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Apr 07, 2009

Katrina left more than broken lives and broken homes in its wake. It left a race problem.

By Alan Stoga

Scratch almost any American city and some racism will bleed out. Whack it hard—the way Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans—and the results can be much more vicious.
In the 44 months since the levees broke, residents have endured vigilantes, looters, uninvestigated murders, inadequate and racially biased rescue and recovery efforts, and high crime rates
They saw white politicians and business leaders oppose the rebuilding of the most damaged parts of the city, which had been predominantly poor and African American. They saw whites win control of both the city council and the school board—in a city whose politics had been dominated by blacks for 30 years. And they saw day-to-day politics degenerate into virtually non-stop combat between politicians, split along racial lines.  
In short, New Orleans is caught in a struggle for power between the races, a struggle that could keep what was once a great American city from ever recovering.
James Perry, a 33-year-old native New Orleans lawyer and housing advocate, is among those who are fighting back against the rising tide of racism: “I don’t think this city is doomed to a black/white race divide. We are better than that.” 
Perry just won a big civil rights case in which a federal judge knocked down blatantly discriminatory housing policies in neighboring St. Bernard Parish. Now he wants to be the Big Easy’s next mayor. 
But can he sell his Obama-like post-racial politics to all those angry voters?

Welcome to St. Bernard

St. Bernard Parish, which abuts New Orleans’s Lower Ninth Ward, feels a bit like Cicero, Ill. in the 1960s—the all-white Chicago suburb that was too tough to integrate even for Martin Luther King, Jr.
Before Katrina, the parish was home to about 70,000 people, almost entirely white, working class, homeowners. Many of them had fled years ago across the Orleans Parish line in order to avoid school desegregation. In St. Bernard, they found a tight knit, practically crime-free community, where they controlled their own schools and, they thought, their own fate.
Katrina changed all that: St. Bernard was hit as least as hard as neighboring New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth. The devastation was profound: on block after block, many of the brick ranch homes still stand empty, or have been demolished down to the concrete slabs. Almost four years after the storm, the population is less than 35,000.
From the start, the St. Bernard Parish Council—operating out of a trailer behind the destroyed Parish Government Building—was determined that the new St. Bernard would be just like the old. As one Council member said, they wanted “to maintain the demographics.”
With more than 90 percent of homes owned by whites, it’s pretty clear what they had in mind. First they passed a moratorium prohibiting the construction of apartment buildings, then an ordinance limiting single-family house rentals to blood relatives. As one dissenting council member put it, the purpose was “to block the blacks from living in these areas.”
Enter the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Center and Perry, its executive director. After filing a suit against the parish and the Council on the grounds they were violating the Federal Fair Housing Act, he said, “the sign says ‘Welcome to St. Bernard,’ but this ordinance makes clear that if you’re not white, you’re probably not welcome.”
Perry certainly was not welcome, since he forced the parish to spend time, effort and money defending what Council members variously described as “their quality of life” and “the integrity of single-family neighborhoods.” But even less welcome was a Texas-based developer who proposed a $60 million mixed-income apartment development. St. Bernard quickly moved to block construction.
Perry eventually testified before U.S. District Court Judge Helen Berrigan that “the effort to prevent apartment construction was going to perpetuate segregation in the parish and, frankly, limit opportunities for African-Americans and also for lower income citizens in general.”
Judge Berrigan agreed, and ruled that the parish was violating the Federal Fair Housing Act, in a decision that could resonate well beyond St. Bernard.
“The judge’s decision sends a powerful message to local politicians that they need to think about the consequences of giving in to racism and bigotry,” says John Relman, a Washington, D.C.-based attorney who argued the Housing Center’s case. “And it sends a message to the rest of the country, that courageous federal judges will uphold federal law, regardless of whether or not it is popular.”
Perry’s advocacy for fair housing is long standing and deeply felt. But it might have the practical consequence of putting him on the New Orleans political map, just as the first stirrings of next year’s mayoral contest are occurring.

James Among the Giants

Perry blames Mayor Ray Nagin for much of the increased polarization strangling  recovery. He points to Nagin’s initial support for shrinking the city’s footprint, and his infamous comment that New Orleans would always be a “Chocolate City.” One angered blacks; the other angered whites.
Many remain angry: Nagin’s approval rating today is only 24 percent (36 percent among blacks and 5 percent among whites) according to a recent poll. That probably means the term-limited mayor will only impact the April 2010 election if he continues to deepen the divisive racial divide. 
Perry’s biggest problem as a potential candidate might be that he is not part of the family-based organizations that have long dominated city politics.  As Tulane professor Lance Hill puts it, “the African-American candidate—in what will probably be a black vs. white run-off—is likely to come from one of the established political families, or at least have strong ties.” He adds: that’s not Perry.
Perry’s riposte is that “the machines are dead.”  Many of the voters who followed their lead are gone, he says, and many others are ready to think for themselves.  
Clancy Dubos, a local political observer, points to the new voters who have moved to New Orleans in the wake of Katrina. “I think we have a citizenry that is educated, more engaged and more politically astute than at any time in my memory.” 
That’s exactly what Perry seems to be counting on.

Numbers Don’t Lie

On November 7th, Barack Obama overwhelmingly won New Orleans as 150,000 people showed up at the polls.
The big surprise was that more than 90,000 blacks cast votes, nearly double the number of white voters. No one seems to know where they came from, or whether they will come back next February 6 for the mayoral primary or the April 22 run-off. But the fact that they showed up in November introduced a new factor into the political calculus.
Up until Obama’s victory, many people believed the black majority had permanently evaporated or, at least, been reduced to a few percentage points. Several white politicians had won (and, in December, Democratic Congressman William Jefferson—of cash-in-the-freezer fame—was defeated by a Vietnamese-American) in low-turnout elections. The conventional wisdom was that the next mayor of New Orleans could be white, thanks to Katrina’s dispersal of thousands of African-Americans.
But the unexpected Obama vote totals showed that many blacks who aren’t living in the city could be motivated to come back and vote. The unanswerable question is whether they will they care as much about who becomes the next mayor as they did about who became the first black president.
Hill believes the answer is yes. “You can’t imagine the rage in the black community,” he says. “This election will decide whether their neighborhoods will be demolished; how much they will have to pay in taxes to rebuild the city; and whether the city will invest in their neighborhoods or somewhere else.”
Perry agrees it’s an important election. However, he isn’t counting on the community’s rage to get him to the mayor’s office. Indeed, he says that one of things that makes him run is that none of the other potential candidates are talking about racial issues or racial healing.
It’s simple, according to Perry. “If we don’t fix these racial issues, the city won’t fully recover.” And that, he believes, would be a tragedy for the whole country.


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