10.03.12 2:13 AM ET
Obama's Right: We Failed Black New Orleans After Katrina
It's less exciting than the debate over accents, but it's more important:
Candidate Barack Obama was quite right about what the reconstruction of New Orleans did to the city's former black population. In the same year as Barack Obama's Hampton College speech, the Journal of American History recorded:
While the Army Corps of Engineers and the employees of Jefferson and Orleans parishes drained the flooded city, the demand for laborers to clean up the soggy mess surged. Foreign-born Hispanic migrants were the first to respond to that demand, just as they have followed the construction boom throughout the New South. That is not surprising, since workers born in Mexico and Central America make up about 21 percent of the U.S. construction labor force. Although many New Orleanians were unprepared to see those unfamiliar faces and hear strange languages in their nearly empty city, the newcomer Latino migrants were the rapid-response labor force that was necessary to reconstruct New Orleans.
Nevertheless, the migrants received a mixed reception. The federal government welcomed the labor force by suspending the Davis-Bacon Act mandating that federal contractors pay prevailing wages and by waiving sanctions against employers who hired undocumented workers, thereby letting market forces reign. New Orleanians able to return home were pleased to find workers to clean out their moldy belongings, gut houses and other buildings, repair and replace roofs, and paint over the cryptic markings left on their doors by search-and-rescue crews. Displaced New Orleanians in the newly formed diaspora, many of them former renters, resented the speedy arrival of Hispanic workers while they waited to find out when they could return home or receive assistance or whether the city would devise a plan for rebuilding the most devastated neighborhoods. Such New Orleanians, many of them working-class blacks, understood that they would not be part of New Orleans’s reconstruction labor force, at least not unless they accepted the conditions—dangerous work without adequate protection, lack of housing, low wages—that migrants tolerated. New Orleans’s history with race and class shaped the experience of the flood and evacuation. Low-income black neighborhoods in low-lying areas suffered a disproportionate share of the floodwater, while wealthier, whiter neighborhoods on higher land stayed dry. Those disadvantages accumulated more rapidly for those who were already disadvantaged—mostly low-income blacks—creating more obstacles to their return.
In the span of a year, New Orleans' former black majority dropped by 20 percentage points, while the "other" population doubled.
Is it really so outrageous that a black presidential candidate would want to talk about the displacement of black Americans in this way? Maybe a better question is: why isn't the condition of black America an important topic for all presidential candidates of all backgrounds and all races?