Interior of Israel M. Augustine Middle School showing damage from Hurricane Katrina. Like many of New Orleans's former public schools, the building remains derelict and abandoned since the storm. Photo: shkizzle

The Inevitable City: Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans, and 10 Principles of Crisis Leadership
Scott Cowen with Betsy Seifter
St. Martin's Press, $17 (paperback)

In August 2015 Kristen McQueary published an op-ed in the Chicago Tribune wishing that a Hurricane Katrina would wash away Chicago’s teachers unions and public housing:

That’s what it took to hit the reset button in New Orleans. . . . A new mayor slashed the city budget, forced unpaid furloughs, cut positions, detonated labor contracts. . . . An underperforming public school system saw a complete makeover. A new schools chief, Paul Vallas, designed a school system with the flexibility of an entrepreneur. No restrictive mandates from the city or the state. No demands from teacher unions to abide. Instead, he created the nation’s first free-market education system.

McQueary later apologized, but she was only repeating the beliefs of many of the country’s elite, who wish to do away with teachers unions and dispossess the long-term residents of American cities who trenchantly resist efforts to privatize social services. Former Tulane University president Scott Cowen’s new book, The Inevitable City, demonstrates how one member of the white New Orleans elite took it upon himself to subject his city to disaster capitalism post-Katrina, which he sees as model leadership to guide others seeking to do the same in their cities.

In Cowen’s thinking, Hurricane Katrina presented a golden opportunity to remake New Orleans as a privatized, corporatized playground for white tourists and tech companies—liberated from the troublesome teachers unions, housing projects, and neighborhood interests that he believes held the city back for decades. African Americans remain a part of this technocratic city, but they primarily appear as iconic touchstones—musicians, chefs, Mardi Gras Indians—whose purpose is to bring local color to new New Orleans. He states that Katrina “was the crisis that forced new ideas,” ideas he himself claims he led. He fails to provide a moral calculus for finding these opportunities on the backs of the city’s 1,800 dead.

In fact, in the past decade New Orleans has been quite utterly transformed by the displacement of the largely impoverished African American population and by the privatization of the city’s social services. Prison corporations took over the city’s jails while charter school evangelists wrested control of education, making it the nation’s first all-charter school system. The city tore down thousands of units of public housing. The New Orleans school system fired 7,500 unionized teachers—mostly African Americans—and replaced them with Teach for America workers, sending untrained and idealistic young volunteers into impoverished schools. The public housing projects of pre-Katrina New Orleans had more than their share of problems and probably needed to be torn down. But the new mixed-income projects have pushed poor residents who serve as the labor force for the French Quarter out into distant New Orleans East, where they have no access to public transportation. Sixteen thousand New Orleans residents are currently on a waitlist for subsidized housing. Wealthy whites have increasingly gentrified large swaths of the city, engineering a carnival of food, drink, and culture without the messiness of poverty and racial strife that has underpinned the city for two hundred years. Meanwhile, rapid gentrification led by politicians and corporations retains the city’s famed culture as amenities for the consumption of wealthy whites instead of as the culture of everyday people.

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Naomi Klein’s The Shock Doctrine popularized the idea of disaster capitalism by focusing on how corporations, rich world governments, and international funding agencies take advantage of economic crises to “shock” the economic system by privatizing public resources, creating profit for corporations while generating inequality and despair for the purported beneficiaries of this “largesse.” New Orleans has become a prime example of what happens when disaster relief is privatized and allowed to reshape cities without input from—and often to the exclusion of—those most affected: the residents.

A free-market city is an exploitative city, one that displaces the poor and overpowers democratic structures.

In The Inevitable City, Cowen is proud to have taken advantage of the hurricane to implement Shock Doctrine ideology in New Orleans, starting with Tulane and moving on to the New Orleans public school system. His first post-Katrina priority was to get Tulane up and running because the city needed the jobs and the potent symbol of a functioning university. But in doing so, Cowen led two controversial initiatives. First, he pushed through the chartering of a nearby, predominantly African American school so that the children of his mostly white employees would have a place to send their children. Second, he unilaterally reorganized Tulane, firing tenured professors and consolidating programs without input from faculty. This led to his censure by the American Association of University Professors. He justifies both as examples of his leadership in tough times:

A first principle of leadership is “Do the right thing,” despite opposition. Leaders have the realism to face the facts, the wisdom to weigh the options, the will to make a decision, and the audacity to act. Which is another way of saying, Stand up and do what you think is best.

Cowen’s vision of leadership seems to be that one simply does what one wishes—that displaced black schoolchildren are in effect mere impediments to a kind of self-actualization that one achieves through proper “leadership.”

Unfortunately, that school was merely the beginning. Cowen went on to be a central player in the transformation of New Orleans into the first all-charter school district in the United States. While Cowen and others champion the results—including purportedly higher test scores and graduation rates—researchers at the University of Arizona have shown that even when one controls for race and class, New Orleans schools perform significantly worse on these metrics than Louisiana public schools as a whole, which already rank fourth worst in the nation.

Time and again, test score fraud and false research has put the lie to many such claims about the benefits of charter schools. The Cowen Institute for Public Education Initiatives, Cowen’s post-presidency lobbying group that aims to turn New Orleans into a giant experiment for charters, released a 2014 report lauding its success. However, the institute soon had to completely repudiate its own report for its flawed methodology. Despite well-funded charter industry “studies” claiming improved test scores, the nonpartisan Spencer Foundation and Public Agenda has found, “There is very little evidence that charter and traditional public schools differ meaningfully in their average impact on students’ standardized test performance.” On New Orleans schools specifically, the Investigative Fund has written, “seventy-nine percent of [New Orleans] charters are still rated D or F by the Louisiana Department of Education.” Moreover, it has chronicled how the emphasis on test scores and college preparation has led charter schools to eject low-performing students who would require additional help to overcome the tremendous class and race-based barriers that impede their educational success.

In other words, the real impact of privatization has been to destroy the middle-class jobs of teachers and to isolate low-performing students to protect schools’ reputations—not to raise educational standards or find miraculous ways of overcoming centuries of racism and poverty. And yet, despite abysmal metrics, such projects have received support from President Obama’s Department of Education, which has supported attacks on teachers unions and public schools around the nation. In particular, Secretary of Education Arne Duncan consistently pushed Cowen-style education reforms throughout the nation during his seven-year tenure in Obama’s cabinet, earning the ire of teachers unions. For example, Duncan repeatedly recommended tying teachers’ salaries to test scores, effectively creating a disincentive to teach in poor schools. The Department of Education has also given enormous grants to charter schools, despite its own reports on the poor performance of these schools.

Throughout The Inevitable City, Cowen credits projects by former Teach for America students, entrepreneurs looking to privatize public services, wealthy whites moving into the city, CEOs, and famous friends like Brad Pitt with pulling New Orleans into the twenty-first century. But he rarely even mentions the displaced African Americans. He provides a single example of an elderly couple thrown out of public housing and into a new home; they are said to be divided on the impact of their new house. Yet even this family drama serves mainly as another example of Cowen’s leadership. In the world of privatized disaster relief, everyday people can’t be trusted to decide what is best for their cities. Only people such as Cowen can provide adequate leadership, even if it disrupts long-established communities.

In order to push an agenda of privatization, Cowen necessarily downplays the actual causes of New Orleans’s problems: corrupt local and state governments, institutionalized racism embodied in entrenched poverty, white flight, police violence, a crumbling infrastructure, and poor neighborhoods sited in low-lying areas prone to flooding. As is the habit with advocates of privatization, Cowen dismisses such challenges as intractable, solvable only by entrepreneurs who can come from outside of the system like a cleansing flood, offering a new beginning.

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Cowen argues that his transformation of New Orleans represents the “future of urban America”—a thinly veiled euphemism for black America. What he has in mind, of course, are struggling cities like Detroit and Cleveland, ignoring the already rapidly gentrifying urban cores around the nation. Once again, Cowen is inattentive to the structural problems these cities face, preferring to see solutions in corporate fiat. But a free-market city is an exploitative city, one that displaces the poor and ignores or overpowers the democratic structures set up to give working people voices. The reshaping of New Orleans to serve the interests of corporations is another step in the privatization of the nation’s once robust public services. For Cowen, as for other charter school advocates like Michelle Rhee and Campbell Brown, poverty presents an opportunity for entrepreneurs to profit, not a plague the government must fight and defeat.

In 1965 when Hurricane Betsy pummeled New Orleans, President Lyndon Johnson immediately flew to New Orleans to reassure the residents. He actually walked into a shelter and announced, “This is your President! I’m here to help you.” Johnson targeted New Orleans in the Great Society and War on Poverty. And while those programs had mixed success, this last great push of twentieth-century liberalism came out of a belief that government programs were collective solutions to inequality. Unfortunately, Hurricane Katrina came after twenty-five years of conservatives systematically undermining the social contract. The utter failure of the Bush administration’s gutted FEMA served to reinforce belief in government ineptitude while opening the door to the private sector.

Do natural disasters inevitably lead to gentrification and increased inequality? History suggests that they often do, and certainly that has been the case in post-Katrina New Orleans. Yet such impacts are not inevitable. As historian Jacob Remes demonstrates in his forthcoming book on local responses to disasters, Disaster Citizenship, citizens come together in remarkable ways when the state disappears in the aftermath of disaster, creating democratic spaces in the absence of—and often with hostility toward—the state that has abandoned them. We may learn much about how to prepare for disaster by focusing on the complex world that citizens build to support each other in the wake of tragedy.

But the state is not destined to support policies that lead to inequality. We can imagine a more equitable city than the one touted by Scott Cowen by demanding that the state rebuild cities to include ample dignified housing for the poor; schools that draw upon unionized teaching resources, with adequate funding to support the success of students; and jobs that allow residents to reshape the city according to their desires. These approaches would invite a state–citizen alliance with a chance at success. Obviously, a federal government with contempt for the people of New Orleans, like that of George W. Bush, cannot accomplish this. We must insist that the state help citizens to rebuild livable cities instead of handing them over to corporations. Otherwise, more cities will be subjected to the disaster capitalism that has transformed New Orleans, mostly for the worse.