The Battle of New Orleans

The Battle of New Orleans

The candidates for New Orleans mayor–two white, one black–differ little on the issues. Voters may rely on the symbolism of race, but it will take more than melanin to rebuild this city.


"There are two types of power," said Linda Jeffers, addressing an accountability session of New Orleans mayoral candidates at the city’s Trinity Episcopal Church. "Organized money and organized people." Since Hurricane Katrina the battle between those two forces has shaped the struggle to rebuild New Orleans. Now it is set to intensify.

The one thing both seem to agree on is that neither wants the city to return to the way it was before the hurricane. The people of New Orleans, most of whom are black and many of whom are poor, want schools that will educate their children, jobs that will pay a living wage and neighborhoods where capital investment matches the large pools of social capital created by their churches and close-knit communities. Organized money has something else in mind: the destruction of many of those communities, the permanent removal of those who lived in them and a city that follows the gentrification patterns of racial removal and class cleansing that have played out elsewhere in America. Under these circumstances, the organization of people has been impressive. Grassroots groups have done a remarkable job of cohering those scattered throughout the country into a political constituency.

As Jeffers spoke, the city’s mayoral candidates sat before an audience of more than 500 who had been bused in from Tennessee and elsewhere in Louisiana, as well as several hundred evacuees in Houston, Austin, San Antonio and Dallas who were watching the candidates being questioned on satellite. Five days later Jeffers, a leader with the nonprofit Industrial Areas Foundation (IAF), who moved from Gentilly to Houston after Katrina, schlepped through the unforgiving Texas heat distributing food and signing up eighty evacuees for their absentee ballots at the Encore housing complex. Meanwhile, various organizations have been ferrying people from neighboring states to satellite polling stations dotted around Louisiana for early voting in the April 22 election.

But they are operating under intolerable conditions, not least where these elections are concerned. By almost any standard–international or local–these elections are neither free nor fair. More than half the city’s residents have not returned. But requests for polling stations to be set up in the major towns outside the state where they have resettled were rejected by a federal court judge, a decision supported by the Louisiana legislature. "You’re telling me they can do it in Iraq but they can’t do it here?" asks Walter Milton, another IAF leader.

As a result, people have to travel hundreds of miles to vote or organize an absentee vote. The overwhelming majority of those who will be most adversely affected are once again black and poor. So Jim Crow is on the ballot. But this is the New South with a new, more subtle but no less effective racism. Black demands for full citizenship no longer fall afoul of the law of the land but instead the law of probability. They were more likely to be flooded, more likely to be displaced, least likely to be able to return and therefore least likely to be able to vote.

With organized people thus thwarted, organized money has asserted itself with great effect. The current mayor, Ray Nagin, was the candidate of big business. Nicknamed Ray Reagan, he came to power in 2002 with a minority of black support and the overwhelming backing of whites and the business community. But then, in November, he rejected a plan by the Urban Land Institute. The institute had presented a map with three "investment zones." The zones earmarked for mass buyouts and future green zones, and the last to be invested in, were overwhelmingly black: eastern New Orleans and Gentilly; the northern part of Lakeview; and parts of the Lower Ninth Ward, Broadmoor, Mid-City and Hollygrove. New Orleans needed a smaller footprint, they said; but it would be big enough to kick out most African-Americans and the poor.

When Nagin balked, business looked for some viable new candidates. Its favored son this time around is Ron Forman, head of the Audubon Nature Institute. But as a backup, business interests are also investing in the local political aristocracy in the guise of Mitch Landrieu. Landrieu, currently Louisiana’s lieutenant governor, is also the brother of Mary Landrieu–one of Louisiana’s US senators–and the son of Moon Landrieu, New Orleans’s last white mayor, who left office in 1978. So the people have a vote; but business has picked the incumbent and the two main challengers. Unlike Nagin, Landrieu and Forman are white. With little to choose from on substantive issues among the three of them, the voters may base their decision on the symbolism of race. Given everything that happened following Katrina, this is probably inevitable; given the needs of the city as a result, it is regrettable. It will take more than melanin to rebuild this city; indeed, it was an obsession with melanin that destroyed it.

Like teenagers discovering sex, the media developed an intense fascination with the mundane facts of American life following the hurricane: namely, the glaring disparities in race and class that persist and pervade. Having gorged themselves on the undeniable evidence of glaring disparities in race and class, they soon got sick of the subject and went to sleep.

Up in the mostly white and wealthy Garden District, a delicious choice of croissants is offered at the Boulangerie on Magazine Street–mockingly referred to as the "aisle of denial." Down in the Ninth Ward they’re still finding dead bodies, nine in March plus a skull, some skeletonized and others half eaten by animals.

One waits in vain for CNN’s Anderson Cooper to revive the indignation that elevated him to prime time. But there is no dramatic backdrop to the systematic and systemic exclusions of African-Americans this time around. It’s as though corpses have to be floating down the street and thousands stranded without food or water before racism is once more worthy of note. "I came down off my rooftop and I walked through the waters," said Jeffers. "And now I feel like they’re taking me back on to the rooftop again." Organized people are trying to move to higher ground; organized money is trying to sell the land beneath their feet.

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