Yesterday I posted some thoughts on a panel discussion, but I forgot that I had a written version of my opening statement which I might as well share. Curiously, I also forgot to bring a written version to the event, so I had to extemporize. I wrote this after meeting with some representatives of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Fund, and it’s a little rough, but it represents my thoughts such as they are. Anyway, here’s what I said, more or less.
Shortly after Katrina, President Bush said that “the storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort.” It was an admirable notion, and most Americans surely approved of the sentiment.
But there have been rumblings and grumblings ever since. Some have alleged that there are racist plots afoot to engineer a demographic shift, to keep certain New Orleanians from returning. However, one needn’t to resort to exotic conspiracy theories to see inequities in the recovery. Simple logic dictates that those who have money and own property will have an easier time recovering, on the whole, than those who don’t.
In other words, it was easy to predict that the recovery certainly will discriminate on the basis of class. We also know that there’s a high correlation between socio-economic standing and race. Therefore, inequities in the recovery will also tend to break down along racial lines.
Since the flood, we have seen this play out exactly as one might have anticipated. Who’s been able to come back? Who’s been able to recover? We don’t have census data, but we look around our neighborhood of Mid-City and the truth is plainly obvious. Our white, middle class, property-owning neighbors have bounced back much more quickly than our neighbors who are renting, who are working class, who are African-American. Before the flood, the latter group(s) represented the majority of Mid-City residents. Even now, more than two years since the flooding, a great number of these residents remain displaced, and with every day that passes it is less likely that they will be able to return.
To put it bluntly, the recovery is indeed discriminating, and demographic shifts are indeed taking place. And while that’s hardly surprising, it is disheartening.
As author Naomi Klein writes:
Not so long ago, disasters were periods of social leveling, rare moments when atomized communities put divisions aside and pulled together. Today they are moments when we are hurled further apart, when we lurch into a radically segregated future where some of us will fall off the map and others ascend to a parallel privatized state…
We see these broad forces at work in our city and our neighborhood. But the people of Mid-City will not allow this disaster to tear us apart. We will not be divided. We recognize that our diversity is our strength. Our community spoke very clearly in our neighborhood recovery plan from 2006:
Mid-City is a unique and historic New Orleans neighborhood that was severely flooded due to levee breaks on August 29th, 2005. As Mid-City recovers from the devastation of Hurricane Katrina, we envision a neighborhood where people of all races and economic backgrounds can find and enjoy a high quality of life together and find opportunities for meaningful employment and home ownership. We want a safe walkable and bikeable neighborhood with plenty of green space. We want mixed-use buildings, with appropriate locally-owned businesses interspersed intelligently with private residences. We want an increasing number of owner-occupied homes. We want to preserve the historic character of our neighborhood while expanding modern amenities. The recovery of Mid-City should be just, humane and democratically controlled by the people of Mid-City.
So this is the fight in Mid-City. I am encouraging the Mid-City Neighborhood Organization to rededicate itself to the values articulated in our neighborhood plan. We will fight for an equitable recovery that does not discriminate on the basis of race and class. To achieve this we must aggressively combat underlying social inequities. But our effectiveness as an organization is a function of how truly representative we are of all the people of Mid-City. To this end, we must also rededicate ourselves to organizing in the whole community, in as broad and inclusive a fashion as possible.