New Orleans Forsaken
The inability of the poor to leave New Orleans reflected not just a lack of geographical mobility but of social mobility. Far from denying the importance of race, this enriches our understanding of the various elements that might inform it at different times. Race and class in this respect are not contradictory and antagonistic but complementary and symbiotic--so closely intertwined that to try to understand either separately is to misunderstand both entirely.
In the absence of any progressive political leadership, the scope for broadening the national conversation that would make those connections was limited, to say the least. By the time of the runoff for the mayoral election in May, race had been eviscerated of substance in New Orleans politics and had taken on a purely symbolic importance. The election pitted Ray Nagin--once nicknamed Ray Reagan--against Mitch Landrieu, brother of Louisiana Senator Mary Landrieu and son of Moon Landrieu, the last white mayor of the city. With little to choose between the two where policy and vision were concerned--neither had any--the contest became a battle between melanin content and family ties.
Melanin won. Nagin, who delayed ordering mandatory evacuation until it was too late, for fear that business would sue him for loss of trade, was back in office. It is clear how this benefited him; it is doubtful that it will improve the lives of African-Americans in New Orleans.
So when the venting was done, the right pushed ahead with its agenda to rebuild the city in its own image--an accelerated version of the gentrification patterns taking place in cities throughout the country that would make it whiter and wealthier.
The "new" New Orleans the right had in mind would be free of drugs, crime and poverty, not because the root causes of those problems were to be eradicated but because the communities from which they came were to be eliminated. "We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans," said Republican Congressman Richard Baker from Baton Rouge less than two weeks after the storm, according to the Wall Street Journal. "We couldn't do it, but God did."
Katrina presented a chance to reshape the political, social and economic nature of the city. Before long Bechtel, Fluor, Shaw and Halliburton were in town both literally and metaphorically cleaning up. According to census figures published in June, the black population of the New Orleans metropolitan area had fallen by 42 percent in the nine months after the hurricane; meanwhile, the median household income rose by 9 percent.
While African-Americans emigrated, Latinos immigrated. The city's Hispanic population ballooned from 3 percent to more than 20 percent in the few months after the storm. Every morning at Lee Circle, hundreds of day laborers gathered under the watchful eye of the Confederate general and waited for work. Every night thousands slept in a tent city in City Park, Scout Island, where one standpipe and three toilets served several hundred people. Even as the xenophobic right called for mass deportation of undocumented workers, the nation's most vital reconstruction project was being undertaken primarily by migrant workers, many of them undocumented.
But if there has been one thing more amazing than how New Orleans has changed over the past year, it is how much it has stayed the same. We're more than halfway through this year's hurricane season, yet it's an open question whether the city is any better prepared. The postman returned to his rounds in the Lower Ninth Ward, which was 98 percent black, only in July; he found that many addresses no longer had houses and that many houses still had no doors. I drove through the Lower Ninth in May with Antoinette K-Doe in the hearse she bought when she evacuated to North Carolina; she kept stopping and staring at the post-apocalyptic sight of the neighborhood where she grew up. It looked as if Katrina had arrived just a week earlier: Whole houses had been washed off their moorings and into the road; cars had been washed into the houses; trees had been blown onto cars. And there they were still. "We're the richest country in the world," K-Doe said. "I don't understand how we can't fix this up."