October 19, 2005
The Struggle for Competing Values in New Orleans

By Ruben Navarrette Jr.

SAN DIEGO -- 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.

The Rev. 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.

Before Katrina, New Orleans was only about 3 percent Latino. Now, demographers say the city's Latino population could swell to four or five times that amount.

That comes 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.

Nagin told reporters that his new worry is how he is going to ``ensure that New Orleans is not overrun by Mexican workers.''

The thing is, many of the city's former residents (especially many of its black residents) say that they have no desire to go back.

That's because 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.

With the loss of an estimated 50,000 households, Nagin has complained that New Orleans might never regain its former size. And he's probably right.

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.

Folks such 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.

Again with 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.

Here's what 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.

City officials say that one thing that keeps former residents from wanting to give New Orleans another chance is the lack of subsidized housing.

Guess what? 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.

That's how 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.

Let's understand 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.

Funny. Given the government's slow response to Katrina, I thought that argument was settled.

© 2005, The San Diego Union-Tribune

Ruben Navarrette Jr.

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