I saw this post yesterday and I just had to ask permission to post it to my own blog. It is written by a white person from New Orleans who has a different take on Mayor Nagin and his recent controversial comments. It is rather long, but trust me, it is gripping to read.
“Chocolate City” Mayor To Be Commended
On MLK Day, New Orleans Mayor Nagin created contraversy with his comments: “This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way; it wouldn’t be New Orleans.”
Forgotten was that Nagin has often used the term throughout the past few years, including during his campaign for and service as mayor. Nothing was made of the term then. Forgotten is that Nagin is seen by much of the NOLA African American community as an ally of the white community. Forgotten is that Nagin was elected four years ago as a result of 90% of the white community voting for him. Unknown to the rest of America is the latest plan, which essentially shuts out the African American community from rebuilding. Unknown is the racist sentiment that saturates the city and suburbs. Few there are who are white and living in the city that have not thought or expressed their delight in a gentrified, white city. Many there are who saw in Nagin’s heated comments a great opportunity to criticize efforts to bring back the dispalced population of the city, almost all black. Forgotten is the context in which his comments were made (a now white city making effort to keep the city white). Below is an essay written before the comments were made. It is written in honor of Mayor Nagin. Forgotten is that Mayor Nagin is just what this city needs, a mediator between two races who have a long history of hatred and violence directed ast each other.
In Honor of Mayor Nagin
Race and recovery. It is one of the red button issues in New Orleans these days. Two sides, divided on racial lines, fight back and forth, never offering a solution. This paper will explore the racial history of New Orleans. The essay will also examine the immediate and long-term response to Katrina, questioning whether or not race was an issue. Ultimately, it will analyze the ethics of rebuilding a city from scratch. What does ethical building look like? What role does the church have? How does ethical building take into account history?
History is important for the present. Donald Shriver wrote, “Leftover debris of national pasts…continue to clog the relationships of diverse groups of humans around the world.” Therefore, an ethicist or any citizen in a leadership position is required to take into account history in order to say what is appropriate or inappropriate. Two hundred years of being treated as property and then another century of being treated as second-class citizens based solely on race has left a sinful residue in the social interactions and structure of New Orleans. Many, mostly whites, in the city believe that there is, or was, racial harmony in the city. This view is buttressed by appealing to Mardi Gras. Mardi Gras has for nearly 150 years brought the races together, providing a place for “together and equal,” so the argument went. If that were not enough to convince the outsider, an appeal to sharing the love of red beans and rice, fishing, and jazz was made. Behind this paltry veneer of equality is a sordid history of racial inequality, murder, and hatred.
Almost as soon as the French established a settlement in New Orleans, slaves arrived. Unlike many other areas in what would become America, the vast majority of slaves who were brought to New Orleans originated from Senegal. It was thought elsewhere that importing slaves from a single location was dangerous since they would have a common language and culture, making rebellion a stronger possibility. African slaves were by 1721 40% of the city’s population. This presence prompted Governor Bienville to pass the Code Noir, giving slaves virtually no legal rights. It forced slaves to join the Roman Catholic Church and limited the number of slaves an owner could liberate. The Code did, however, give minor protection to the family structure of the slaves, prohibiting children from being separated from their mothers. The French imported relatively few slaves after the first 300 or so were brought in. It was not uncommon for French slave masters to take slave women as their mistresses, which would produce the largest free black population in the Ante-bellum South. A similar system in which elite white men would meet prospective free black mistresses at “quadroon balls” was a common, yet peculiar institution in the city that became internationally known.
A trading and farming expansion began when the Spanish took control of the city. This in turn increased the need for slaves. Many people of this influx were slaves brought from Hispanola, the result of slave holders fleeing the island after the successful slave revolution led by Toussaint L’Ouverture. By 1788, there were 5300 residents of New Orleans: 2100 were black slaves. 820 were free blacks. By 1820, after Louisiana entered the Union, of 27,000 inhabitants 7300 were black slaves and 6200 were free blacks. The free blacks were a social class unto themselves, and looked down upon the slaves. They had become an anomaly in the South: a middle class, land owning, prospering group. State laws gave them basic civil liberties, yet they were still not allowed to serve on juries, even though they could and did sue whites in court. Whites in New Orleans began to feel suspicious of these free people, prompting stricter laws on manumission. By the eve of the Civil War, New Orleans’ free black population had dropped in twenty years from 25,000 to 18,000 despite a continued increase in slave population. Nonetheless, the freedoms of this group were relatively undisturbed. With all that said, the majority of African Americans in New Orleans were slaves, given essentially no rights, and treated as property.
Some free blacks joined the ranks of the Confederate Army, believing they had much invested into the Southern way of life. Most African Americans, though, were awaiting emancipation. Fifteen months after Louisiana seceded, New Orleans was under Union control. Many slaves, though not legally emancipated, helped the Union Army, forming two African American units. Some African American soldiers in the city used their new freedoms to terrorize whites, and attacks became common. By the end of the War, African Americans in New Orleans were caught in a paradoxical situation. They had new freedoms, but elected leaders resented the change in social structure. African Americans, once thought as property, were now the enemies of the defeated whites. White superiority, the doctrine that white New Orleans held as a sacred truth, was being tested by an unelected Reconstructionist government, giving rise to tensions that would soon erupt in bloodshed.
On July 30, 1866, a state constitutional convention was being held in New Orleans in the Mechanics Institute, currently the Fairmont Hotel. The issue at stake was voting privileges. A Republican majority was likely to disenfranchise former Confederates and enfranchise all African American males. A crowd of whites gathered outside the convention. As they protested, a well-organized African American crowd led by more prominent members of the Ante-bellum free black population paraded through. Insults were exchanged and violence ensued. By the end of the day 48 were dead and 200 wounded; the vast majority were African Americans, killed by the police. This riot is among the great race riots in the nation’s history, the latest being Los Angeles in 1992 [We will take up the issue of looting and rebellion post-Katrina below]. It was a major influence in the impeachment of Andrew Johnson and the creation of a Solid South that was devoted for the next century to white supremacy.
There were minor race riots that erupted in the following years. 1867 saw what was nothing short of a civil rights movement, as African Americans had sit-ins in white street cars. The African Americans, largely as a result of the educated free blacks before the War, had their own press, The New Orleans Tribune, which still exists. In 1868, all African American males were given the right to vote. Oscar Dunn, a former slave, became Lieutenant Governor. Governor Warmouth, a racist Reconstructionist, was impeached, but Dunn died. Dunn’s death allowed P.B.S. Pinchback to rise to the position of governor, the first and only African American to do so in Louisiana. The inroads African Americans made were immense — public schools in New Orleans were integrated by law in 1870, and integration was largely successful.
These advances were soon wiped away. The Battle of Liberty Place in the city precipitated lawful white supremacy. The powerful white elite, many of whom had been officers in the War, had organized the White League. Their goal was to remove the Reconstructionist government and uphold the notion of white supremacy. Many members of the elite social clubs, whose membership was shared with the first krewes of Mardi Gras, also participated in the White League. On September 14, 1874 the White League battled the Metropolitan Police, bolstered by the U.S. Army, and the black state militia. Among the white mob, reportedly was Edward Douglas White, who later became Chief Justice of the United States Supreme Court. Though the fighting was brief, twenty-eight died. Historically more significant was that the White League had essentially taken control of the city and laid the foundations for the Louisiana Constitution of 1879, legalizing discrimination. The inroads of earlier civil rights workers were erased; integration ins public schools was no longer as White Leaguers expelled from public schools any students who were darker than they saw fit. A monument that stands to this day at the sidefoot of Canal Street was erected to commemorate the White League.
This response of the White League illustrates the actions of what Reinhold Niebuhr described as an immoral society. White individuals were able to be kind to black individuals. There is no doubt that kind acts transpired. As groups, though, no transactions that involved both love and justice were to be found. When the group that had ultimate power saw its power being infringed, it reacted violently. In no way, shape, or form would the white elite share its power. Its goal was to protect the establishment. The population who had been free blacks before the War continued to fight. In 1891 they had formed the Comite’ des Citoyens to contest Act 111, a Louisiana law requiring separate railcars for blacks and whites. Their first attempt to show that segregation was unconstitutional failed, due the judge ruling that the case involved intrastate laws because the train originated in Alabama. Five years later, the same group contested the arrest of Homer Plessy, who was only 1/8 African American, for sitting in a white car just outside of New Orleans. The same judge would handle this case, but this time he upheld the arrest, putting in motion the events leading to the precedent of “separate but equal.”
Relations between the races did not improve. It was in the early 20th century that things were most tense. A new state constitution ratified in 1898 took away from blacks whatever civil liberties remained after the Constitution of 1879. Many in the city believed a race war was inevitable. The mayor of the city had called a normal black “little else than a tamed savage.” It was with that backdrop that the Robert Charles Riot rocked the city. Robert Charles was a laborer, subjugated to work as a sharecropper, which was essentially serfdom, as so many former slaves had been in Jim Crow New Orleans. He shot a police officer he had accused had beaten him. A white mob, this time of more humble social class, gathered to assist in chasing and killing Charles. Charles killed seven people. As retribution, the white mob went through the city and killed three blacks, injuring another sixty.
Racial relations remained status quo in the city until Brown v. Topeka Board of Education abolished “separate but equal.” The issue came to a head when the city was forced to integrate schools. The first act of integration was purely symbolic: only three African American students were admitted. Nonetheless, almost every white parent withdrew their children. The whites also protested, gathering in the thousands before marching to the school board headquarters. There, the police were forced to repel them with water hoses. Race riots broke out, but no deaths were reported.
Legal integration led to a “white flight” to Jefferson Parish to the west, St. Tammany Parish north of Lake Ponchartrain, and St. Bernard Parish, adjacent to the now famous 9th Ward, which despite economically pejorative portrayals in the media, is a working class area. “White flight” took with it most of the city’s individuals’ wealth. When, in 1989, former KKK Grand Wizard David Duke was elected as a state representative in neighboring, lily-white Metairie, it was evident that whites did not leave behind their racist tendencies. Left behind were those against whom discrimination and economic theft had been a reality for so long. Was this the responsible recourse for the majority of the white population? Some may argue that a person, as a citizen, has the right to move as he or she pleases. Nonetheless, as Simone Weil once noted, personal rights do not supersede obligations. A community, filled with responsible people, will understand that pietas is a weightier matter than pure individual libertarianism. The benefits the white community reaped partly as a result of racist policies were not shared. When integration was legalized, the white community as a whole determined that they would not share neither wealth or power with the African American community. This analysis is painting with a broad brush — 28% of Orleans Parish prior to Katrina remained white (that percentage was shrinking). A socio-historical analysis requires a broad brush; argument using exceptions is far less to be desired. The oil bust of the 1980’s added to the city’s declining economy. By the time Katrina hit the city, the public school system was in shambles, 30% of the city lived in poverty, violence within the African American community was per capita the nation’s worst, the racially divided City Council continued to fight over issues that almost always centered on race, its economy, based on tourism, resembled that of a developing nation’s, and in office was Mayor Ray Nagin, the first mayor in 35 years to garner a moderate amount of respect from both races.
Hurricane Katrina sideswiped New Orleans on the morning of August 29, 2005. Chaos ensued in her wake. What the winds and floodwaters left behind was a broken city, an exposed city whose poverty, violence, and racism were left in plain view for the rest of the world. One charge made by some media outlets and by many stuck in the city was that the lack of a strong federal and state response was a result of racism. The claim is that if it had been predominantly white faces in agony on television the response would have been quicker. Of course, this is an issue that can never be truly resolved or settled because there is no way of knowing. My own opinion is that race played little role in it. The area was in chaos. The federal response was lacking because the gravity of the situation — close to 100,000 people had little food and water and no electricity and communications — was not understood. When it became clear to those in charge, amassing such a large effort to feed and evacuate residents could not happen “lickity quick” as Mayor Nagin demanded in his impassioned interview with Garland Robinette on WWL radio two days after the storm. In that famous interview, Mayor Nagin points out that it was not only Orleans Parish that was getting no help. It was also Plaquemines and St. Bernard Parishes, to the east and south of the city, which combined, have a population that is 80% white, who Orleans Parish was having to help. The fact that camera crews did not capture the many whites being lifted off rooftops in Chalmette (St. Bernard) does not mean it did not happen. St. Bernard Parish President Junior Rodriguez, whose critics have long charged with racism, has consistently said that the response and rebuilding of Katrina has been a class issue. When discovering that his blue collar parish would likely get little extra federal funding for levee protection, he shouted, “This ought to prove to the country and the people of Louisiana that this is about rich and poor. I don’t see it as a black and white issue. It’s a class issue.”
Can the lawlessness, looting, and destruction in the city be classified as a race riot? It is true that the majority of the looting in the city was done by African Americans. Largely, though, this was a result of the fact that it was by and large African Americans who remained within the city. It is rumored that some of the lawlessness was a result of police brutality, who were in ratio to the population, largely white. There are on record just five documented deaths, all black, that came as a result of police shooting rioters or snipers. What is undocumented is that some claim upwards of 200 were killed. Whether or not this rumor carries any weight may never be known. It is widely held that the Oakwood Shopping Mall was burned down by African Americans because they believed a white police officer had killed an African American who was purportedly looting the mall. These instances point that part of the lawlessness was in part a race riot. Communications, however, were so bad for both police and the public that to treat this lawlessness as a unified riot, as in L.A. fourteen years ago, is incorrect. Madison T. Shockley II, a church pastor who lived through the L.A. riots, probably best describes this nonviolent looting when he says, speaking of L.A., “The destructive hostility and the plundering had a common root: [it was a] frustrated response to a culture that celebrates daily the joys of owning things while tolerating levels of poverty that make such ownership out of reach.” And so, the issue of race becomes intertwined with class once again. President Bush, speaking during the National Day of Prayer shortly after the storm, said, “This poverty has roots in generations of segregation and discrimination that closed many doors of opportunity.” The looting along Canal Street that was broadcast had at its root classism. This group, not realizing that stealing things like televisions was pointless because all goods would be confiscated before boarding buses, disregarded practical wisdom, instead, reverting to natural instinct, which issues in impulsive activities that are both unreasonable and uncontrolled.
The description of African Americans by the media and the perception by the pubic revealed racist tendencies. These tendencies would influence response. By and large, the pictures of blacks taking part in the rescue missions, other than the subjects of the rescue, were never widely exchanged in the media. The local Times Picayune was the only exception. Pejorative portrayals of African Americans continued when the needy were divided into two groups based on race: African Americans were looters. Whites were scavengers who found. This incident in the press ended up as an isolated incident, but based on the history of viewing blacks in a negative light, it is not shocking the pejorative term was given to African Americans, and not the whites. The perception that African Americans are lawless spread through the entire state during the days to come. Rumor spread like wildfire that looting and a large riot had broken out in Baton Rouge. It was false. In a local Walmart, which was out of food, one employee concerned for my safety told me, “The blacks are here. They’ve been holding up people at gunpoint in the parking lot.” Crisis situations make many things believable. National media also reported that there was great violence in the Superdome and Convention Center where tens of thousands had sought refuge. The truth was only one person in both locations was slain. Behavior for that many people in those conditions was actually remarkably good. Yet there has been no praise for them. The African American community had learned long ago that in horrible conditions, waiting may be the best of all possible strategies. In another issue regarding perception and portrayal, The National Association of Black Journalists objected to the term of refugees, citing a definition from the Department of Homeland Security that stated refugees had no homeland. This seemed incorrect in two senses. First, a refugee is first and foremost one who seeks a place of refuge, and that was what all of us in south Louisiana had become. That we are all refugees seeking refuge, a common theme in Psalms, was a point missed by some African American leaders, even those who are Christian ministers. Second, the criticism of the use of the term showed contempt for and non-solidarity with those in other countries, especially Africa, whom we freely call refugees. Is the value of Americans too high to be disgraced by a title like refugee?
The city of Gretna’s response to Katrina illustrates once more what an immoral society looks like. Gretna, on the Westbank of the River, received only nominal flooding. It, like the Eastbank, did not have resources in abundance, yet was in a much better situation than the city. The first day of chaos, it allowed some 6000 evacuees to cross the bridge over the Miss. River where buses waited to take them elsewhere. The next day, when reports of violence became more widespread, the Gretna Police stopped evacuees from walking across the bridge. Some reports stated that dogs and machinge gun fire were used to chase the crowd away. While the rest of the nation, and areas not far from New Orleans, were welcoming evacuees as they sought refuge and safe passage, Gretna officials were concerned only about its property. The rationale was to protect the town from what was thought of as a violent group. While it must be stated that this group certainly had lawbreakers within, the vast majority were desperate people seeking help. Hypothetically, and alluding to the parable of the Good Samaritan, if the Samaritan comes across two people: one, another Samaritan, who is mildly hungry, and the other, a Jew, who is literally starving. What is the ethical, appropriate response? I have little doubt that Jesus would answer to help both, but the one in need of more help first. This is a deontological approach to ethics, one that would fall into Levin’s category of rules. Yet it is, as Augustine would call it, regula caritas, the rule of love, which would cross into the realm of an ethic of virtue.
It is thought that poor African Americans were far more negatively affected than any other group in the city. Such a claim is true, but there are some caveats. First, and perhaps most importantly, the dead in Katrina were relatively evenly distributed by race and class. For instance, 33% of those found dead have been identified as white, even though the city’s racial makeup consists of just 28% white. The factor that was overwhelmingly most significant in determining who died was age. Nearly 60% of the dead were over the age of 61 while only about 15% of the population was in that age group. Secondly, affluent white neighborhoods, like Lakeview, were hit with the same destructive flooding as the 9th Ward. Much has been made of the issue of poor, predominately African American living in the lowest land while the rich occupy the higher land. In general, in the city, it is mildly accurate. Outside the city, however, it is false, as the biggest suburbs, Metairie and Kenner, are as below sea level as the lowest areas in New Orleans. Elevation has much more to do with when the settlement took place (the older the settlement, the higher the elevation) than with race or class. Nonetheless, approximately 50% of whites in the city received little or no flood damage. Less than a quarter of the African American population fit in this category. Such a statistic has major ramifications in the rebuilding of the city.
Whilst a fifth of the city, mostly white, returned to the city within three months of the storm, there remains the other 80% who are living elsewhere. This large number is almost exclusively African American. The fact that so many African American homes received substantial flooding has made the process of returning and rebuilding a daunting and challenging one at best and impossible at worst. The diaspora of African Americans was a real concern in the first days after Katrina. Many there were who remained in their flooded homes because they believed the mandatory evacuation, which had no end date in sight, was an attempt to rid the city of the African American community. The majority, however, left before the storm or in the days after. The geographically widespread diaspora did not come to fruition, as most evacuees now live within 300 miles of the city. What then are the next steps? Nothing is more crucial in a culture than its open and hidden answers to question: Who can belong, who cannot, to this political order?
Never in the history of an American city has such a question been as immediately pertinent and pressing. As each day passes the city loses more of its displaced citizens, whom we know at this point are overwhelmingly African American. A slow recovery has led many who have left the city to believe the pace is not accidental. There are those who do undoubtedly hope the forced evacuation and destruction will bring a renaissance to the city. This mindset crosses racial barriers. It has become a class issue. That is not to say there is still no race issue buried within the class issue. The two are intertwined. Those with relatively little damage want to proceed with life. Many there are who see this as financial opportunity, as well.
These claims are made real in the issue over people living in trailers. Over the past month, there has been a battle involving city council members and the mayor. Basically, the council members, pushed by their constituency, have repeatedly rejected proposals to set up FEMA trailer parks in most neighborhoods. The mayor continues to propose locations that are rejected. Behind it is the “Not in my backyard” (NIMBY) attitude. Concerns over safety and decline in their own property value spearhead the dissent. Behind these socially acceptable concerns there may be hidden deep racial tensions. There is certainly a unwillingness to see these former citizens of the city as neighbors. Relatively unaffected residents feel as though they belong to the city while they believe those whose houses do not. Mayor Nagin has appealed to religious language, condemning at a town meeting these actions as “not very Christian.” It is easy to stand in judgment of an unwilling, insular community when no such trailer parks have been proposed near my neighborhood. In any event, it is an inappropriate, selfish, own group-invested frame of mind as such that will kill what was the city. Of course, that may be the intention anyway.
The rebuilders of the city have largely left untouched the issue of what to do with and about the large population of poor people, especially those living in public housing developments. Though several huge housing projects were spared from major wind and flood damage, none are open. No one has led a movement to bring this group back, much less tell them that they are welcome back. There was a short-lived movement begun in October by Jesse Jackson that sought to bring back working class African Americans by promising them jobs. It failed when reports showed that less than 10% onboard the busses were New Orleanians. Nearly half of those who came returned to their own hometown the next day. Though it failed, giving ammunition to conservative media, it was an important symbol of welcoming. The city has made no such gesture. The city’s only such bussing effort comes in the form of a daily bus that transports workers from Baton Rouge to the city and back again. It becomes more apparent each day that those living off government subsidies are no longer welcome in the city. And why should anyone in the city want their return? The city had long seen them as a problem to ignore and neglect. Louisiana Representative Richard Baker, whose proposed bill in Congress seeks to create a large-scale buyout of property in the city, said, “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” Is such a response ethical? Viewing a community as a problem, and not as a community that has problems, is a foolish starting point. What is ignored in such a view is that many of the problems of that community are the result of long-term dereliction by those with power and money. Ignoring the situation made matters worse. The city, though, has washed its hands. Perhaps some of the residents are better off today than they were. Nonetheless, it seems that everyone should have the option to return home when it is reasonably safe.
As the city plans its future, many are shouting that the future of the city is only for the gentrified and wealthy. Recommendations received by the city from the Urban Planning Report recommend that many parts of the city not be rebuilt. Controversially, the areas are predominantly African American. Residents who have returned are very skeptical of the Baker Bill. They perceive it to be forced buyouts, an issue that is unresolved. Those who want to rebuild feel they, not the government, should have the final say in whether or not their property is bought. This has made strange bedfellows of rich whites and poor African Americans who suffered the most damage. The ethical implications of the plan are that leaders must balance the safety of returning residents — regarding future flood protection and equitable allotment of public funds — with the rights of property owners to return to their homes. The commission is leaning towards making the community prove that it is viable before funds are given to help it rebuild. Meanwhile, funds are being concentrated in areas that had minor damage. If it seems that this is a “rich get richer and poor get poorer” mentality, it is. It gives a shadow of utilitarianism, that is, a triage approach to the city. The plan calls for a grandiose vision of light rail trains and a new, more dense New Orleans, one with a smaller “footprint.” Proponents of this smaller footprint model claim that it will have no impact on the racial makeup of the city, which seems preposterous. The areas on which the focus centers is already built up and predominantly white. If this model is accepted, New Orleans would like become just 35-40% African American, even though some demographers say the racial makeup would remain close to pre-Katrina figures. The city moved on January 12 much closer to making this smaller footprint proposal reality when the Bring Back New Orleans Commission approved of its proposals. Though the city has not officially accepted the recommendations, its approval shows the basic philosophy behind which the city is operating.
What then has been the church’s role in rebuilding? The church, like so many elements of society in pre-Katrina New Orleans, reflected the racial discord. In the aftermath, there has been a much more conciliatory tone, and it has begun in the churches. The churches in the city have been a foundation upon which regrowth has begun. The churches have not followed Hauerwas’ notion that the church should be a shining example whose calling it is “to display the Decalogue” and not intermingle with politics. They have been out rebuilding and trying to regather flocks of people. The future of poorer areas of the city may depend largely on the church’s involvement in bringing back residents of those areas. The church has no qualms with sharing with the government in rebuilding the city. In a New Year’s Day interfaith service at the Superdome, major political players in the city and the state, including the Governor and Senator Landrieu, preached how important faith is in the rebuilding of the city. It was an unusual sight: white Democrats elevating the role of religion, and specifically the church, in the rebirth of the city and state. Mayor Nagin gave a powerful sermon in which he compared New Orleans to the fallen, beloved Jerusalem, urging that, like the Israelites, it is “time to come home.” The church seems poised and positioned to have a major impact in recovery. This can be a very good thing. Less good is the possibility of the church becoming corrupted by involvement in politics as a result of trying to please people rather than remain faithful to the gospel. What becomes of New Orleans in the short-term will be what national politicians make it. What becomes of the city in the long-term is what the church, local government, and residents make it. Might each group be guided by what is appropriate so that we will not have to wait again until social chaos is so near our front doors that we have to resort to collective self-defences so violent and so repressive that democracy itself is sacrificed in our desperate attempts to save it.
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