Saturday, September 5, 2015

Katrina and the 2nd ‘Great Migration’: An African-American Tragedy


I never thought, as I heard author Isabel Wilkerson lecture on “The Great Migration” of 6 million African-Americans from the rural Jim Crow South to comparatively freer urban Northern communities from the First World War to around 1970, that much of her talk this summer in Chautauqua in upstate New York would relate so much to the impact of Hurricane Katrina on New Orleans a decade ago this past week.

Much of Wilkerson’s address, in fact, touched on matters even more recent than Katrina: the “metronome of names” of African-Americans dead in police shootings this past year, for instance, or the controversy over the Confederate flag in South Carolina. 

I didn’t think back on how it might pertain to New Orleans until I thought of her discussion of the lingering and interrelated effects of racial and economic inequality. She took her comparison of America to “a house, hundreds of years old” and extended it to what happens when you don’t look too closely at a home.

“When you have a storm, you might not want to go into the basement because you don’t know what you might find,” Wilkerson, author of The Warmth of Other Suns, told the packed audience at Chautauqua’s Amphitheater in the first week of August. “But if you ignore it, you ignore it at your own peril. Whatever rises up will come back to haunt you. Whatever we have ignored will not go away until we face up to it, examine it, address it and resolve it.”

You would think, given all the retrospectives on Hurricane Katrina in print, on TV and the blogosphere, that Americans are doing anything but “ignoring” the crisis that made us look like a powerless Third World country a decade ago. 

But a startling fact, with even more astonishing implications, seems to be getting lost amid all the words on the hurricane. I’m afraid we are doomed to repeat the Katrina experience unless, as Wilkerson puts it, we “face up to it, examine it, address it and resolve it.”

What I am thinking of is this: 100,000 fewer African-Americans reside in New Orleans now than before the flood, and a deeper social and economic gulf has opened between them and whites than existed before.

African-Americans are only a portion of the hundreds of thousands displaced by Katrina, not only in the Crescent City but in the larger Gulf Coast. But because of geographic concentration, they had left their imprint on New Orleans. That impact, cultural at first, had become increasingly political since the civil-rights movement—until the storm, that is.

Then, in one fell swoop, the African-American equivalent of a mid-sized city was disenfranchised. It would be like all the residents of South Bend, Ind., Flint, Mich., or Elizabeth, N.J., being swept up in a tornado and dropped willy-nilly all over the map.

Moreover, this forced migration affected not just city but also state electoral contests, since an estimated 20,000 voters ended up in Houston.

For those African-Americans still in New Orleans, poverty has worsened, with annual median household incomes 54 percent lower than those of white families — and 20 percent lower than black households nationally. Not surprisingly, black neighborhoods have been much slower than white ones to rebuild.

African-American members of the New Orleans community not only found themselves politically and economically disenfranchised, but also left to contend with unsafe, unhealthy conditions. “The environmental problems caused by Katrina and the ways in which those impacts were disproportionately felt across the city could be seen in where floodwaters released toxic substances into the air and water; where damage to previously contaminated sites as well as water and sewage treatment facilities occurred; and where the debris and waste was placed and how it was disposed of,” charged California Rep. Barbara Lee in a piece for the Huffington Post five years ago.

The disparity in conditions between black and white that predated the storm, in other words, has not only lingered but has become entrenched.

Remarkably, though, a certain amount of self-congratulation has actually set in concerning the rebuilding effort. It is a different New Orleans that residents and tourists see today following the infusion of $120 billion in Katrina federal relief, we are told: safer, more prosperous.

What goes unsaid all too often is that it is the white sections of the city that have rebounded more quickly. From the beginning, many of the African-American sections were often regarded as unsalvageable. Thus began an experiment in social engineering best typified by former Speaker of the House J. Dennis Hastert, who, only a few days after the storm, before a real assessment could be made of how much could be saved, voiced the dominant sentiment of the Republican Party on Capitol Hill: “It looks like a lot of that place could be bulldozed.”

Malcolm Gladwell’s article in The New Yorker a couple of weeks ago celebrated “the courage of those who…decided to make a fresh start” by moving away from neighborhoods where African-Americans had lived for generations. The forced relocation, he noted, may have inadvertently helped many blacks break free of neighborhoods that perpetuated poverty across generations.

But African-Americans shouldn’t have been forced to make that choice in the first place. And they wouldn’t have if the United States Army Corps of Engineers had adequately strengthened the levees that served as the only thing standing between African-American neighborhoods and catastrophe; if the American public had not been so slow in coming to grips with the dire impact of global climate change (the Union of Concerned Scientists, in a report on “Hurricanes and Climate Change,” noted that the storm “significantly intensified when it hit the deep pools of warm water in the Gulf of Mexico”); or if the Bush Administration had only appointed an experienced disaster hand to head FEMA instead of political hack Michael Brown (recipient of a brief but notorious “heck of a job, Brownie” endorsement from President Bush).

Gladwell’s piece strikes me as more than a little reminiscent of histories that, for years, pedaled the notion that emigrants came to America simply to achieve a better life. It took Oscar Handlin’s The Uprooted to depict the extent the anguish and alienation experienced by emigrants who had been forced out of lands they never wanted to leave to come to a country whose citizens often beheld them with hostility.

Gladwell writes of “the resilience and the spirit of those who chose to rebuild the neighborhoods they had lost,” but at the end of a long piece spelling out the frequent dysfunction of the older, poorer sections of New Orleans and the better life they embraced outside, that statement feels like so much lip service. 

It also downplays something crucial about what confronted these areas, post-Katrina: How can individuals make carefully considered intellectual decisions—how to deal with insurers, how to navigate a federal bureaucracy, or, even, less primally, how to participate in electoral life again—when they have just experienced severe emotional trauma? The African-Americans of the city’s Ninth Ward and other sections had just endured or witnessed death, injury, hunger, and property loss on a massive scale. How could they react with anything besides psychological immobilization?

The consequences of this occurred in City Hall as well as in the streets. Predictably, white neighborhoods gained in political clout at the expense of black ones, largely because of differences in turnout triggered by the displaced refugees. (For instance, in the 2006 mayoral race, turnout in the French Quarter and Garden District were barely affected, but in the largely black and middle class New Orleans East, turnout fell by 23% and in the less affluent Lower Ninth Ward it dropped by nearly 40%.)

Mayor Ray Negin managed to win re-election in the 2006 mayoral race, largely because of absentee ballots made available to the displaced. But, reflecting the chasm opening up between the black and white portions of the electorate, he won with a much less racially diverse base of voters than he had four years before. 

The fact that he did so well among African-Americans, despite performing abysmally during the crisis, also probably reflected the resentment many of those voters felt at white politicians who had not come close to addressing their needs. (Certainly he was a most unworthy beneficiary of their trust, as attested to by his subsequent conviction on 20 counts involving bribery, money laundering, fraud and tax violations during his two terms in City Hall.) Moreover, going forward, a large portion of the displaced absentee voters will not return to their lost neighborhoods.

As an Irish-American, I hear powerful reverberations of the Great Famine of the 1840s that propelled an earlier mass wave of human flotsam. A potato flight in those years started the trouble for the Irish peasants of that time, but it was the society produced by centuries of British misrule—and British mismanagement of the crisis in the mid-to-late 1840s—that produced the famine, disease, and the mass exodus to the U.S.

I could not help but agree, then, when I read President Obama’s words during his visit to the Lower Ninth Ward last week: "What the storm laid bare was another tragedy, a deeper tragedy that had been brewing for decades. We came to realize that what started out as a natural disaster became a man-made disaster, a failure of government to look after its own citizens."

The 20th century Great Migration that Ms. Wilkerson discussed a month ago was partially initiated by environmental traumas similar in kind, if not degree, to Katrina (e.g., floods that destroyed the homes of sharecroppers, a widespread boll weevil infestation that wrecked their livelihoods). But it was also inspired by more hopeful developments, including greater opportunities for employment and voting rights in the North,

I wish I could hope that the mass migration this time in the Gulf Coast will produce the equivalent of children of the Great Migration who contributed enormously to American culture, such as Richard Wright, Miles Davis and Jesse Owens. But I fear that it will more likely yield up the feral products of a Darwinian struggle for existence, not unlike the social ills –poverty and crime—that led 19th-century nativists already prejudiced to assail the Irish refugees from the Great Famine.

“How blind we were to think that Nature could be controlled by a lot of poured concrete, on swishy sand and peat soil, that wasn’t properly maintained,” historian and city resident Douglas Brinkley wrote in a retrospective on the hurricane for Smithsonian Magazine. It is a real question, going forward, if post-Katrina America will repeat the mistakes made earlier, particularly as they relate to the African-American victims of the most expensive natural disaster in U.S. history.

(The image accompanying this post is of American Red Cross personnel attending to the largely African-American refugees in the Reliant Astrodome.)

1 comment:

Michael Marino said...

Michael - Thoughtful. a great perspective. Thank you. MikeM