Monday, September 05, 2005

New Orleans: the race factor of Hurricane Katrina

Like many people here in the United States, I've been watching my television set over the past several days, watching images and news stories coming from New Orleans with a mixture of horror and revulsion. It is surreal, seeing pictures of Americans scavenging for food, with armed gangs breaking into corner stores and houses and looting alongside dead bodies floating down the flooded street. Scenes like this are reminiscent of Mogadishu in the early 1990s, the sort of humanitarian catastrophe that is not supposed to happen here in the United States.

One thing that stood out for me looking at the pictures is the color of the faces in them. Almost all the pitiful faces I saw staring back at me from the TV screen and my newspaper were black. When you realize that a third of New Orleans is white, you might wonder where these white people went and why don't we see these white faces mixed in with the black faces in these horrible images?

The answer is simple: the white ones had the ability to leave, and when the mayor of New Orleans ordered a full-scale evacuation, they packed their belongings, hopped in their SUVs, and drove out of town in advance of the storm. Some of the black ones, living in abject poverty, could not even afford bus fare, and had little choice to stay put. An unfortunate side-effect is that these poor black souls are less likely to have homeowners insurance than the more comfortable middle-class, and are thus more likely to have lost everything they own in this disaster.

While I am dismayed by this racial dichotomy that has been exposed by Hurricane Katrina, I am not surprised by it. I have visited New Orleans a number of times attending technology conferences, and this racial tension, while not overtly present, was always there lurking just under the surface. When I traveled to New Orleans alongside my wife (who is black), that hostility reared its ugly head, and we both experienced negativity unlike anything we have experienced anywhere else in this country (here is a link to a post I wrote previously about that visit).

When I first visited New Orleans, the city struck me as a place where the "Jim Crow" segregationism of the 1960s did not fully die (as it did in other places in the south), it merely went into hiding, poking its ugly head out now and again. One of my first experiences in New Orleans was the convention center, seeing hundreds of minimum-wage employees, wearing black-colored uniforms and serving coffee and snacks, picking up litter, and other mundane tasks in the convention center. All of these people, without exception, were black, and were speaking among each other a very strong dialect of English that was so grammatically flawed it was almost incomprehensible to me.

Later that day, I was in the French Quarter near my hotel, and decided to explore a bit. I walked along Bourbon Street, and saw all the tourists going up and down the famous party-street filled with bars and jazz clubs. But, then I walked a bit past Bourbon Street along Canal Street, and it was almost as if I had crossed an unseen line. Quickly, in just a city block, buildings became run-down, the faces got darker, and the stares got more hostile, and the looks on all of these people's faces bore one obvious message to me: "you are not welcome here." I quickly realized I was in the wrong neighborhood and hustled back to the safety of my hotel.

A day later, I decided I felt like eating crepes for dinner (a dish made with thin pancakes that New Orleans and Quebec both have in common). At the advice of the hotel concierge, I hopped on a streetcar and traveled about 20 minutes to a beautiful neighborhood filled with big houses, and had a wonderful crepe dinner in an upscale restaurant. Of course, in this neighborhood, all the faces I could see were white. As a Canadian traveling to New Orleans for the first time, the contrast between these two neighborhoods was shocking. A true Tale of Two Cities that would have made Charles Dickens blanch.

A year or so later, I was back in New Orleans, this time alongside my wife (she is black, I am white), and I could not believe the hostile reception we got. Everywhere we went together, we could feel disapproving gazes from almost everyone in the place. The white residents of New Orleans were generally too reserved to say anything to us, but the blacks certainly weren't, and all of their vitriol was directed against my wife. Walking along Canal Street, black passers-by called my wife a "sellout", an "Oreo" (a cookie that is black on the outside, white on the inside), a "traitor", and a few even more colorful words that are best not printed here. After returning to our hotel, my wife was livid, in particular since neither her nor I were from the area, and neither of us were even Americans: "they don't know you, they don't know me, they don't know where I come from, how can they judge me?" While I did not appreciate the comments either, it was hard for me to feel anger towards their originators; after all, it was evident by walking around New Orleans that their anger towards my wife was a product of their frustration with the racial oppression they felt in New Orleans.

My wife and I have traveled to many places in the southern United States, and have never experienced anything close to what we saw in New Orleans. Even places like Birmingham, Alabama, the same city that was so notorious in the 1960s civil rights era it earned the nickname Bombingham, we did not see anything like the racial tension that we saw flowing as a caustic undercurrent through New Orleans.

Based on my own experiences in New Orleans, I am not the slightest bit surprised that the situation there has degraded to the point that it has, and that the people we have seen living like animals in these horrible news pictures were almost entirely black.

Do I think the Hurricane Katrina situation will help the racial situation in New Orleans? Definitely not. The whites in New Orleans were already looking down on the black residents as barbaric thugs, and seeing images on the news of armed blacks rampaging through the ruined city, looting goods out of houses and stores, and shooting at police officers and rescue helicopters will only reinforce these stereotypes.

Through all these miserable news pictures, Hurricane Katrina exposed a major racial problem in New Orleans that I am sure the authorities there would rather keep hidden. The fix for this racial dichotomy in New Orleans is not be easy, and would need to include a concerted effort providing better education to inner-city youth, and better job opportunities for these same people. With endemic incompetence and corruption in the local government, I do not think New Orleans is capable of putting together a cohesive strategy like this, and thus I expect this unfortunate situation to continue there for the forseeable future.

Update - September 9

For anyone who thinks the local government in New Orleans did enough to help the hurricane victims before it struck, have a look at this picture, aptly named "Nagin's Navy" (after the mayor of New Orleans). The government of New Orleans knew for two days the hurricane was coming and could have mobilized these buses to take people out of town instead of letting them congregate at the Superdome and Convention Center. Instead, the officials seemed more concerned with protecting their own skin: either an act of bureaucratic stupidity, or cowardice, or both.