Thursday, December 01, 2005

New Orleans: racial cleansing?

The news today out of New Orleans regarding the reopening of the Lower Ninth Ward represents an important step forward, of sorts. But the stories also make clear the enormity of the task that lies ahead.

What's of real concern is the shadows of race and class that have been lurking over the whole disaster since it befell the city.

Those shadows, it appears, are becoming even more ominous as the handling of the city's rebuilding unfolds.

Especially disturbing were the observations of Tulane University professor Larry Powell the other day in Pennsylvania:
Tulane University history professor Larry Powell warned that Hurricane Katrina may be seen as a type of ethnic cleansing by white supremacists.

Powell talked to a group of Penn students and faculty about the problems New Orleans will face during its reconstruction yesterday at the Center for Africana Studies.

His book, New Masters, is about the problems of desegregation and racial conflict.

According to Powell, the culturally diverse city, which has Italian, German and black inhabitants, is also the home of open racism.

He said some residents hope that black people will not resettle in New Orleans after reconstruction, he said, adding that the group includes some of the city's richest and most influential citizens.

"New Orleans has become the focal point of some sort of white supremacist movement," Powell said.

He added that the long road of reconstruction ahead can only be traveled by those who keep the city's history in consideration.

Powell's framing of the rebuilding in this light is alarming, to say the least. However, it's not entirely without substance.

Recall, if you will, the vicious outpouring of racial hatred by New Orleans' most noted white supremacist, David Duke, and his fellow white supremacists in the wake of the disaster. Recall how much of the mainstream media coverage -- rife with images of black looters and tales (later proven false) of shootings, rapes, and multiple murders -- fed that outpouring.

The mainstream connection continues: Duke more recently has taken to quoting the NRA's Wayne LaPierre as justification for his ongoing jihad against the city's black population. Unsurprisingly, Duke has made clear he sees the black population as a blight on New Orleans.

As it happens, much of what white supremacists want to see happen to the city is, in fact, what is happening.

Black residents of New Orleans voiced concerns at the time that officials were going to once again betray them when it came to rebuilding the city. As Steven Pearlstein explained in the Washington Post, poor blacks were already the prime victims of the Katrina disaster, and the likelihood of that victimhood being magnified in the recovery was great.

So, sure enugh, a couple of months ago, HUD administrator Alphonso Jackson made clear that the city's demographics were indeed going to be reordered in the rebuilding:
"Whether we like it or not, New Orleans is not going to be 500,000 people for a long time," he said. "New Orleans is not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."

... Alphonso Jackson predicted New Orleans will slowly draw back as many as 375,000 people, but that only 35 to 40 percent of the post-Katrina population would be black.

Jackson said that's because the worst-hit areas were low-income black neighborhoods that may never fully be repopulated.

Prior to Katrina, the population was 67 percent black and 28 percent white.

The way that this reordering has been coming about has been predictable: a slow pace in restoring infrastructure, especially the city's schools:
The schools may be the best barometer of the health of New Orleans' recovery, and the prognosis is not good. Although some private and parochial schools have reopened, the locked doors at the city's 117 public schools -- schools that were overwhelmingly attended by black students and overwhelmingly poor -- stand as testimony to the economic and racial divide of a recovery effort sliding into its toughest hours, the daunting challenge of coaxing tens of thousands of residents back to a city that cannot house or educate them.

The 40 or so administrators, the few public school employees who are still on the payroll after a systemwide furlough, are now crowded into kid-size computer desks at an elementary school. Messages -- from the sad, the frustrated, and the confused -- blink onto their screens. The mother of an honors student enrolled in another school district says: "Her teacher has stated to the class that if he has to take in another Katrina student he is going to scream."

Naomi Klein reported on this trend a few weeks back in The Nation:
I don't have the heart to tell Nyler that I suspect she is on to something; that many of the African-American workers from her neighborhood may never be welcomed back to rebuild their city. An hour earlier I had interviewed New Orleans' top corporate lobbyist, Mark Drennen. As president and CEO of Greater New Orleans Inc., Drennen was in an expansive mood, pumped up by signs from Washington that the corporations he represents -- everything from Chevron to Liberty Bank to Coca-Cola -- were about to receive a package of tax breaks, subsidies and relaxed regulations so generous it would make the job of a lobbyist virtually obsolete.

Listening to Drennen enthuse about the opportunities opened up by the storm, I was struck by his reference to African-Americans in New Orleans as "the minority community." At 67 percent of the population, they are in fact the clear majority, while whites like Drennen make up just 27 percent. It was no doubt a simple verbal slip, but I couldn't help feeling that it was also a glimpse into the desired demographics of the new-and-improved city being imagined by its white elite, one that won't have much room for Nyler or her neighbors who know how to fix houses. "I honestly don't know and I don't think anyone knows how they are going to fit in," Drennen said of the city's unemployed.

New Orleans is already displaying signs of a demographic shift so dramatic that some evacuees describe it as "ethnic cleansing." Before Mayor Ray Nagin called for a second evacuation, the people streaming back into dry areas were mostly white, while those with no homes to return to are overwhelmingly black. This, we are assured, is not a conspiracy; it's simple geography--a reflection of the fact that wealth in New Orleans buys altitude. That means that the driest areas are the whitest (the French Quarter is 90 percent white; the Garden District, 89 percent; Audubon, 86 percent; neighboring Jefferson Parish, where people were also allowed to return, 65 percent). Some dry areas, like Algiers, did have large low-income African-American populations before the storm, but in all the billions for reconstruction, there is no budget for transportation back from the far-flung shelters where those residents ended up. So even when resettlement is permitted, many may not be able to return.

Indeed, this slow pace is now giving rise to genuine rage on the part of the hurricane victims:
At a meeting to review the Washington-based Urban Land Institute's restoration plan, some city councilors ended up shouting in frustration that their color-coded maps that indicate the priority of rebuilding was "causing people to lose hope," the New Orleans Times Picayune reported.

Throughout the discussion, ULI officials emphasized that their report is a work in progress and that any final decisions will be left to the city's political leadership.

Meanwhile, two residents told Mayor Ray Nagin on Tuesday they were unhappy with the Bush administration's level of commitment at home compared with Iraq, CNN reported.

"If they can destroy a country and build it up again, why can't they fix this state?" a woman asked.

Another man echoed her remarks.

"It's a hard thing to believe that the United States of America is spending nearly one billion (dollars) per week in Iraq, and here, in New Orleans, the United States, we're being neglected."

Undoubtedly, we'll soon start hearing that these people are "unhinged."

This is, once again, a reflection of the kind of leadership being provided by the Bush administration:
Those policies were a product of this administration's priorities, which in the end are always about promoting the well-being of the moneyed class at the expense of the middle classes and poor, while effectively driving a wedge within those classes. That's no conspiracy; it's just the way the world works, especially with men like Bush in charge.

[Note: This post is my contribution to Chris Clarke's Blog Against Racism campaign being held today -- even though I think it's safe to say that every day here qualifies.]

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