Experts: New Orleans Race Relations Crumble Under Post-Katrina Stresses

By Richard A. Webster
New Orleans City
Business (New Orleans, LA)
August 14, 2006

Shortly after Hurricane Katrina, a new breed of graffiti replaced the storm-related markings of search-and-rescue Xs and pleas for help that became a part of life after the hurricane. Crude drawings of African-Americans drowning in the Ninth Ward blanketed the bathroom walls of the Avenue Pub on St. Charles Avenue. Management painted over the racist hieroglyphics only to see them return weeks later. 

A few blocks away, at the intersection of Prytania and Camp streets, a bumper sticker plastered on a stop sign warned an unnamed but understood group of people to “Go back to Houston. “ From Mayor C. Ray Nagin declaring his desire for a “chocolate city” to St. Tammany Parish Sheriff Jack Strain warning people with dreadlocks and “chee wee” hairstyles that they will be targeted if found wandering the streets of the North Shore, race relations in the greater New Orleans area have hit rock bottom, local experts say. “There has been so much loss and grief in this area that tempers are short, trust is down and suspicion is up,” said Mike Cowan, chairman of the New Orleans Human Relations Commission. “In any relationship when you get those conditions it’s a dangerous time. “ The anonymous scrawl on light posts and bathroom walls reflects the rising tide of racial bitterness and anger, said Lance Hill, executive director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University. “In the first few days after Katrina I met many white people who felt Katrina was the best thing that ever happened to New Orleans,” said Hill. “It destroyed the black community and in one fell swoop had eliminated crime, poverty, problems with the schools and the burden on social services. “We’ve gone through a period of racial polarization and now there are a lot of people coming back to the city who are angry and feel like they were kept out because of the color of their skin or because they are poor. We know from history that when we ignore these ethnic conflicts they erupt into an even worse form. “ Former New Orleans City Councilwoman Jacquelyn Brechtel Clarkson, whose district included the million-dollar homes of the French Quarter and the public housing projects in Algiers, said she has been forced to field accusations against the wealthy white population. “It’s absurd because the displaced people were not all black,” Clarkson said. “My children and grandchildren were displaced and they’re middle-class white. One of my two brothers and two of my nieces lost everything. I would say to both sides it’s not all black and white. My greatest fear is we’re going to lose our middle class, both black and white. “ Despite overseeing a racially-mixed district, Clarkson said she fell victim to the anti-white backlash in her unsuccessful bid to win a council-at-large seat.

Election effect

According to a Louisiana Recovery Authority poll that asked respondents the importance of returning the city to its pre-Katrina racial demographics, 63 percent of African-Americans said it was extremely important compared to only 25 percent of whites. Tanya Harris, a Ninth Ward community organizer, said during the recent city elections a group of white politicians visited the Lower Ninth Ward and suggested relocating the entire community. “Why as a white man can you say these people need to be moved somewhere else as if we’re cattle?” Harris said. “The first thing Katrina did, if there is any good aspect about the storm, is it exposed a lot of things, things we’ve been knowing for a long time which have finally come to light. “ There have been two stages of life in post-Katrina New Orleans - before Nagin’s re-election and after, said Hill. “Before the election, wealthy white people were ascendant in the recovery process and there was no question in my mind that in the 27 years I’ve been in New Orleans that the power configuration had reverted back to pre-Marc Morial days. The Uptown white elite were running the city and pretty arrogant about that, and they realized they couldn’t implement their plans if the city government was controlled by African-Americans. “ Nagin’s re-election changed everything, Hill said. “What happened since Nagin got elected, the mentality I’ve seen emerge is really pretty appalling. ... Typically these people are bitter and feel dispossessed. They feel they had won the city back from African-Americans after Katrina and then they lost it. Now they present themselves as victims and wallow in self-pity, some almost professionally. “ Pastor Emmanuel Smith of the Israelite Baptist Church in Central City said much of the blame for the deterioration in race relations falls on the shoulders of the criminal element of the African-American population that is responsible for the recent surge in gangland slayings. “It has separated people because most of the crime is being perpetrated by young black men and that alienates the people of a white nature,” Smith said. “It’s a fear factor and results in, ‘You stay on your side of town and I’ll stay on my side of town. ‘“ Hill said when people feel like their ethnicity is the source of a trauma, they emotionally numb themselves to the people who they feel are responsible. “The way people cope with being driven out of their homes or with crime is to make themselves insensitive to their own feelings and in turn insensitive to the feelings of other people to the point where they feel they have a right to victimize that other group. “
Healing dialogue

To accomplish that end, the Southern Institute recruited Ervin Staub, a professor at the University of Massachusetts, is helping to develop a model of community healing, dialogue and reconciliation that can be implemented in the communities of New Orleans. “We have to accept the fact that we’ve experienced not just a natural disaster trauma but an ethnic trauma,” said Hill. “Whether you agree with people’s interpretation of events we have large numbers of people black and white who feel they have been victimized because of the color of their skin. “ No matter what the current situation, Harris said it is important that people are finally addressing the issue of race in New Orleans. “Katrina put New Orleans under the national microscope and now we have outsiders coming in questioning what actually went on in New Orleans before Katrina to foster this environment. It’s uncomfortable to talk about but you can’t heal a wound if you keep it covered all the time. “

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