October 19, 2005
The Struggle for Competing Values in New Orleans
-- If you thought the destruction caused by Hurricane Katrina
was ugly, then you should take a look at what's happening now.
It's not pretty.
Jesse Jackson and New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin are up in arms because
what has historically been a mostly black city may be on its way
to becoming a largely brown city. Latino immigrants are coming
to New Orleans from as far away as California to repair homes,
clear debris, rebuild roads and do other jobs. According to a
story in the Los Angeles Times, they're making about
$15 per hour, and they've been so warmly received by contractors
that many of them say they plan to stay, save money, buy homes,
and put down roots in the Big Easy.
New Orleans was only about 3 percent Latino. Now, demographers
say the city's Latino population could swell to four or five times
as a bolt of bad news for black leaders nostalgic for a city and
a culture that for all practical purposes no longer exists. Ironically,
a lot of what's being said by these folks resembles what white
nativists say in the immigration debate.
reporters that his new worry is how he is going to ``ensure that
New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers.''
is, many of the city's former residents (especially many of its
black residents) say that they have no desire to go back.
living conditions in New Orleans are still farfrom ideal. One
reason: the trash. State officials say that 22 million tons ofgarbage
are littering the streets, including rotten food. The city has
taken on what residents say is the appearance and smell of a landfill.
In a new
USA Today/CNN/Gallup Poll of evacuees contacted with the help
of the Red Cross, half said they haven't returned home and 39
percent said they had no plans to do so. According to the poll,
blacks are twice as likely as whites to feel that way. Among the
least likely to return -- young people under 30, the very group
that might normally do a lot of the physical labor jobs now being
done by immigrants.
loss of an estimated 50,000 households, Nagin has complained that
New Orleans might never regain its former size. And he's probably
So why is
he looking a gift horse in the mouth? Here Nagin is having trouble
getting people to move to New Orleans, and there's one group that's
already doing it. They're ready to work hard, pay taxes, and build
a newNew Orleans -- or, if you prefer, a Nuevo Orleans.
What's wrong with that? Not a thing. What's wrong is the way that
some folks are reacting to the change.
as such as Jackson, who has also complained that too many of the
government contracts to rebuild the city are going to firms outside
Louisiana. Jackson has gone so far as to propose chartering buses
to bring black evacuees back to the New Orleans so they could
claim jobs that Jackson insists are rightfully theirs.
the buses. After Katrina hit, the professional grievance-broker
chartered buses to rescue college students in New Orleans who
were stranded in dormitories. The first buslift was a humanitarian
gesture, but this latest attempt to repopulate the city with black
people so it doesn't get taken over by brown people seems motivated
by nothing more than racial politics.
this is really about. First, black leaders are fighting to remain
relevant in New Orleans, and they know that they have a better
chance of that happening if they can keep the city mostly black.
And second, there's a struggle of competing values.
say that one thing that keeps former residents from wanting to
give New Orleans another chance is the lack of subsidized housing.
Latino immigrants have to contend with the same shortage. The
difference is that the immigrants are not sitting around and waiting
for government to come to the rescue. They're probably living
two or three families to a house, and saving money to buy a home
of their own.
it used to be in this country before the advent of the welfare
state. And, if immigrants win this tug of war, that's the way
it'll be again.
the stakes. This is a struggle between those who want to be seen
as delivering salvation and those who believe that everyone is
responsible for saving themselves.
the government's slow response to Katrina, I thought that argument
2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune