A Question of Blood
St. Bernard Parish is trying to recreate the isolated, backward community it maintained so carefully prior to Hurricane Katrina. By passing an ordinance that restricts rentals to blood relatives, this formerly almost entirely white parish would be freed of most of its Hispanic and African-American residents and pushed back to its status prior to the storm, the 1950s... St. Bernard needs outside assistance if it is ever to enter the second half of the 20th century, much less the 21st. This racist ordinance needs to be declared unconstitutional and the leaders closely monitored until they repent or resign.
--Letter to the Editor, New Orleans Times Picayune, October 1, 2006
I am proud of St. Bernard for wanting to maintain its affordable, but also stable, family-oriented atmosphere. I am tired of people...who attribute our desire for stable, family-oriented neighborhoods to racism!
--Response from a St. Bernard Parish resident, New Orleans Times Picayune, October 4, 2006
As you drive east on Claiborne Avenue through New Orleans's famously devastated Lower Ninth Ward, you pass the destroyed remains of the Jackson Barracks, a nineteenth-century military base. Suddenly, the print on the street signs and the race of the people on the streets changes, and you find yourself on Judge Perez Drive in St. Bernard Parish. Both sides of the parish line were so devastated by Hurricane Katrina that the view here would bring tears to the eyes of both William C.C. Claiborne, the first elected governor of the state of Louisiana, and Leander Perez, the political boss of St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes through much of the early and mid-twentieth century, for whom these streets were named.
Most Americans have heard about people, mostly black and poor, dying in their attics in the Lower Ninth Ward and seen television footage of the utter devastation left behind after the storm. Far fewer have heard of the struggle on the St. Bernard side of the line, where people, overwhelmingly white, toil in obscurity and against monumental obstacles to create a future in a parish that extends with little fingers of land through the bayous out to the Gulf of Mexico and where nearly all homes were rendered uninhabitable by the storm. People here feel overlooked but unsurprised. Being ignored, kicked around, set aside--these are facts that are etched into their collective history from a century of environmental exploitation, an intentional levee breach during the 1927 flood to save New Orleans's Garden District, devastation from Hurricane Betsy in 1965, a "trappers' war" with outsiders down in the marsh, and now Katrina.
In the early 1960s, Bill Schmidt took this drive across the parish line and moved his family here for good. Schmidt had grown up in the proud but castigated white working-class Lower Ninth Ward, where New Orleans "Y'at" culture was in full bloom, with ethnic whites speaking in a manner that sounded more Brooklyn than Montgomery. He was in the last wave of an exodus of his white friends and neighbors from the Lower Ninth, where the Orleans Parish School Board had recently begun integrating the city's schools by ordering William Frantz Elementary School to accept the brave black 6-year-old Ruby Bridges.
According to Liva Baker's Second Battle of New Orleans, this was the "worst possible choice of schools from which to launch racial desegregation." As she described, "Ninth Ward whites were not much better off [than their black neighbors]. Originally settled by German, Italian, and French immigrants, the area began life as a truck-gardening section in the nineteenth century and remained a predominantly white working class section in the twentieth. Over the fifteen years since the end of World War II, white New Orleanians had been moving to the northeastern outskirts of the city, out toward Lake Pontchartrain, as fast as swampland could be reclaimed, leaving the Ninth Ward to those who couldn't afford to move. Many of them had been defeated in the competition for material success and were least equipped psychologically to handle the added humiliation they believed racial desegregation of their children's schools would impose. That they lived in a housing project already had demoted them to the level of the black families who lived in the nearby all-black neighborhood. 'At least I'm not a nigger' counted for less now than it once had. The prospect of black children transferring from the neighborhood black schools to the neighborhood white schools promised the final injustice."
Rather than integrate, white Ninth Ward residents moved, mostly to what locals call "the Parish," where the population grew by nearly 500 percent between 1950 and 1970 to more than 50,000 residents. And the new residents of St. Bernard could be sure that the local leadership wouldn't cave to the ACLU, the NAACP and all of the other pressures of laws and judges that had undone their previous community. Perez, the political boss, had made his views on such groups clear, once exclaiming that the leaders of the NAACP and the desegregation movement were "all those Jews who were supposed to have been cremated at Buchenwald and Dachau but weren't," and taking a bold stance against the national effort to integrate the South.
Perez was actually one of the principals in the schism of the Democratic Party in 1948, following the opinion of the United States Supreme Court in Shelley v. Kramer, which barred racial prohibitions in property titles, and he led the Louisiana delegation at the Democratic convention to cast its electoral votes for Strom Thurmond that year. It was this sort of principled stability that families like Schmidt's sought out in the Parish. And for the next forty years, up until Hurricane Katrina, they found it here in this hard-working, low-crime community of 65,000, nearly 90 percent of which was white.
The long-sought stability and security are no longer apparent on Bill Schmidt's Pecan Drive, which, like almost every other street in the parish, took many feet of water during Hurricane Katrina. Of the forty brick ranch houses on the block, most are still lifeless shells, five have been cleared entirely down to the concrete slab and a few have white FEMA trailers parked out front. Only two have been renovated by their owners, a consequence of the fact that until recently, not a single resident of St. Bernard Parish had received a cent of the billions that Congress allotted for redeveloping the Gulf Coast. One of those houses, neat and tidy amid the boarded-up homes and overgrown yards, belongs to Schmidt. In that house, in Schmidt's desire for things simply to return to the way they were, a second flood arose--this time one of controversy, recriminations and accusations of racism.
Schmidt, afraid that his neighborhood would re-emerge transformed after Hurricane Katrina, proposed an ordinance to the Parish Council that would prevent people from renting their homes to people unrelated by blood. In late September 2006 the Parish Council took this up and the proposal became law. Schmidt's block, like a thousand others in St. Bernard Parish, was protected from change even while it was suspended in devastation.
Anger at the ordinance was immediate in this region where race and its complexities provide the subtext and backdrop for nearly every nuance of public life. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center sued, pointing out that 93 percent of St. Bernard Parish property owners were white and that the ordinance effectively discriminated in the same manner that was found unconstitutional in Shelley v. Kramer five decades earlier, even if the reality of race was hidden in the language of blood. Its brief argued, "St. Bernard Parish seeks to perpetuate segregation by preserving the parish as an overwhelmingly all-white enclave."
The council presented a world-weary and defiant face in light of the suit and attacks that came in the local press. Parish council member Craig Taffaro, who represents Chalmette, much of which is now a brownfield site due to an oil leak from an international oil company's refinery during Katrina, denied any racial motivation and mocked those who were imputing such implications to a reporter from the Times Picayune: "What a tremendous burden it must be to believe that everything is motivated by race. Our motivation is simply to do what's best for our recovery and to restore and maintain our pre-Katrina quality of life."
Another council member cited the uniform gratitude of his constituents in passing the ordinance and explained that the Council would not revoke it. At the next council meeting, they lawyered up and hunkered down for a fight, over the objection of the eccentric, outspoken and white--like the rest of the members--council president Lynn Dean, who had voted against the ordinance and who wrote that it was intended to keep blacks from moving to the parish in his column in the St. Bernard Parish Voice. Dean tried to simplify the issue at the meeting, saying, "Our parish is broke. We don't have the money to fix roads. We are going to hire an attorney, and when it's all over with, we are going to lose." The meeting ended in closed session, with the council moving to censure Dean for his outrageous invocation of race in criticizing the ordinance.
But things had changed by the council meeting the following month. In the late-morning December sun, in a double-wide trailer behind the destroyed Parish Government Building on Judge Perez Drive, council members said the pledge, prayed to Jesus and worked their way through their regular business--naming the Parish's "Teacher of the Year" and castigating the director of the company with the contract to disburse billions in federal rebuilding funds for failing to pay out a single dollar to residents or to any of the council members, all of whom lost their homes to the storm--before reaching the business of the rental ordinance, which had brought me and a few other print and television journalists to their down-to-earth and informal meeting. On the docket was a new ordinance, to revoke the "blood ordinance," maybe at the urging of their $200-an-hour lawyer, maybe because they just realized that they had better things to do than fighting the rest of the world on this.
Bill Schmidt, reading from prepared notes, spoke against revoking the ordinance, arguing against the tide, "They say it's a racial thing.... I don't want to hear this baloney about this being about race.... We just wanna live as we lived before." And then defiantly, but sad: "I'm from the Ninth Ward. I've always lived with this negative image. I'm looked down at by the rich people. I don't care what other people think about the Parish." And as much as most of the council members seemed to relate to him, they voted unanimously to back down from this fight and to revoke the ordinance, and then moved on to the business of rebuilding.
The television cameras and other journalists left quickly after the ordinance was revoked, eager to report the story for the evening news. I sat for a while and listened to the council address the true and seemingly insurmountable obstacles the parish faces. Levee maintenance. Oil contamination. Sewer funds. Closing the canal built through the parish for industry that worsened Katrina's destruction. With each issue the council members seemed almost powerless in the face of the human, natural, business and financial forces against them. And it became clear how the rental ordinance had risen to the top of the stack of parish business. It was easy. It brought the people of the parish together--at least most of them. It was about making an "us" and saying "the hell to you" to all those "thems."
As I walked out of the meeting, probably by then the only face that everyone didn't recognize, a man walked up to me and spoke bitterly, "Now you can go tell the people up in New York and Washington all about it." I tried to explain that I lived in New Orleans. That we weren't all against them. That we hoped for the best in their recovery. But he seemed unconvinced. I got into my car and drove back down Judge Perez Drive across the parish line.