“The storm didn’t discriminate, and neither will the recovery effort.”
As soon as George W. Bush said those words, we knew it was a lie.
No, not a lie. Call it wishful thinking. Call it evidence of white privilege.
Even the president’s speechwriters seemed to realize this, and a few days later, when he gave his famous Jackson Square speech, he was singing a different tune.
As all of us saw on television, there is also some deep, persistent poverty in this region as well. And that poverty has roots in a history of racial discrimination, which cut off generations from the opportunity of America. We have a duty to confront this poverty with bold action.
Now it’s ten years later, and just in case you were wondering, that didn’t happen.
The recovery discriminated. Of course it did.
The evidence is easy to find if you care to look. Ask a New Orleanian how we’re doing, and their answers will vary according to race. Chances are a white person will say, “Better.” Chances are a black person will say, “Worse.”
Other numbers bear this out. Income inequality has gotten much worse in New Orleans. We have a huge gulf between rich and poor, akin to places like Zimbabwe. Over half of black men are unemployed here.
If these facts make you queasy, that might be a good thing. It shows you have a sense of decency. The facts are offensive to common decency.
How did this happen? How is it the recovery discriminated so harshly?
If you are thinking of active, personal discrimination, where one person treats another unfairly because of their race, then you’re thinking too old-school. That still happens, but the factors at work over the past decade in New Orleans are more subtle and insidious than that.
In order to understand how the recovery has discriminated, you have to think in terms of social structures and systems. Our society is riven by deep divisions. Of course the recovery process reflected those divisions, reproduced those divisions, deepened them. How could it be otherwise?
The only way we could have avoided this was by doing what Bush said. We needed “bold action” indeed — truly innovative and courageous action — but that didn’t happen. Some good ideas percolated up. There was, for example, the Gulf Coast Civic Works Act, which would have put local people to work rebuilding the area. It died in committee.
But this story isn’t over yet.