(NNPA)—Much as the Emmett Till murder did 55 years ago, Hurricane Katrina pulled back the cultural curtains and revealed the intersecting roads of race and poverty in the United States of America. In both cases, America’s egalitarian myth of civility to all her citizens was shattered by the photo of Till’s open casket in Chicago (Jet Magazine) and news images (CNN) of African-Americans treated as animals and “refugees” in New Orleans.
Before and after Hurricane Katrina, the city of New Orleans has been a case study in the oppressive confluence of race and poverty on African-Americans. Prior to Katrina, New Orleans had the highest percentage of public housing residents in the nation, many of who were allowed to live in poorly policed, sub-standard living conditions.
Three days before the Category 5 hurricane named Katrina came ashore from the Gulf of Mexico, those who could evacuate New Orleans made plans to do so. However, the most vulnerable citizens—nearly all Black and/or elderly—were left to negotiate the storm and its aftermath on their own. Despite the presence of a fleet of public buses, no provision was made to direct poor people of pigment to higher ground. With no credible evidence, city officials would later contend that the Black poor ignored directions to evacuate because the storm arrived at the end of the month and two days before government (public assistance, Social Security) checks arrived. Fact is, there were no buses deployed and the fleet became submerged under water.
With no plans for the poor, the days immediately following Katrina found the levees compromised. Black students at Xavier and Dillard University were stranded in dormitories. In fact, while vice president to Rev. Jesse Jackson and RainbowPUSH Coalition, I remember assisting in rescuing African-American students with the help of privately funded buses.
As people found their way to the New Orleans Superdome and Morial Convention Center, no guidance or direction was provided by city and state officials. Predictably, conditions worsened and over 1,300 people died (by official numbers), some African-American men were shot by police for attempting to flee to the higher ground of Jefferson Parrish. There was no government for the people. People were treated as animals.
In the ensuing weeks, state officials refused to utilize vacant military bases within Louisiana and forcibly removed the Black poor to 44 states around the nation.
Predictably, according to a report by the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center, five years after Katrina New Orleans is a smaller and richer city per capita. Duh: Most of the poor were removed.
In fact, today:
•The nearly all-Black Lower Ninth Ward seems conspicuously passed over for reconstruction;
•Louisiana residents remain located in 55,000 cities across the nation (59 percent of who are female-headed families;
•75 percent reduction in the number of public housing apartments available (formerly 98 percent African-American);
•5,000 people remain on waiting list for public housing;
•28,000 people remain on waiting list for public housing vouchers;
•58 percent of New Orleans renters pay more than 35 percent of their pre-tax household income for housing; and
•The number of public school students (90 percent African-American) have decreased by half.
For those who contend that race did not play a major factor I say, seriously?
Truth be told, if the students, residents, and poor in need were White, the federal, state and local government would have treated them better. Moreover, if private real estate developers had not influenced government policy decisions, more people of color would have returned to their homes in New Orleans .
Therefore, the Black Leadership Forum, led by the Hip Hop Caucus will return to New Orleans on Sunday, Aug. 29—the fifth-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina—to raise righteous voices of indignation for the right of return and the rebuilding of housing for the poor.
(Gary Flowers is executive director and CEO of the Black Leadership Forum.)