October 30, 2005

Myths of New Orleans: Poor, Bad Blacks -- Who Got What They Deserved

The attacks of 9/11 tore aside a significant part of the veneer of civilization that had shrouded us from certain continuing, ugly truths about ourselves. In the wake of the attacks of that day, many of us -- led by our president, cheered on by the neoconservatives, and also by many conservatives and liberventionists (those alleged "libertarians," who think government should stay out of our lives at home but should simultaneously seek to rearrange the globe by military force -- and who appear to think it represents the apex of intellectual integrity never to even acknowledge this contradiction, let alone try to justify it) -- enthusiastically embraced a simple storyline: Western civilization, more particularly the United States, constitutes the highest point of possible human development. It is only "freedom" and "democracy" as practiced in the West that can guarantee a future of peace. (Never mind the West's uninterrupted history of warfare within its own ranks, and never mind the West's unending, centuries-long interference with the rest of the world.)

The West has the answer to successful human life. Since it does, and because certain elements in the rest of the world have now chosen to attack us on our own ground (and never mind that we have invaded and ruled over vast portions of the rest of the world since time immemorial), we must enlighten those benighted portions of the globe in our defense. Our chosen method of enlightenment is brute military force, to be deployed even against countries that did not threaten us. The lack of a genuine threat is no argument against spreading our version of "civilization," for our mission is grounded not only in self-defense: it is also a moral mission. Our success and our "peace" directly correlates to our virtue. Those countries and those civilizations that do not enjoy the same success and peace are without virtue. In the most extreme (and, one could argue, most consistent) version of this tale, non-Western parts of the world are less than human -- and they are subhuman by choice. They are immoral, and sometimes even evil. Since we represent the good and they represent the evil, we are surely entitled to improve them, by invasion and bombing if necessary. If they do not threaten us today, they might at some indeterminate time in the future. And while we might kill many innocent civilians in our campaign of civilization, those who survive will be infinitely better off than they would have been otherwise. Besides, how "innocent" can any of them be -- since they are members of inferior, less than fully human civilizations, and since they are so by choice?

This story may have the virtue of simplicity and the attractiveness of notions that support a faltering sense of righteousness -- but it is also grievously, terribly wrong. It ignores the long sweep of history and complex questions of philosophy, morality and politics. I will be discussing many aspects of these errors in the weeks to come. It should be noted that, besides being wrong for countless reasons, this story contains the seeds of immense destructiveness. The destruction we have seen in the last few years may only be the prelude to infinitely greater destruction still to come. [None of this is to deny or minimize the fact that we have genuine enemies who must be confronted. But our current foreign policy is no longer primarily targeted at those enemies, and it has not been since we invaded Iraq. The fable told by those who defend our foreign policy is crucial to the current project of "remaking" the globe, in the name of "benevolent worldwide hegemony." Utopians of all kinds who seek to make their delusions real always have need of such destructive tales. As I indicate, I will have much more to say on this subject.]

The fable peddled after 9/11 addressed questions dealing with the entire world. The wake of Hurricane Katrina unmasked a corollary to this tale. This time, the storyline was contained within our own borders -- but it was no less ugly for that. In fact, the domestic fable that has taken hold in large parts of our media and among many so-called "respectable" intellectuals has confirmed that ancient hatreds have never left us. Those hatreds reveal the most virulent form of racism -- and they ought to give pause to all those who champion the kind of "civilization" they contend we are morally justified in exporting by means of missiles, bombs and bullets.

What is most horrifying about the tenacity of these prejudices is the immense extent to which they are contradicted by the facts. But when people are ruled by fear and by the demands of a false belief in their own superiority, facts are easily dispensed with, if they are even considered in the first instance. We have no reason to be surprised by these recent revelations: in a culture where peddlers of racist propaganda like Charles Murray and Michelle Malkin are accorded numerous opportunities to spew their ignorance and blatant falsehoods to huge audiences, prejudice and unreasoning hatred are not merely a comparatively insignificant adjunct to the discussion: they are the staples of our diet. We ought to recognize the lethality of such a diet: if we do not seek to alter it and bring it into accord with the facts, it will finally kill us.

Tim Wise has written a valuable article about some of the myths propagated after Katrina: "Katrina, Conservative Myth-Making and the Media: Framing the Poor." Wise first recounts the stories that those of us who have been paying attention now know to have been entirely false (indeed, those of us who have seen these narratives before knew they were lies when they were first told): "the same five or six video loops of so-called looters"; the tales of gang rapes and babies being molested; the invented tales of "thugs shooting on first aid helicopters." One of the tricks of these kinds of stories (and Wise provides more examples) is to ascribe your own defects to those you are attacking:
And in each case, the authors of these fantasies made sure to throw in something about how racist the blacks were (calling white aid workers "crackers" and "honkies" of course), and ending with the admonition that those displaced by Katrina deserved no respect or assistance, seeing as how they were a bunch of spoiled brats who should be left to their own devices. In other words, no need to be compassionate, no need to contribute to relief funds, and certainly no need to challenge one's already negative views towards the kinds of people left behind in the flood. They had, ultimately, gotten what they deserved.
By such means, one's belief in one's own superiority is not only left unchallenged -- it is significantly amplified:
[O]nce the climate had been created and the frame set -- one that said, these are bad people, who do bad things -- it took no effort at all for racists to concoct lies and peddle those to a willing and gullible public that never seems to challenge stories of black perfidy, so easily do they fit within their pre-existing racist biases in the first place.
Because most of the narrower false narratives have now been acknowledged as particularly vicious inventions (with accompanying pained self-examinations by certain members of the media), many of us comfort ourselves with the notion that we've learned a valuable lesson, and that we won't make this same mistake again. But that is just another comforting delusion, one which allows us to avoid the larger lies that were told and that are still widely believed, a delusion that relieves us of the difficult and demanding analytic problems that remain.

Here are the most important parts of Wise's column [but you should read it all, as it contains many more details] -- and these issues have yet to receive the attention they properly deserve:
Which brings us to the other big lie told about the poor in New Orleans: one that has yet to be addressed in the media, despite how easily it can be disproved by a mere five minutes worth of research. It is one repeated daily for the past eight weeks by conservative talk show hosts and columnists, and one to which I am exposed many times a day in my email inbox, thanks to the efforts of right wing louts without the seeming desire to do their homework. Namely, it is the argument that the reason 130,000 poor black folks were unable to escape the flooding was because they had grown dependent on the government to save them, thanks to the "welfare state," and that was why they lacked the money and cars to get out before disaster struck.

In other words, liberal social policy had rendered the black poor unable or unwilling to work, content to collect a government check, and thus, had made them incapable of saving themselves. This lie -- and it is just that, not an exaggeration or simplification or overstatement, but a flat-out falsehood -- has been parroted by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, S[ean] Hannity, Bill O'Reilly and Charles Murray (of "Bell Curve" fame), not to mention such viciously self-loathing black conservatives as Star Parker, John McWhorter and the Rev. Jesse Lee Peterson, all despite the lack of evidence to sustain it, and the amazing amount of evidence, both contemporary and historical, to refute it.

But of course the media, having long ago decided not to challenge the mainstream public's view of folks on welfare -- and indeed to collaborate with the framing of such persons by politicians of both major parties -- has done nothing to set the record straight, suggesting either that they are incredibly inept at research, or just as incredibly craven in their attitudes towards the poorest of this nation's citizens.

But the facts, however unsettling they may be for conservative mythmakers, are clear.

To begin with, as of 2004, according to the Census Bureau, there were only 4600 households in all of New Orleans receiving cash welfare from the nation's principal aid program, TANF (Temporary Assistance for Needy Families, formerly Aid to Families With Dependent Children, or AFDC). That is not a misprint: 4600 out of a total of 130,000 households in the black community alone. Which means that even if every welfare receiving household in Orleans Parish had been black (which was not in fact the case), this would have represented only a little more than four percent of black households in the city.

According to the same Census data, the average household size in a welfare receiving family in New Orleans is the same as the citywide average for non-recipients: roughly 3.5 persons. So the number of individuals receiving welfare in New Orleans, by the time of Katrina would have been about 16,000.

Thus, even if we assume that all of the 130,000 persons left behind were poor, and that no persons receiving welfare managed to escape before the flooding with friends or family, this would mean that at most, perhaps twelve percent of the persons left behind (and whose faces we may have been seeing on national TV) would have been welfare recipients at all, let alone persons who had been rendered dependent on such benefits for long periods of time.

And speaking of dependence, or the notion that the city's welfare recipients had grown content to sit back and collect government checks instead of doing for self, this hardly seems likely when you consider that the average annual income received from TANF, for those small numbers actually getting any such benefits at all, was only a little more than $2,800 per year, in New Orleans prior to the catastrophe.

Indeed, such paltry amounts explain why most of the poor in New Orleans, far from being happy to receive so-called handouts, work whenever they can find steady employment, which admittedly, is not often the case.


[F]olks in this community were almost nine times more likely to earn their pay than to receive government benefits. Forty percent of workers from the community worked full-time, and the average commute time for Ninth Ward workers was over 45 minutes each day, suggesting that the work ethic was quite common to the folks who lived there, irrespective of commonly held and utterly false stereotypes.
Wise offers additional evidence that undercuts these commonly believed myths. He then moves on to the subject of public housing developments. It is here that Wise provides critical facts that are barely known. In the wake of Katrina, many commentators of the Charles Murray kind would have had us believe that public housing is the root of all evil. Once again, this is a simple story -- and a false one.

In fact, the reality, including the relevant history, is much more complex:
Likewise, in the mid-90s, several public housing developments participated in a national Jobs Program, funded by the Annie B. Casey Foundation: a successful effort that matched low-income black residents with businesses looking for employees. In the former St. Thomas development -- the first public housing "project" funded by the federal government under the Roosevelt Administration -- residents had started their own coffee shop and bookstore, and had created innovative teen pregnancy prevention and safe sex initiatives.

When St. Thomas was torn down a few years ago, residents were told there would be mixed-use economic development in its place, and although they mourned for the loss of their neighborhood, many looked forward to participating actively in the economic lifeblood of the community. Then the city reneged on its promises and offered the land to Wal-Mart, which then placed a superstore on the property--the very store whose gun supply was looted during the flooding (an ironic turn of events if ever there was one). Poor folks wanted economic opportunity and jobs; the city's elite (black and white alike) gave them a gun supply shop.

Bottom line: the stereotype of poor blacks in New Orleans (and elsewhere) as lazy and dependent on government is false. ...

It should also be noted that even when persons do receive so-called welfare, there is still a predicate to doing so: one that is rarely explored, but is simply assumed to be personal incompetence, bad choice-making, laziness or other personal pathologies. So, for example, we are to believe that for those who live in public housing, it was their own lack of initiative or willingness to take personal responsibility for their lives that rendered them so vulnerable to the likes of Hurricane Katrina and the collapse of the city's levees.

Yet what this commonly-repeated claim ignores is what came before folks ended up in public housing, in overcrowded communities, with concentrated levels of extreme poverty; and what came before had nothing to do with the welfare state, or liberal social policy more generally. Rather, what happened was the deliberate and calculated destruction of the inner-city in the name of economic "development" (which benefited only the elite) and to meet the needs of middle-class and above whites.

So, for example, consider the Treme (pronounced truh-may): the oldest free black neighborhood in the United States, home to Congo Square and Louis Armstrong Park. Located on the outer edge of the French Quarter and Central Business District, the Treme is more than ninety percent black and over half of its residents are poor, when you include those in the Iberville and Lafitte housing developments. Though it had long been a lower-income community, with the attendant issues that often emerge in such spaces, the Treme had also been, for the most part, functional. It was the site of dozens of successful black-owned businesses, and hundreds of stable middle-class families, where few lived in the so-called projects. The same was true for the 7th Ward: the base of the city's old-line Creole community.

But beginning in the early 1960s, the city of New Orleans, as with every major city in the United States, began taking federal funds to extend interstate highways through their urban centers, which meant the heart of those places black communities. In New Orleans, plans to extend the interstate through the French Quarter met with stiff opposition from affluent (and mostly white) historic preservationists and business owners. Once their political clout was deployed so as to block construction through the main tourist artery, planners opted to take the I-10 through the Treme and 7th Ward, whose lower income and black residents lacked the power to stop their property from being destroyed in the name of progress.

It was a story repeated throughout the U.S. during this time. ...

Although some had argued for financial assistance to help relocate the low-income families displaced by this process, rarely did such help materialize. Indeed, less than ten percent of those displaced by urban renewal had new single-resident occupancy housing to go to afterward: instead, they had to double up with relatives in small, crowded apartments, or move into public housing projects, which became something akin to concentration camps for the poorest and most vulnerable citizens of the nation.

These policies, known euphemistically as "slum clearance" by those who implemented and supported them, actually created slums, in places where previously had been low-income, but largely working class and stable communities. In New Orleans, this also extended to the Central Business District, including the very land where the now infamous Superdome sits.


All of this "slum clearance," it should be noted, was done for the benefit of whites, and not only the rich developers. Indeed, the primary reason for the interstate highway program was to help facilitate daily movement from the cities where most people still worked, to the suburbs, where large numbers were beginning to live. But of course, it was only whites who could live there in most cases. Blacks were still subject to regular discrimination in housing (indeed, most types of housing bias weren't even illegal until 1968), and had been largely unable to take advantage of the government's FHA and VA home loans for the first 30 years of their existence, thanks to racially discriminatory lending criteria built into this government program.

So while nearly 40 percent of white mortgages were being written on the extremely favorable FHA and VA terms by the early 1960s, (making home ownership possible for some 15-20 million white families who wouldn't have otherwise been able to own their own place), virtually no blacks had access to this form of economic opportunity. To then tear down black neighborhoods so as to build highways that would help whites get to their new and growing communities (like Bill O'Reilly's boyhood Levittown), was an especially pernicious and racist combination of anti-black neglect and white racial preference.
We thus see how the relevant facts and history completely contradict and undercut the myths widely propagated after Katrina -- and more particularly, we see that the notion that the fate of Katrina's victims was due to their "own lack of initiative or willingness to take personal responsibility" is a complete falsehood.

But two aspects of these lies deserve special note. First, there is a logically implied but usually unstated advantage to readily believing the worst about the disfavored segments of our population. If "they" deserve what they get -- up to and including homelessness, starvation and death -- then we who do not suffer that same fate also deserve what we get. In this manner, those individuals who desperately seek to be reassured of their own moral superiority and virtue can get a quick fix -- even if they must write off the lives of a large number of people to do so. But they are only the lives of those people: we already despised them, and now we have "legitimate" reasons for our hatred. This endless cycle of self-perpetuating contempt for the objects of our scorn, for those whom we dehumanize and eject from the human race altogether, destroys all those who partake of it. We see the results of such contempt in the unending horrors of Iraq, and we see the same results here at home.

Second, the history that Wise lays out shows a particularly vicious kind of corporate-racist statism at work. Note that the means by which this "slum clearance" is achieved relies on the alliance of already vested economic interests with the power of government. Because those vested interests are enjoyed almost exclusively by whites, this is "economic development" by the already favored (usually white) powers -- for their own further benefit. And the disfavored parts of society -- the poor, the black, the Latino, the non-white -- are pushed farther out, and farther down.

There are serious arguments to be made, and serious analysis that is demanded, on the general subject of "liberal social policy" -- about exactly how the poor, under- or unemployed and uneducated should be helped, whether they should be helped by government and, if so, by what particular means, and many related questions. But the actual history about these issues, including the history that Wise lays out, reveals the central myth to be a vicious untruth: that those who suffered so terribly in Katrina's wake "got what they deserved."

You might wonder why those who already enjoy many of the advantages that our society can provide appear to be so desperate for further confirmation of their own "superiority." If, in fact, their success is the result of their own virtues, their independence and their hard work, why do they need to convince themselves yet again that they "deserve" their good fortune -- especially when they do so by lying about those who are not successful? The answer to that is obvious: very often, success in our culture is the result of institutionalized favoritism -- favoritism that operates by means of a complex, interrelated series of mechanisms that encompass nominally private business and government. (This is obviously only part of the answer; I'll get to other aspects of these questions in time.) But to appreciate these complex mechanisms and to see the reality of what has occurred in the past and the results to which it has led, we have to set aside the simple storyline. Challenging these fables will also begin to dislodge the easy racism with which even so-called "intellectuals" comfort themselves. But the ugly truth is that far too many people still require such racism to view themselves favorably: when they can despise other groups as less than human, their own humanity is enhanced, or so the delusion goes. If such beliefs were not so destructive, they would be merely contemptibly pathetic.

In his article, Wise notes that the media had moments during the Katrina coverage when it appeared to waken from its self-induced stupor, when it actually dared to challenge the powerful. But those moments were short-lived, and our media has yet to demonstrate that it is capable of examining these more complicated questions:
But of course, in a media culture incapable of looking deeper than the next 30-second, 100-word soundbite, none of this matters. Indeed, most reporters, news anchors, or journalists of any stripe would be unlikely to even know any of this in the first place. All that matters is the here and now: no need for context, background, or history. And so they give us poor people, stealing from stores, carless, penniless and homeless: how they became poor and why they stayed that way doesn't matter, apparently. And by remaining silent on that issue, the mainstream press leaves venal ideologues to fill in the blanks, for an eager public all too willing to believe the worst about people who, for the most part, none of them have ever met.

Thus do we repeatedly plant the seeds for each new round of victim blaming, poor-folks bashing and racism, all the while thinking that just because Anderson Cooper cried on camera and Fox momentarily turned on Bush (but only for a nanosecond), the Earth's center of gravity moved.

In fact, just as with the aftermath of 9/11, and quite contrary to conventional wisdom, nothing at all has changed.
"Nothing at all has changed." Tragically, as events in the Middle East continue to demonstrate and as Katrina proved far too uncomfortably, that still remains true today.