Thursday, July 19, 2007

Taco trucks in Chocolate City

-- by Dave

The ongoing demographic shift in America, led by the heavy influx of Latinos from south of the border, is creating a lot of discomfort in places that were pretty much homogenously white before the 1990s -- many of them, as I've explored previously, are indeed all-white, historically speaking, very much by design.

But whites aren't the only segment of the population that's being discomfited by it. So, in fact, are some largely black urban neighborhoods that are beginning to feel under siege -- most notably, in New Orleans, according to a Los Angeles Times story about the city's decision to crack down on taco trucks:
But not everyone is enamored of the newest cheap eats to captivate the Crescent City. Jefferson Parish politicians, who have long turned a blind eye to whites and blacks peddling shrimp out of pickup trucks and snow cones on the street, recently outlawed rolling Mexican-food kitchens, calling them an unwelcome reminder of what Hurricane Katrina brought. Soon, Sanchez will be run out of business.

"What they're doing is just mean," the Texas native, 49, said in Spanish, noting that he'd secured all needed permits before officials changed the rules last month. "I do think they want the Mexicans out. I don't see any other explanation."

Nearly two years after Katrina led thousands of Latino immigrants to New Orleans in search of reconstruction work, it's obvious that the new arrivals are having a cultural influence that reaches beyond repairing homes and businesses — and that's making some people uncomfortable.

Authentic Mexican food is now widely available here in taco trucks and storefront taquerias, adding a contemporary Latin tinge to a famously mixed-up culinary scene that's always managed to preserve its unique Cajun and Creole flavor even as most of America has become homogenized.

But the new ethnic eateries are emerging at a time when many traditional New Orleans restaurants are struggling in the face of sagging tourism and a smaller population — one that's noticeably browner than before Katrina. New Orleans now has about 260,000 residents, down from about 460,000. Roughly 50,000 are Latinos, up from 15,000.

So taco trucks have become fodder for a larger debate over whether to recreate the past or embrace a new future in New Orleans — a discussion that's thick with racial undertones.

To advocates of reclaiming the old ways, new establishments that do not build upon the city's reputation, and may not even be permanent, represent a barrier to progress. As New Orleans City Council President Oliver Thomas recently put it in an interview with the Times-Picayune, "How do the tacos help gumbo?"

One of the natural effects of creating and maintaining a system of race-based residential segregation built out of "defended" communities -- as white Americans have since the early years of the 20th century -- is that the resulting population centers for minorities become defended communities themselves.

This was particularly the case for African Americans, who in fleeing the horrific violence of race riots, lynchings, and other acts of racial cleansing throughout the American countryside (and not merely in the South), sought refuge in urban centers where other blacks also lived in large numbers: Detroit, Chicago, New York, Atlanta, and yes, New Orleans.

Many blacks saw, and continue to see, these as places were they can live without being harassed or murdered simply for the color of their skin, places where their children can grow up without being treated like freaks or presumed criminals. In communities like New Orleans, where black accomplishment was everywhere to be seen, the sense of pride is palpable -- as is the willingness to defend.

I think this is what Mayor Ray Nagin was talking about when he talked about New Orleans as "Chocolate City"; there were in fact white elements eager to remake New Orleans in their own image, and Nagin was certainly aware of that. The overreaction from the eager-to-be-offended Bill O'Reilly types -- whose outrage was built on a phony analogy about race that necessarily deisregarded the reality of racial demographics in America -- revealed more about themselves than anything about Nagin. The mayor, in fact, saw himself as defending the black community from whites who sought to sweep away their hard-earned gains, using Katrina reconstruction as cover. But because whites have deliberately covered over and forgotten the history of the racial balkanization that they created and maintained, it was easy for right-wing white commentators like O'Reilly and Rush Limbaugh to misrepresent this and instead eagerly portray Nagin's remarks as an example of reverse racism.

Yet there is little doubt that, for blacks especially, there is a sense of violation when the barriers of balkanization break down and others begin moving into their formerly defended communities -- not because they want to protect their privileges, as is the case in all-white communities, but because of the sense that this is all they have left to defend.

So it should not be a surprise that when demographic change comes to these quarters, there's a lot of angst and anger. It's a delicate and complex problem, and resolving it requires large doses of understanding on all sides.

The people moving in, particularly Latinos, need to respect the reasons for their defensiveness, which are not about defending economic privilege and elitism but about preserving hard-earned gains. And the black community, likewise, needs to understand that America needs to break down those walls we spent a century building and maintaining -- including those built to defend against the effects of racism.

But tearing them down is our only option, even if it means mixing taco trucks with servings of gumbo. When they are finally gone, I believe we'll discover that the flavor suits us all just fine.

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