Race, Relief and Reconstruction


The national conversation about New Orleans has shifted from relief to reconstruction. While alliances form among local and national elites, the majority of the city’s population faces being shut out of the discussion entirely. New Orleans is less than 30% white, but the white power structure is poised to seize control of the debate over the city’s future, while New Orleans’ distinct legacies of colonialism, white supremacy and Jim Crow, along with the personal loss and devastation faced by most city residents, has created a cocktail of obstacles in the path of forming a strong and unified resistance.

New Orleans artist, writer and muslim community activist Kelly Crosby writes, “New Orleans was at one time the heart of Creole country – octoroons, quadroons and mulattos. It was very common for French and Spanish aristocrats to keep Creole mistresses… There was also the forced concubinage of Black slave women…throw in the mixing between Native Americans and African Americans and what you get is Creole. My great, great grandmother could have passed for white, or passe blanc, as they used to call it.”

The Creole population, historically based in the 7th Ward Neighborhood, is seen by many as a wealthier, more conservative voting block, more aligned with white interests. And the Creole community is disproportionately represented in New Orleans business and political elite. As one New Orleanian said to me recently, “New Orleans has never had a Black mayor, we’ve only had White and Creole mayors.”

This white supremacist dynamic has also affected alliances between Black New Orleanians and other people of color, such as the city’s immigrant populations. As in many cities, tensions flare between immigrant business owners, who due to forces of economics generally have stores in poor Black communities, and community residents, who often see them as part the power structure. Crosby quotes her father as saying, “There is no way for African-American Muslims and immigrant Muslims to come together on anything in this community until we all address the problem of Muslim-owned corner stores.”

I saw this dynamic expressed recently by a Black Lower Ninth Ward resident speaking with two Palestinians and a Korean, “Y’all have been talking about white people this and white people that,” she said, “but as far as I can see, you’re white.”

In turn some immigrants in New Orleans, Crosby says, “see Black people as being one of a particular type. The don’t see black people pursuing college degrees (or as) writers, artists and scientists.”

Despite these divisions, Crosby also speaks of the power and unity in faith she has found among African-American and immigrant Muslims, and adds that she feels that the New Orleans Black community has moved beyond being “color-struck. And those that haven’t are stuck in the medieval, Creole, past.”

Yesterday, the first day of Ramadan, I spoke to Anwer Bashi of the New Orleans Shura Council, an umbrella organization of the mosques of the greater New Orleans area. “I think at least a third of the Muslims of New Orleans are not coming back. For the Muslim immigrant community, they don’t have multiple generations of their family to hold them to the city. Many Muslims with businesses saw their businesses flooded, others lost their jobs. And about a third of the Muslim community lived in an area like New Orleans East that was completely flooded.”

Its new pain and sorrow every day. Every photo, everything they’ve ever written, everything they’ve kept with them all their lives, is gone.

Amane is a devout, dedicated and generous Muslim student activist originally from Qalqilya, on the Palestinian West Bank. Her family lived in East New Orleans, and I know they lost everything to the flooding, but I haven’t been able to reach her.

Ahmad is a Palestinian-American recently graduated from Xavier, an historically Black college in New Orleans. He is also known as a hiphop artist named Shaheed. Many Arab youths like Ahmad grew up working in corner stores in the projects, surrounded by hiphop culture and forming friendships with recording artists from local music labels such as No Limit. Ahmad’s family had spent all summer working to open a store in Chalmette, which is now destroyed by flooding. Ahmad feels fortunate that everyone in his family is ok, and tells me “New Orleans is in my thoughts and prayers every day.”

Sandra is a Palestinian-American woman originally from Al-Bireh on the occupied Palestinian West Bank. She was active in community organizing as a young woman in Palestine, and has been a strong voice for social justice in New Orleans as long as I’ve known her.

She was elected unanimously president of the local chapter of the American-Arab Anti-Discrimination Committee, and spoke out frequently for human rights, hosting progressive Georgia Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney when she spoke in New Orleans, and speaking at ACLU and community events. She works as a nurse, and has been saving and working for months to open a restaurant.

Sandra’s home is in the Lakeview neighborhood of New Orleans. It was so destroyed by flooding that she couldn’t even get the doors to her house to open. Her business on Carrollton Avenue, which she and her husband Luis had been working for months to open, was destroyed, just days before it would have been ready to open. They had been working all day on the store the day before the hurricane, as they did many days. “We had just bought a new oven, new refrigerators, new kitchen equipment. Everything’s destroyed. Our home is destroyed, the business is destroyed. We lost everything. Everything.” Sandra and her husband are staying with her daughter, a college student in Baton Rouge.

I ask Sandra what we can do to help her. “Don’t help me. I’ll be ok. There are so many others that have it even worse. We need to pull together as a community to help those who are the worst off. People who lost their homes and loved ones, people who are still living in shelters, people who didn’t have anything to begin with.”

The national Muslim community has dedicated significant resources towards relief efforts. Several of the largest Muslim charities, including Council on American-Islamic Relations, Islamic Society of North America, Kind Hearts and Muslim American Society, have formed a coalition called the Muslim Hurricane Relief Task Force to participate in direct relief. They have provided vital aid to many, and spent millions of dollars on relief, an especially difficult task given the recent government crackdowns on Muslim charities and the fear this has generated within the US Muslim communities.

“Many immigrants didn’t know how to get federal aid,” Bashi tells me. “Those that weren’t citizens were told that they couldn’t get aid, in fact they were told they’d be deported if they even applied.”

Fortunately, according to Bashi, Islamic charities filled some of these gaps, as well as providing aid to non-muslims, including at least 2,600 volunteers just in the Houston shelters. However, as with other organizations on the front lines of relief, there are still questions about the distribution of relief, and if those with the most need are being served equitably.

I spoke recently with Nurah Jeter Ammat’ullah, founder/director of the Muslim Women’s Institute for Research and Development. She has been working with Islamic aid groups in the Houston area. She told me, “this is what I understand to be the tenets of Islam, working in service of humanity.”

However, she voiced concerns over the way aid is being distributed. “I’m concerned that aid is not reaching the African-American Muslim community in relation to their needs. I’m concerned that aid is not reaching the African-American communities of the Gulf region, overall, in relation to their needs. Aside from hurricane relief, there are systematic issues that have plagued African-American communities in this region for a long time. People are making donations, and its vital that we make sure we have transparency, and some apparatus that allows community oversight….on one hand we’re a unified faith community, on the other hand you have ethnic lines superimposed on class lines that don’t paint a very good picture.”

This is a problem not at all unique to the Muslim aid community. In fact, any relief effort that is not also aimed at attacking the fundamental structures of racism and corruption that led to this disaster will in some way reinforce the problem. People like myself, who were better off to begin with, have been most able to receive relief aid.

On a deeper level, the very idea of “Hurricane Katrina Relief” encourages the idea that the problem is just the damage from the hurricane, and that if we can get people back to where they were pre-hurricane, everything will be ok. The status quo pre-hurricane was, and is, the problem. The inequalities and negligence and disinvestment that were a part of that status quo caused this tragedy.

Now as the picture shifts from relief to reconstruction, the inequalities become even more serious.

I asked Bashi about his community’s role in reconstruction. “Muslims, and especially immigrant Muslims, are political pariahs in this country right now,” he said. “I can’t see any government board wanting to have muslim representation. Most Brown folks who have been elected are exceedingly xenophobic or else they wouldn’t have gotten there. Look at Bobby Jindal, who represented the far right positions, but still lost the Governors race because of his skin color. Ultimately, we’re just a small minority of the city’s population, and we’re not expecting any representation in decision making. The only place we can be involved is on a grassroots level.”

The poor Black majority of the city has also been shut out of these decisions. The Mayor and Governor have both appointed advisory boards that are significant in who they leave out. Although Mayor Nagin did choose Barbara Major, a dedicated and brilliant community leader, to sit on his board, the other 16 board members he chose are all corporate leaders with no constituency in the Black community, a description that arguably also applies to Nagin, a corporate businessman who was elected with the support of 70% of the white vote of New Orleans..

According to Curtis Muhammad of the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund, even among natural allies there has been a hesitation to support Black-led efforts.

“We’re seeing a fear on the part of people even in the progressive community to take leadership on this from poor Black folks, and we want to confront this and find out why,” Muhammad recently told me.

Many community members I’ve spoken with recently have expressed urgency, concern, and fear for the future. So many resources are flowing to organizations such as Red Cross who are more a part of the problem than solution. If the people of New Orleans are going to have a real say in the decisions that will effect them, its vital to build a broad alliance and find a way to harness the support from across the US and around the world.

I asked Ammat’ullah what charity she would recommend Muslims donate to if they want to help the people of New Orleans, and she replied, “so far, from what I’ve seen and heard, I would recommend they donate to the People’s Hurricane Relief Fund.”

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Jordan Flaherty is a union organizer and an editor of Left Turn Magazine.  This is his eighth article from New Orleans.  You can contact Jordan at [email protected].
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To see Jordan’s previous articles from New Orleans, go to:
http://www.leftturn.org/Articles/SpecialCollections/jordanonkatrina.aspx
To read more from Kelly Crosby, go to:
http://izzymo.blogspot.com/

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Based on conversations with organizers and community members, Left Turn Magazine has compiled a list of grassroots New Orleans organizations focused on relief, recovery, social justice and cultural preservation that need your support. The list is online at:
http://www.leftturn.org/Articles/Viewer.aspx?id=689&type=W 

Please spread the word. The fight isn’t over.
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