In August, 2007, I voiced concern that post- Katrina planning gave insufficient attention to the poorest victims. Unfortunately, those concerns have been affirmed: The Black poor, especially in the heavily hit lower Ninth Ward continue to be grossly neglected by city and federal officials. That column, presented here in its entirety, reflects my views as an indelibly linked New Orleans native:
There is broad consensus that post-Katrina New Orleans is a divided city, racially and economically–the poor are not top priority–and the city will never be the same. Many also believe the mayor and the federal government have failed to deal effectively with the problems, especially of poor Blacks. The agonizingly slow pace of recovery efforts in New Orleans compels me to revisit an earlier analysis.
The nation was awed by the extent of poverty and New Orleans' "Blackness." Given the track record of local, state, and federal officials, on social and infrastructure issues current morass was predictable. The emphasis has been on face-lift, i.e. image, not assisting the neediest victims.
Rebuilding New Orleans requires visionary thinking, commitment and resolve not yet evidenced. Katrina exposed protracted negligence many even call apartheid; government bungling and indifference has left critical areas unattended and help for the neediest, woefully inadequate.
The Association of Black Psychologists addressed Katrina's ramifications for New Orleans' Black population. It asserted Black people in New Orleans essentially experienced catastrophic death and destruction beyond human comprehension.
"The disproportionate degree to which our people have to bear suffering and loss is clearly attributable to the economic and social stratification that exists within society at large. This disparity exists because of our people's systemic economic and social oppression."
Post-Katrina's excruciatingly slow progress bear out the Association's analysis. And mainstream media's biased coverage of Black survivors coupled with poor planning and generally tepid response to the catastrophe reflected the low priority of those most in need. The psychologists asked, "What happens to a people who have been dispossessed, despised and disinherited when tragedy occurs?"
Valued cultural traditions had faded even before Katrina. I was born in New Orleans and retain important ties. I can attest to the city's rich cultural heritage and Katrina compelled me to reflect on my past in relation to that legacy.
I was the last of eight sons; my father died when I was two years old and my brothers helped our mother keep the family together through the Depression. She and I came to Los Angeles in 1942; in 1950 I returned to New Orleans to attend Xavier University.
When I was a child de jure segregation contaminated every aspect of life in New Orleans and all of the South. (Even then, I had trouble reconciling the silent, segregated Catholic Church with its doctrines of hope, faith and charity.)
My father was a letter carrier and active in the Catholic Church. His eldest brother was a physician in New Orleans at the turn of the 20th century; the others, a pharmacist, letter carrier and accountant. One of his sisters, for whom I was named, was a nun in the Holy Family, a Black Order. My mother's family (three brothers, one sister) was similarly close-knit and enterprising. The Cambres were carpenters, store owners and entrepreneurs with businesses in New Orleans and Los Angeles.
New Orleans Creoles were (many still are) fiercely independent and prone to clannishness. They are generous people with strong cultural, religious and family ties. Like America itself, however, many discriminated on the basis of color.
Visiting New Orleans for the first time in many years, I resonated instantly with people in my native 7th Ward and the kaleidoscopic impact of that trip still endures:
Corpus Christi Church, "Backatown," Aubry Street, First Communion, the Circle Show, Two Sisters, the Pentagon, Anybody's, Haspels, Bruxelles, Crescent Pharmacy, the Neutral Ground, St. Bernard Market, Autocrat Club, beer parlors, long bread, Jax and Falstaff Beer, Xavier Prep and Xavier University.
Vivid family memories: Uncle Robert and Edwin's Sunday visits after my father died ; Nunc Henri and Taunte Mellie, Aunt Georgie's house with its big cistern and old coffee grinder; Uncle Bud's daily dealings at the market on St. Claude; fritters, snowballs, icebergs and P's (my brother Leon) Barber Shop, Ice Cream Parlor, and years later, the first Black-owned bowling alley in New Orleans.
Kicking off post Katrina recovery by sprucing up the French Quarter was an ominous, prophetic signal. It seems Mayor Nagin's top priority was developers and upscale, (overwhelmingly white) French Quarter revelers rather than poor folks trapped outside of uninhabitable buildings.
The New Orleans of old will never be the same. However, political will (and novenas), would preserve a significant measure of its magnificent legacy and accord highest priority to those most in need.
Larry Aubry can be contacted at e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.