Speaking last week to a gathering of newspaper publishers, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin once again played the race card in the ongoing hustle that is the Gulf Coast rebuilding, suggesting that the bungled recovery is part of a plan by unnamed conspirators to revamp the racial composition and political leadership of his and other cities, the Washington Post reports:
"Ladies and gentlemen, what happened in New Orleans could happen anywhere," Nagin said at a dinner sponsored by the National Newspaper Publishers Association, a trade group for newspapers that target black readers. "They are studying this model of natural disasters, dispersing the community and changing the electoral process in that community."
Nagin's comments hearkened back to those he made at a Martin Luther King Jr. Day event in 2006, when he echoed the funk band Parliament by claiming that New Orleans would once again become a "Chocolate City." At last week's event, Nagin suggested that those comments made him a political target, according to the Post:
"Everybody in America started to wake up and say: 'Wait a minute. What is he doing? What is he saying? We have to make sure that this man doesn't go any further,' " Nagin told a room full of black newspaper publishers and editors at the Capital Hilton.
Referring to [New Orleans mayoral challenger and Louisiana Lt. Gov. Mitch] Landrieu, who is white, as "the golden boy," Nagin suggested his chance at reelection in the mayoral race had seemed slim because "they dispersed all of our people across 44 states with one-way tickets."
"They thought they were talking about a different kind of New Orleans," Nagin said. "They didn't realize that folks were awake, that they were paying attention."
Indeed, those of us who are awake and have been paying attention to what's been happening in New Orleans since Katrina know that the federal, state and local policies driving reconstruction have had the effect of shutting out of the city many African Americans, who still comprise a majority of New Orleanians but a much smaller one than before the storm. But we also know that Nagin himself has had a hand in promoting these effectively anti-black policies.
This reality was eloquently stated by University of Pennsylvania political science professor and New Orleans expatriate Adolph Reed Jr., writing last September for The Nation. In an essay titled "New Orleans -- Undone by Neoliberalism," Reed identified former corporate executive Nagin's approach to governance as neoliberal -- that is, one in which "private is always better than public, and ... the main functions of government are to enhance opportunities for the investor class and to suppress wages for everyone else." Of the various proposals that had the effect of excluding poor blacks from the city's reconstruction, Reed wrote:
...[E]ven though the most politically articulate and militant demands stressed the rights of renters, Nagin's main policy concession to the protest against the rebuilding proposals was to extend greater latitude to "homeowners." Thus, in what was supposed to be a victory for popular interests against developers, renters were left out of the equation entirely and established as non-stakeholders. The irony is that blacks were disproportionately renters, and renters were disproportionately black. And roughly 90 percent of rental units destroyed were low-income affordable. Many, no doubt a preponderance, of black homeowners are not affluent, and securing greater civic voice for homeowners democratized the process, if only by slowing down the development juggernaut a bit. Nevertheless, the concession at the same time inscribed property ownership as the condition for entry into the arena of interest groups with effective civic voice.
Treating property ownership as the sine qua non for policy consideration didn't raise any eyebrows locally or nationally, except among the ranks of those who were left out. Neither the black Mayor nor the majority-black City Council has shown initiative in taking into account, much less defending, the interests of poor New Orleanians. The city's evacuation plans notoriously failed to anticipate adequately poor people's circumstances and needs. Landlords began evicting tenants without a hint of due process as soon as water receded and rumors spread of possibilities for extracting exorbitant rents from construction workers. The state officially prohibited evictions before October 25, but that prohibition was academic for the tens of thousands of people dispersed in shelters around the region and nation. And even that minimal right was flagrantly ignored with impunity. New Orleans City Council president Oliver Thomas complained in February that government programs and agencies had "pampered" poor people and proclaimed that they should not be encouraged to return. As he put it, "We don't need soap opera watchers right now." At least one other black councilmember expressed support of his view, as did the New Orleans Housing Authority receiver.
This all attests to the triumph of neoliberalism as both ideology and policy regime, and that triumph is seamlessly compatible with the discourse of racial politics. Black property owners, after all, are stakeholders as well as whites. Demonizing government to cut public spending and regulation, plundering the public treasury through privatization and rationalizing both through the myth of magical market efficiency all underlie what happened to New Orleans.
Until Nagin takes action to protect the right of return for his city's non-propertied classes, his talk of racial conspiracies is nothing more than a rhetorical distraction to deflect attention away from his own role in shutting blacks out of the new New Orleans.