“They Trying to Wash Us Away!”

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This week the broader culture “celebrates” the 10-year anniversary of the horror known as Hurricane Katrina. I have written and spoken about this event ad nauseum and argued that Katrina exposed the despair that was ALREADY present in New Orleans before the storm hit. I also made some predictions about what would happen as a result of the storm and I am sad to report I was right on all counts. Because I was correct about the way Black people would be disadvantaged by the “re-development” and “renewal” of New Orleans I am in no mood to “celebrate.”

What I have to say in this blog post has been confirmed by a recent survey conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University. Black people have a distinctly different perspective on New Orleans’ “recovery” than Whites. Four out of 5 White residents believe the city has mostly recovered while 3 out of 5 Black residents say it has not. These disparate perceptions were echoed in other surveys such as the Kaiser Family Foundation and National Public Radio. Below I share a few of the differing views.

While most White New Orleans residents rate the quality of life as “about the same as before Katrina” (NY Times, Aug. 24, 2015), a least one-third of Black folks say it’s gotten worse. Black residents, especially Black women, say they had a harder time returning and rebuilding their lives after Katrina. The primary reason for this perspective is that African Americans were more likely to have lived in a flooded and flood impacted part of New Orleans. And, of course, areas like the Ninth Ward have taken much longer to recover.

The “new” New Orleans is whiter and more expensive and has all but eliminated public education as we know it (…you do remember what “eliminating welfare as we know it” meant for Black people?). New Orleans, once an incredibly affordable city, is becoming one of the nation’s most expensive. New Orleans, the most African of American cities—from its culture, customs, art, food, music, and architecture—has become a place where voyeuristic Whites can “experience” blackness without becoming subsumed by it. It has become the site of “Negro-tourism” where Whites can say, quoting Franz Fanon, “Look a Negro” without having any fear of or responsibility for incorporating blackness into their daily calculus.

My first visit to New Orleans over 30 years ago made me feel strangely uneasy. It was everything everyone told me about but there was something more. Like most convention goers or tourists I was ushered into the downtown and French Quarter area. There I saw the trinkets of Mardi Gras, voodoo, and Black iconography. I was warned not to travel far outside of the area but of course I discounted that warning and got to see the “other” New Orleans. Having grown up in segregated West Philly I understood the phenomenon of living “across the tracks.” But, I have never seen poverty in a major US city as entrenched and as widespread as I saw it in New Orleans.

On one subsequent visit to New Orleans I was walking down Chartres Street and noticed a restaurant named, “The Slave Exchange.” I was walking with a Jewish colleague as I marched boldly into the restaurant and asked for the manager. I told him how deeply offended I was by the name of the establishment. He of course claimed no responsibility for the restaurant’s name but shared with me that it was on the site of an actual slave exchange. My colleague told me that I was “over-reacting” and I turned to her and said, “Oh, so you are telling me you would sit and eat in a place called Dauchau, Auschwitz, or The Concentration Camp?” She remained silent…and we still do not talk. [Incidentally, the name HAS been changed and now a historical marker designates it as the site of a former slave exchange.]

The next day, I went back to the site of the restaurant and looked down the intersecting street. There I could see the Mississippi River and I started walking toward it. When I got there I stood and bowed my head. I know what happened at that place. I know that under those waters are countless, unnamed Africans and African descent people whose sacrifice makes my entire existence possible. I understood my uneasiness with New Orleans is linked to the overwhelming sense of the suffering that surfaces whenever I am there.

Hurricane Katrina brought all of that suffering back to me in a stark and painful way. I know President Obama, President Bush, and President Clinton will all visit to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of the storm. I will not be celebrating. Instead I will be having a memorial and remembering from the time we Africans appeared in the Crescent City they have been trying to wash us away!

Stay Black & Smart!

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“Straight Outta Commonsense”

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By now dear reader you have seen or heard of two popular culture phenomena. One is the movie, “Straight Outta Compton” that is doing incredible box office despite being in fairly limited circulation and the other is the Internet memes that have been derived from the film. I don’t want to spend time on the film that although being hailed as excellent filmmaking is dismissive of the misogyny and the truth of the documented abuse directed toward Black women that was a reality of hip hop group NWA. I also don’t want to spend any time on all of the clever, silly, and in some cases offensive memes that bear the “straight outta” insignia. I’ve made my own, “Straight Outta West Philly” meme to post on Facebook pages and laughed at clever ones like the “Straight Outta Melanin” meme featuring race imposter, Rachel Dolezal. No, instead I want to appropriate the “Straight Outta” fad to talk about what we are seeing in the political sphere.

A few weeks ago we witnessed the first Republican presidential debate. There are so many declared GOP candidates that the FOX network that sponsored the session had to break them into 2 tiers with the higher polling group being featured in prime time. I have paid attention to political information since I was about 12 years old. I listen to presidential press conferences (whether the President was someone I supported or not), I listen to political pundits, and I read political commentaries and analyses. I am drawn to politics and policies because I have seen what difference the rhetoric and implementation of same make in the lives of people. When Lyndon Johnson uttered the words, “And, we shall overcome,” it spelled a shift in the nation’s civil rights winds. When Ronald Reagan declared, “Mr. Gorbachev, tear down this wall!” it set a series of events into motion that reflected the movement of democracy in East Berlin. Political speech can have power and it can have meaning.

Unfortunately, at this point in the presidential election-cycle the political speech is being dominated by Donald Trump and quite frankly I find him to be “Straight Outta Commonsense!” The more frightening fact is how many Americans are energized by his foolish talk. Many years ago I remember a “60 Minutes” interview with President Jimmy and Mrs. Rosalyn Carter. The interviewer asked them a question about President Reagan but Mr. Carter, always the gentleman, refused to say anything personally negative about Mr. Reagan. But, Mrs. Carter said something profound when she said, “This President makes us comfortable with our prejudices!” In other words, under Ronald Reagan we could talk about people as “Welfare Queens” and suggest that poor people should wait for funds to “trickle down” from the wealthy. However, I don’t think Ronald Reagan was without commonsense. He was totally out of touch with the lives of everyday people and he had absolutely no clue about Black folks, but he wasn’t without commonsense.

Actually Donald Trump does not lack commonsense. Donald Trump knows EXACTLY what he is doing. He lives and works in one of the world’s most diverse cities. It is filled with Black people (from all over the world), Latinos (from all over the world), powerful and accomplished women, and language speakers from everywhere. Trump is not naïve about these differences. His many financial interests require him to employ a diverse workforce. No, it’s not Trump who is straight outta commonsense, it’s his likely constituents. Trump knows that the people who will vote for him have deep-seated and almost virulent racism and bias toward anyone who they perceive as different from them. So, Trump took a calculated gamble that suggested that people like this would be drawn to a discourse of prejudice and racist animus. Trump and his people know that such people are “straight outta commonsense.”

Trump has been so effective with this nonsense that he has drawn the entire Republican candidate field into his orbit. He knows that “his voters” are those who are weary of a Black president and any mention that “Black Lives Matter.” They do not care that Trump rarely provides one shred of evidence for his pronouncements about Mexican immigrants as rapists and thieves. They do not care that it would be virtually impossible to build a wall across the southern border and then expect Mexico to pay for it. They do not care that Trump utters nothing but contempt for women and has been disparaging to national war hero, Senator John McCain. He knows “his voters” are “Straight Outta Commonsense” and that if Black people don’t “stay woke” we may be led by a president who wants us all to be “Straight Outta Commonsense!”