoing the overblown salaries of corporate CEO charter school executives are paid exorbitant salaries, with one example being the $250,000 salary paid to the CEO of Future is Now, a charter operator in New Orleans. Gladwell says nothing about “the 4,500 students with disabilities [who] assert that they have been denied access and/or appropriate services” by many charter schools. Nor does he mention the high suspension rates of students, most of whom are black and the use of questionable disciplinary practices in many of the charter schools.[6]

Test scores have improved in New Orleans but as a “report from the National Education Policy Center shows, the test score gains have disproportionately benefited the most advantaged students. [Moreover,] the same report said that 50% of black men are unemployed and 50% of black children live in poverty.”[7] The celebration of high test scores rings hollow in a high-stakes education system where underperforming and special needs students are a risk because they are perceived to not be able to get high test scores. Gladwell is silent on this type of exodus, the exodus of the alleged disposable. As Colleen Kimmett points out,

No-excuses charter schools around the country have been accused of disciplining underperforming students in order to push them out. Most deny that claim, but what’s clear is that their strict demerit systems lead to high expulsion rates. Even if they’re not expelled, students leave New Orleans’ RSD schools at unusually high rates. At 61 percent, the graduation rate is the second-lowest in Louisiana. What happens to the other 39 percent? Only about 3 percent are listed as dropouts; the rest are listed as having switched schools or left the state. But no one really knows for sure. There’s no centralized database to track individual kids from K-12. Youth advocates say this makes it easy for kids to fall through the cracks. Fifteen percent of New Orleans youth ages 16 to 19 aren’t working or in school, 6 points above the national average.[8]

No-excuse charter schools are heavily focused on crude pedagogical practices such as teaching for the test and implementing strict pedagogical disciplinary practices that stifle creativity and the questioning of authority. Such schools are obsessed with data and have little to say about educating students to be critically engaged and socially responsible citizens, surely as frightening to Gladwell as to the hedge fund managers who invest financially in such schools. As Kimmett argues, such charter schools are good at producing workers who follow the rules but terrible at producing students who are critical thinkers. She writes:

Princeton doctoral student Joanne Golann spent 18 months conducting fieldwork in a no-excuses charter school in a Northeastern city, interviewing close to one hundred students, teachers and administrators. She found that “students, in many cases, are taught to monitor themselves, hold back their opinions and defer to authority, rather than take initiative, assert themselves and interact with ease with their teachers.” She concluded that these “schools produce worker-learners to close the achievement gap.”[9]

Of course, the most profound exodus of all is the flight of financial capital from investing in public goods such as schools and the welfare state. In neoliberal discourse, Katrina a decade later is code for neoliberal politicians to continue their efforts to hollow out government services and shut down the social state. The hidden politics of racism is not only visible in Gladwell’s piece it is celebrated. Shame on both The New Yorker and Gladwell. In the end, Gladwell is just another Dinesh D’Souza with better writing skills and the cultural capital of the upscale criminogenic elite.


[1] For instance, see Henry A. Giroux, Stormy Weather: Katrina and the Politics of Disposability (Boulder: Paradigm, 2006).

[2] Malcolm Gladwell, Starting Over: Many Katrina Victims Left New Orleans for Good What Can we Learn from them?” The New Yorker (August 25, 2015). http://www.newyorker.com/magazine/2015/08/24/starting-over-dept-of-social-studies-malcolm-gladwell. For a history of Gladwell’s politics, see http://exiledonline.com/malcolm-gladwell-unmasked-a-look-into-the-life-work-of-america%E2%80%99s-most-successful-propagandist/.

[3] Editorial, “Barbara Bush Calls Evacuees Better Off,” New York Times (September 7, 2005). Online: http://www.nytimes.com/2005/09/07/us/nationalspecial/barbara-bush-calls-evacuees-better-off.html

[4] Glen Ford, “Katrina: The Logic of Genocide,” The Black Agenda Report (August 26, 2015). Online: http://www.blackagendareport.com/new_yorker_katrina_logic_of_genocide

[5] Kristen Buras, “Charter Schools Flood New Orleans,” The Progressive (December 2014/January 2015). Online: http://www.progressive.org/news/2014/12/187949/charter-schools-flood-new-orleans

[6] Ibid.

[7] Diane Ravitch, “NEPC: A Balanced Review of NOLA Changes,” Diane Ravitch’s blog (August 29, 2015). Online: http://dianeravitch.net/2015/08/29/nepc-a-balanced-review-of-nola-changes/

[8] Colleen Kimmett, “10 Years After Katrina, New Orleans’ All-Charter School System Has Proven a Failure,” In These Times (August 28, 2015). Online: http://inthesetimes.com/article/18352/10-years-after-katrina-new-orleans-all-charter-district-has-proven-a-failur

[9] Ibid.

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Henry A. Giroux currently holds the McMaster University Chair for Scholarship in the Public Interest in the English and Cultural Studies Department and is the Paulo Freire Distinguished Scholar in Critical Pedagogy. His most recent books are America’s Education Deficit and the War on Youth (Monthly Review Press, 2013), Neoliberalism’s War on Higher Education (Haymarket Press, 2014), The Public in Peril: Trump and the Menace of American Authoritarianism (Routledge, 2018), and the American Nightmare: Facing the Challenge of Fascism (City Lights, 2018). His website is www. henryagiroux.com.

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