Liberal Bad Faith in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina


So, Barbara Bush was right after all when she said, “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.” And Rep. Richard Baker, a 10-term Republican from Baton Rouge, was right when he was overheard telling lobbyists: “We finally cleaned up public housing in New Orleans. We couldn’t do it, but God did.” The publication of both statements elicited public condemnation and was followed by a flurry of hairsplitting denials. But it is now clear that their only transgression was to say in unvarnished language what many pundits, politicians, and policy wonks were thinking. Since then, there has been a stream of proposals in more circumspect language, first by conservatives and then by a liberal policy circle at Harvard, that also envision the resettlement of New Orleans’ poverty population far from the Vieux Carré, Garden District and other coveted neighborhoods of the “new” New Orleans.

 

David Brooks weighed in first, in a September 8 column in the New York Times under the title, “Katrina’s Silver Lining.” How can such a colossal natural disaster that devastated an entire city and displaced most of its population have “a silver lining”? Because, according to Brooks, it provided an opportunity to “break up zones of concentrated poverty,” and thus “to break the cycle of poverty.”  The key, though, is to relocate the poor elsewhere, and to replace them with middle class families who will rebuild the city. “If we just put up new buildings and allow the same people to move back into their old neighborhoods,” Brooks warned, “then urban New Orleans will become just as rundown and dysfunctional as before.”

 

OK, this is what we expect from the neocons. Enter William Julius Wilson, whose message in The Declining Significance of Race catapulted him to national prominence. In an appearance on The News Hour, Wilson began by diplomatically complimenting Bush for acknowledging the problems of racial inequality and persistent poverty, and then made a pitch for funneling both private and public sector jobs to low-income people. So far so good. But then Wilson shifted to some ominous language:

 

“Another thing, it would have been good if he had talked about the need to ensure that the placement of families in New Orleans does not reproduce the levels of concentrated poverty that existed before. So I would just like to underline what Bruce Katz was saying and that is that we do have evidence that moving families to lower poverty neighborhoods and school districts can have significant positive effects.”

 

Wilson was referring to his fellow panelist on The News Hour, Bruce Katz, who was chief of staff for the Department of Housing and Urban Development in the Clinton administration. According to Katz, to build ” a competitive healthy and viable city,” we need “to break up the concentrations of poverty, to break up those federal enclaves of poverty which existed in the city and to really give these low income residents more choice and opportunity.” Finally, it becomes clear what Katz is driving at:

 

“I think the city will be smaller and I’m not sure if that’s the worst thing in the world. I think we have an opportunity here to have a win-win. I think we have an opportunity to build a very different kind of city, a city with a much greater mix of incomes. And, at the same time, we have the opportunity, if we have the right principles and we have the right tools to give many of those low income families the ability to live in neighborhoods, whether in the city, whether in the suburbs, whether in other parts of the state or in other parts of the country, live in neighborhoods where they have access to good schools, safe streets and quality jobs.” (Italics ours.)

 

Stripped of its varnish, what Wilson and Katz are proposing is a resettlement program that will result in a “smaller” New Orleans that is depleted of its poverty population.

 

This is not all. Together with Xavier Briggs, a sociologist and urban planner at MIT, Wilson posted a petition on the listserve of the Urban Sociology Section of the American Sociological Association, under the title “Moving to Opportunity in the Wake of Hurricane Katrina.” After some hand wringing about the terrible impact of Katrina, we’re presented with the silver lining: “… our goal for these low-income displaced persons, most of whom are racial minorities, should be to create a ‘move to opportunity.’” Of course, this is followed by the necessary caveat: “we do not seek to depopulate the city of its historically black communities,” et cetera, et cetera. But the main thrust of the petition touts “a growing body of research” that demonstrates the “significant positive effects” of “mobility programs” that break up “concentrated poverty.” By happy coincidence, Briggs has just published an edited volume, The Geography of Opportunity, with a foreword by William Julius Wilson, which promotes such mobility programs.

 

The dangerous, reactionary implications of a government-sponsored resettlement program were apparently not evident to the 200-plus signatories, which include some of the most prominent names in American social science: First on the list was William Julius Wilson, followed by Christopher Jencks, Lawrence Katz, David Ellwood, Herbert Gans, Todd Gitlin, Alejandro Portes, Katherine Newman, Jennifer Hochschild, Sheldon Danziger, Mary Jo Bane, to mention some of the names on just the first of ten pages of signatories. With these luminaries at the head of the petition, given their unimpeachable liberal credentials, scores of urban specialists flocked to add their names. But how is the position laid out in the measured language of the petition different from the one expressed by Barbara Bush, Rep. Richard Baker, and David Brooks? This is a relocation scheme, pure and simple. Of course, the petition was careful to stipulate that this was a voluntary program, leaving people with a “choice” to return to New Orleans or to relocate elsewhere. However, as these anointed policy experts surely know, the ultimate outcome hinges on what policies are enacted. If public housing and affordable housing in New Orleans are not rebuilt, if rent subsidies are withheld, then what “choice” do people have but to relocate elsewhere? The certain result will be “a smaller and stronger New Orleans,” depleted of its poverty population.

 

Already public officials are crowing about the “new” New Orleans. According to a recent article in the New York Times, “the bullets and drugs and the fear are gone now, swept away by Hurricane Katrina, along with the dealers and gangs and most of the people.” Step forward another credentialed expert, Peter Scharf, executive director of the Center for Society, Law and Justice at the University of New Orleans. Hurricane Katrina, Scharf exults, “was one of the greatest crime-control tools ever deployed against a high-crime city,” sweeping away, by his estimate, as many as 20,000 participants in the drug culture before the storm.

 

Here we see the first problem of the “moving to opportunity” discourse. It is a throwback to the crude environmental determinism of the Jacob Riis era, which equated urban pathology with the urban environment, and assumed that a more salubrious environment — more commodious housing, playgrounds, and clean streets — would provide a panacea for the “ills of the city.” One Progressive Era book began with the instructive story about a lamppost that had been the site of a rash of suicides. Alas, the authorities removed the lamppost, and poof, the suicides ceased! Does anyone doubt that New Orleans’ drug trade will not reestablish itself elsewhere?

 

On closer examination, the campaign against “concentrated poverty” is a scheme for making poverty invisible. The policy is based on an anti-urban bias that is as frivolous as it is deep-seated, as though the romanticized small towns across the nation are not plagued with the litany of “urban” problems. Wherever there is chronic joblessness and poverty, and no matter its color, there are high rates of crime, alcoholism, drugs, school dropouts, domestic violence, and mental health issues, especially among the poor youth who pass up the option to rescue themselves by joining the army and fighting America’s imperial wars. To echo C. Wright Mills, when poverty is spread thin, then these behaviors can be dismissed as individual aberrations stemming from moral blemishes, rather than a problem of society demanding political action.

 

Besides, what kind of policy simply moves the poor into somebody else’s back yard, without addressing the root causes of poverty itself, and in the process disrupts the personal networks and community bonds of these indigent people? Contrary to the claim of the petition, the “careful studies” that have evaluated the “moving to opportunity” programs report very mixed results, and why should one think otherwise?  Unless the uprooted families are provided with jobs and opportunities that are the sine qua non of stable families and communities, “move to opportunity” is only a spurious theory and an empty slogan.

 

This brings attention to two other fatal flaws in the logic of “moving to opportunity” policy. It is based on a demonized image of the reprobate poor, who make trouble for themselves and others. Yes, the drug dealers are swept out of the 9th ward, but so are countless others, often single mothers with children, with an extended kin network of siblings, aunts, uncles, cousins, and that heroic grandmother, who indeed have deep roots in the communities from which they are being evicted. How is it that this Gang of 200, from their ivory towers and gilded offices, presume to speak for the poor? Tossing in a caveat to the effect that “we do not seek to depopulate the city or its historically black communities” must be read literally. They want only to depopulate the city of concentrated poverty, and they will leave intact middle-class black communities that will insulate them from charges of racism.

 

The great fallacy of the “moving to opportunity” programs is that, by definition, they reach only a small percentage of the poverty population (and typically those who are both motivated and qualified to participate in the program). Left behind are masses to fend for themselves, particularly since the “moving to opportunity” programs are themselves used as an excuse to disinvest in these poor black communities that are written off as beyond redemption. Moving to opportunity becomes a perverse euphemism for policy abdication of the poor people left behind who are in desperate need of programs, services, and jobs.

 

Here, finally, is what is most sinister and myopic about the “moving to opportunity” concept. It is not part of a comprehensive policy to attack poverty and racism: to rid the United States of impoverished ghettos that pockmark the national landscape. Rather the policy is enacted in places where poor blacks occupy valuable real estate, as was the case for Cabrini Green in Chicago. After Cabrini Green was imploded, and its displaced residents sent off with Section 8s, median sales prices of single-unit homes in the vicinity soared from $138,000 to $700,000 during the 1980s, and the area lost 7,000 African Americans and gained 4,000 whites. It is only a matter of time before we read upbeat news accounts about the gentrifying neighborhoods surrounding the Vieux Carré.

 

What is perhaps saddest and most reprehensible about the petition of the Gang of 200 is the solipsistic arrogance on which it rests. This initiative comes at a time when ACORN and other advocacy groups and grassroots activists in New Orleans have championed “the right of return” for even its poorest citizens displaced by Katrina. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, over 140,000 units of housing were destroyed, the majority of them affordable for low-income families. But the Housing Authority of New Orleans has shut down its public-housing operations, and informed landlords of people assisted by federal rent vouchers that government rent subsidies for impacted units have been suspended indefinitely. According to Mike Howells, an organizer with a local human rights group, “sensing an opportunity to enhance the fortunes of real estate interests and to dump a form of public assistance that mainly benefits poor working class locals, Washington and local authorities are using Hurricane Katrina as a pretext for effectively gutting government subsidized housing in New Orleans.”

 

Sure enough, the key player on Mayor Nagin’s “Bring New Orleans Back Commission” is Joe Canizaro, a billionaire local developer and one of President Bush’s “pioneers,” i.e., individuals who raised at least $100,000 for the Bush presidential campaign. The commission initially retained the Urban Land Institute — a real estate development industry organization on whose board Canizaro sits — to propose a framework for pursuing reconstruction. Unsurprisingly, that proposal called for a form of market-based triage. It recommended that reconstruction efforts should be focused in proportion to areas’ market value and further suggested that rebuilding of New Orleans East and the Lower Ninth Ward be deferred indefinitely. What else could we have expected? Asking such an outfit how to rebuild a devastated city is like asking a fox how to organize a chicken coop.

 

As we write, the fate of displaced poor New Orleanians is more precarious than ever. FEMA has terminated rent payments for thousands. Only 20 of the 117 public schools that existed before the hurricane are operating, and 17 of those 20 have opened as charter schools. The school board laid off all the teachers and staff months ago — so much for concerns about poverty. Most of the city remains empty, eerily quiet and covered with a gray, filmy residue that shows how high floodwaters were in each neighborhood. And the eerie quiet underscores the colossal failure of government at all levels to propose a plan for the hundreds of thousands of people who have been dislocated for six months and counting.

 

Tellingly, the outrage that Canizaro and the Urban Land Institute’s proposal sparked among working-class homeowners only reinforced poor people’s marginalization. The relevant unit of protest against the ULI plan, its moral center, became homeownership.  But what of the tens of thousands who weren’t homeowners before Katrina? Who is factoring their interests into the equation? Did Barbara Bush speak for history, ratified by the policy circle at Harvard, when she said,  “So many of the people in the arena here, you know, were underprivileged anyway, so this, this is working very well for them.”

 

The Gang of 200′s petition reproduces and reinforces this disregard for the idea that poor people may have, or deserve to have, emotional attachments to a place they consider home. This is one way in which the stereotype of the “urban underclass” — which Wilson in particular has done so much to legitimize — is insidious: it defines poor people’s lives as only objects for “our” administration (and just who makes up the circle of “we” anyway?). It effectively divests the poor of civic voice, thus reprising 19th century republican treatment of those without property as ineligible for full citizenship.

 

We are braced for the counterattack from the Gang of 200. First, they will howl about the obvious differences between Indian removal and the Negro removal that they advocate. We are more struck by the similarities. Naiveté and hubris can go hand-in-hand. Wilson et. al. rushed to tout their silly pet idea without a whit’s thought of the social, political, and economic dynamics and tensions that might be at play in the debate over how to reconstruct New Orleans. Their sole proviso is the lame reassurance that the city’s distinctive diversity should be preserved. They gave no thought that Republicans might link the city’s repopulation to their desire to gut Democratic power in New Orleans and move Louisiana into the column of reliably Republican states. They apparently also failed to consider the potential that their idée fixe would play into the hands of real estate development interests and others who relish any opportunity to dissipate New Orleans’s black electoral majority. Such talk began well before the floodwaters began to recede.

 

Recently, a politically connected white lawyer in the city remarked that Katrina provided an opportunity to rebuild a smaller, quainter New Orleans, more like Charleston. (Charleston, of course, has an ample poor black servant class for its tourist economy, but a white electoral majority.) And speaking of Charleston, a low-income housing project near downtown was condemned and razed after Hurricane Hugo in 1989 because the flood and storm surge supposedly had rendered the land on which it stood too toxic to afford human habitation. The site subsequently became home to the aquarium, a key node in the Charleston’s tourist redevelopment. Rumors abound that luxury condos may also now be in the works for the site.

 

Next, the Gang of 200 will accuse us of defending segregated housing and opposing their proposal to integrate blacks into mixed income and mixed race neighborhoods. This does not withstand even a moment’s scrutiny. Without doubt, many poor black people aspire to move to a “better neighborhood,” and they should have the option to do so. If the Gang of 200 were serious about helping them, first on their policy agenda would be a proposal for massive enforcement of existing laws against housing discrimination, in order to drive a wedge through the wall of white segregation. The problem here is that relocation is being enacted through a state-sponsored resettlement policy, and notwithstanding promises for “traditional support services,” these poor families (and not all of them are poor!), will be relocated in poor, segregated neighborhoods. The only certain outcome is that New Orleans will be depleted of its poor black population in neighborhoods that are ripe for development.

 

It is astounding that the Gang of 200 do not see the expropriation of poor neighborhoods and the violation of human rights. And they remain strangely oblivious of their potential for playing into the hands of the retrograde political forces that would use their call to justify displacement. Well-intentioned, respectable scholars as they are, they live no less than anyone else within a political culture shaped largely by class experience and perception. And the poverty research industry, of which Wilson is an avatar and leading light, has been predicated for decades on the premise that poor people are defective, incapable of knowing their own best interests, that they are solely objects of social policy, never its subjects.  Worst of all, they provide liberal cover for those who have already put a resettlement policy into motion that is reactionary and racist at its core.

 

 

Adolph Reed is a noted author and professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. He was Co-Chair of the Chicago Jobs With Justice Education Committee. He serves on the board of Public Citizen, Inc. and is a member of the Interim National Council of the Labor Party, and national co-chair of the Labor Party’s campaign for Free Higher Education. Prof. Reed can be contacted at [email protected].

 

Stephen Steinberg teaches in the Urban Studies Department at Queens College. His most recent book, Turning Back: The Retreat from Racial Justice in American Thought and Policy, received the Oliver Cromwell Cox Award for Distinguished Anti-Racist Scholarship. In addition to his scholarly publications, he is a frequent contributor New Politics. Email at [email protected].

 

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