by Dr Anna Hartnell, Senior Lecturer in Contemporary Literature, Birkbeck, University of London
The current uprisings in the United States are the most dramatic recent example of a war that America has been waging with itself since its inception. Most obviously this is about state-sanctioned racist violence and police brutality – a war against black lives. But America’s conflict over race has always been inextricably linked to the larger engine of capitalism on the one hand and the role of government on the other – a government that in its infancy could simultaneously claim to represent a unique experiment in freedom while embracing racialized slavery as a means to build a nation. Government is thus perceived both as a beacon of democracy and as a potentially violent and coercive body against which individual Americans might need to defend themselves.
The spectacle of a quasi-fascist President Trump threatening mostly peaceful Black Lives Matter protestors with marshal law, while at the same time actively encouraging his often gun-wielding libertarian base to rebel against the quarantine measures instituted by state governments to contain the pandemic, brings these contradictions into focus.
By way of introduction to this archived talk on America in Crisis, which took place in 2017 between my colleague Dr Grace Halden and me, I’m going to draw a few connections between our contemporary moment and the crises that Grace and I were discussing three years ago. In the shadow of the inauguration of Donald Trump as president earlier that year, Grace explored the partial meltdown of a nuclear reactor that occurred at Three Mile Island in 1979, and I looked at the fallout from Hurricane Katrina in 2005. We brought together discussions about nuclear power, state violence, the climate crisis, public health, and racialized poverty and inequality.
What scholars in the field have described as the ‘Katrina crisis’ in particular bears many parallels with what’s going on now. Hurricane Katrina devastated the US Gulf Coast and particularly New Orleans, where the levees protecting the city broke, leading to catastrophic flooding. The submerged city starkly revealed New Orleans’s racial geography and dramatized the fact that if you were black and poor you were far more likely to be left stranded in the drowning city to suffer hunger, lack of basic sanitation, trauma and death. African American New Orleans residents disproportionately bore the brunt of the storm and thus the consequences of decades of neglect of the city’s flood protection systems and the crumbling social safety net.
As conditions deteriorated in the city, the federal and state government launched a response that prioritized the protection of property over humanitarian concerns in a way that criminalized the storm survivors, often portraying them as looters and thugs. As another kind of struggle for survival unfolds on America’s streets today, large sections of the US establishment have similarly portrayed the protestors as rioters and looters. This response is of course key to the immediate cause of these protests: it’s the response of a culture that has supported and funded an increasingly militarized police force that has brutally policed African American neighbourhoods with impunity for decades. This violent state response is also central to the larger contexts of the uprisings, the economic despair that haunts many black neighbourhoods across the US, which has been made immeasurably worse by a pandemic that has led to record unemployment levels and hit people of colour harder in every respect. African Americans have died of Covid-19 in far greater numbers than white people across America. The pandemic has laid bare racialized inequalities in the same way that Hurricane Katrina did fifteen years ago.
These underlying racial disparities in terms of life chances are the consequence of an interlocking network of crises that we might describe as racialized neoliberalism – a process that has seen the plunder of the public sphere by private interests, leaving those at the bottom to suffer the consequences of ever-shrinking resources. The building of America’s prison-industrial complex and its shift from community to militarized policing has occurred during the same period that the nation’s public housing stock has been dramatically reduced as the welfare state has been rolled back. The expansion of prisons and police budgets has clearly occurred as a way of managing the crisis created by the increasing gaps between rich and poor and the impoverishment of large sections of working class Americans, especially African Americans.
The current unrest registers the anger and pain at the brutal killing of George Floyd by the police, and the extrajudicial killing of unarmed black people that stretches across US history. But it also plugs into this much larger context that Hurricane Katrina similarly revealed, an extractive, colonial and racist logic that privileges property and profit over people and planet. This is a logic that threads through the white supremacist presidency of Trump and the administration of the nation’s first black president. The irony that Black Lives Matter emerged during the Obama era is often pointed out, and it’s also the case that Obama was in office during the period that New Orleans’ ‘recovery’ was consolidated along ruthlessly market-oriented lines.
If Katrina offers any lessons for the current crisis, which encapsulates anger at outrageous racial injustice amidst a pandemic that has viciously exacerbated inequalities and hit the vulnerable harder in every way, it is that disaster capitalism will be the default response in the absence of a struggle for systemic change. With the climate and ecological crisis looming in the foreground, having fuelled both Katrina and the current coronavirus pandemic, and posing a disproportionately greater threat to communities of colour the world over, the argument for systems change has never been stronger.
Listen to the podcast of America in Crisis, which took place at Waterstone's Gower Street, London, WC1E 6EQ on 19 May 2017.
For more commentary on the current crisis:
Keeanga-Yamahtta Taylor talks to Democracy Now, 1 June 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=wAwRMNGPiqw
‘A Black Lives-Matter co-founder explains why this time is different’, New Yorker, 3 June 2020: https://www.newyorker.com/news/q-and-a/a-black-lives-matter-co-founder-explains-why-this-time-is-different
Cornel West, ‘A boot is crushing the neck of American democracy’, Guardian, 1 June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/01/george-floyd-protests-cornel-west-american-democracy
Cornel West on MSNBC, 2 June 2020: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=BkYJeMwlsto
Ibram X. Kendi, ‘The American Nightmare’, The Atlantic, 1 June 2020: https://www.theatlantic.com/ideas/archive/2020/06/american-nightmare/612457/
Keya Chatterjee, ‘Climate Justice is Racial Justice’, Thomson Reuters Foundation News, 3 June 2020: https://news.trust.org/item/20200603175256-9mj6u/
Ayana Elizabeth Johnson, ‘I’m a black climate expert. Racism derails our efforts to save the planet’, Washington Post, 3 June 2020: https://www.washingtonpost.com/outlook/2020/06/03/im-black-climate-scientist-racism-derails-our-efforts-save-planet/
Gary Younge, ‘We Can’t Breathe’, New Statesman, 3 June 2020: https://www.newstatesman.com/politics/uk/2020/06/we-cant-breathe
Kojo Koram, ‘Systemic racism and police brutality are British problems too’, Guardian, 4 June 2020: https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/jun/04/systemic-racism-police-brutality-british-problems-black-lives-matter
Featured image by Electronic Frontier Foundation shared under a CC BY license (originally by Rosa Pineda via Wikimedia Commons).