Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Ten Years After Katrina: On Whether to Rebuild New Orleans

NOTE: I originally posted this article on Orson Scott Card's political website,The Ornery American on September 17, 2005, very soon after the federally-built levees "protecting" metro New Orleans failed in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, causing eighty percent of the city to go under water. What happened with Katrina was not due to the storm itself. Had the levees been built to withstand anything near to their supposed specifications, the city would not have flooded. When I wrote this, my wife and I had more than a dozen friends and relatives staying with us in our home in Katy, Texas. We knew that our entire area of the city (Gentilly Woods and New Orleans East) had been devastated, but the specifics of the damage were still uncertain to us. We had only recently located some of the friends and family who had gone missing in the wake of the storm. And when we turned on the television, or read the news online, what we saw, in part, was a debate about whether or not our city should be rebuilt following this latest disaster. This essay was written in response to all of that.

This is an open letter to America.

I am a native of New Orleans, born, raised, and educated all the way through law school. Most of my family is from there or from the surrounding parishes, specifically the ones that have been even harder hit by Katrina. We've been there since the 1760s. My wife's family is from there. Three of my children were born there.

I know the city, in all its glory and splendor, and all of its apathy and squalor. I attended numerous public schools there, from the very best (Franklin and McMain) to some of the worst (Gregory Jr. High, Kennedy High). I love that place like no other, yet hate the way it has so often been neglected and mistreated by its own residents. Like many young professionals, I left New Orleans to find better pay, better schools, better housing, lower crime. I left the city to its problems.

I say all of this in preface, so that you will know that I have some basis for my opinions. At the same time, I know the hard truths of my city. I do not deny the crime, the corruption, or the poverty. For many of my New Orleans brethren, the first response to any criticism of the city is anger, followed by denial. So many of us resist the cold light of the truth when it comes to our city and her failings. That is not in my nature, nor is it my purpose in writing this.

America, the response of the private citizenry to this disaster has been amazing, truly wondrous to behold. Everywhere I turn, I see another company sending a truckload of food, another individual clearing out their closets of un-needed items, so that those who have lost everything can at least put some clothes on their back. People are offering up their homes to complete strangers, going to shelters to cook for them, care for them. The governments of many cities and states have been similarly impressive in their generosity, particularly Texas, where displaced students are being allowed to enroll in school with no questions asked, and displaced workers are being given Texas unemployment benefits. Seeing this generosity in action is enormously uplifting. This is America at its finest.

Sadly, that is not the complete story of America's reaction to Katrina's aftermath. More and more Americans are calling for my city to be abandoned. This poll shows a majority in favor of never rebuilding the most-affected areas of the city. The Speaker of the House, Dennis Hastert, said much the same thing here. Across America, there is a growing chorus of people, from pundits to pols to regular folks, who believe we should abandon New Orleans, or at least the part that is below sea level (read: 80% of the entire metro area). Some, like Slate's Jack
talk in terms of whether it is worth it to rebuild my city, not just because of the logistical challenges, but because of what the city is. This is fast becoming not just a question of engineering, but a question of whether we deserve to exist there in the first place.

As Mr. Shafer wrote:
"New Orleans' public schools, which are 93 percent black, have failed their citizens. The state of Louisiana rates 47 percent of New Orleans schools as "Academically Unacceptable" and another 26 percent are under "Academic Warning." About 25 percent of adults have no high-school diploma.

The police inspire so little trust that witnesses often refuse to testify in court. University researchers enlisted the police in an experiment last year, having them fire 700 blank gun rounds in a New Orleans neighborhood one afternoon. Nobody picked up the phone to report the shootings. Little wonder the city's homicide rate stands at 10 times the national average.

The destruction wrought by Katrina may turn out to be "creative destruction," to crib from Joseph Schumpeter, for many of New Orleans' displaced and dispossessed. Unless the government works mightily to reverse migration, a positive side-effect of the uprooting of thousands of lives will to be to deconcentrate one of the worst pockets of ghetto poverty in the United States.

America, all of these statements about New Orleans are true. No one can deny it. I cannot condemn those of you who state these facts. I do not hate or despise you for deciding that it simply isn't worth it to rebuild my city. But I must ask you to consider this: why is it that a city that is so beloved by the World, for our culture, our food, our music, our joie de vivre, is so easy to abandon once you've had to look at how things really are?

So many of you have visited before. Enjoyed a fine meal at Commander's Palace or Antoine's, perhaps. Maybe gone to Jazz Fest or Mardi Gras. Marveled at how a single place can at the same time be so European, so Caribbean, and so American. You've taken the good, skimmed the cream. Benefited from our largesse of spirit in inviting you there time and again. But I'm willing to bet you never had to look beyond the surface details that we emphasize for you outsiders. Never wondered why the hotels and restaurants can be so cheap compared to other tourist destinations (hint: because nobody doing the grunt work in NOLA's hospitality business makes any money at it). Never thought about why so many people are willing to shuffle for your amusement, doing little dances, playing instruments in the street.

We are your Jamaica, your Cozumel, your Bermuda, right here in the U S of A. We are every tourist's playground, where you go to forget your cares. We are where you go when you need things to be easy for a while. We feed you, amuse you, love you, give you the comfort of a warm bed at night and strong coffee in the morning.

Well, now things aren't easy. Things aren't pleasant. There's no shucking and jiving now, because the shuckers and jivers are dead or dying, or displaced. We can't give you the illusion and the pretty show you want now. All we can show you is our need, our desperation. We have been laid waste, torn asunder. And how do more and more of you respond to this? Evacuate the residents, sure. Give them some water and an MRE. Let them have food stamps.

But abandon their homes. Let the city lie fallow. Turn the shotgun shacks into nothing more than another series of raised crypts. Don't waste the time, the money, or the effort in reclaiming what was theirs. They shouldn't have been there in the first place. No sane person would have built a city there. They're corrupt. The schools are disastrous. Crime is high. WHO NEEDS THEM ANYWAY?

You do.

You always have.

You've needed us when escape from your mundane world was the only thing that would keep you sane and healthy. When you needed to be transported to some otherworldly place where time is slow, meals are savored, music is breath, is life. We have been your spiritual succor for so long, longer than most of the country has existed.

Without us, there is no America. The Mississippi river made this country great, opened up access to vast stretches of the interior, allowed America to grow, and to prosper. We are the Mississippi. Everything that enters the river from abroad, or leaves it for the international waters beyond, passes through our port, or the ports of our sister communities downriver. Our music, jazz and blues, is the very cornerstone of all that is original in American music. Our cuisine has fed your presidents, your senators, your captains of industry. We are the salt that has given this country flavor. We are the mistress that America cannot admit out loud that it loves.

You need us. To be America, the real America, you need us. To have the culture that you have, we have to have been there from the start.

But now, now that things are hard, you tell yourself it wasn't worth it. It was a fool's venture. A crazed dream in the middle of a godforsaken swamp. You want to return to your gray flannel life, your insurance tables, your accountant's rationality. You want to be calm, and measured, and dispassionate. Let the engineers and the bureaucrats take over. Sadly, but predictably, in doing so you want to leave our city to rot. We are not of your world, do not share your way of doing things.

The very thing you have always loved, our separateness, is now the thing which leads you to cast us aside.

Did San Francisco deserve to be rebuilt after the Great Earthquake of 1908? Did Chicago deserve rebuilding after the Great Chicago Fire? Did Iowa deserve assistance after the 1993 floods, even though they always knew they were on a 500 year flood plain? Was Atlanta worth saving after Sherman's march? As great as their contributions may be, none of these places has given you what we have given you. None of them were forsaken in their hour of need.

We have loved you from the start. And now many of you want to leave our city to die in a flood that you swear was our own fault. This is the hour of our despair. The time of our greatest need. Where you have reached out to comfort and support those who have been devastated by Katriana, this has been the hour of your greatest heroism. But in those instances where you call out for the city to be left beneath the muck, because it just isn't practical to be there, it doesn't make sense, it isn't worth it, in those instances what should be your moment of greatest nobility becomes instead the time of your greatest shame.

America, you have every right to feel as you do, to say what you have said. But we are listening. We who carry the legacy of our dead and dying city are watching. We have lost or home, but not our memory. We will remember, not just our homeland and the people and places we have lost, but your words, and your deeds. The generosity that has been shown to my city is a great credit to the nation. But the calls to abandon her are anything but.

Copyright © 2005 by Wayne Jones Reprint copyright 2015 by Wayne Allen Jones

Friday, June 19, 2015

Keep Hope Alive! How?

I have no power to change the course of events that have already transpired. I have no means to take away the pain and emotional turmoil that so many people are experiencing right now. What I do have, in my own small way, is some facility with words. The process of writing is how I bring order to the world around me (subjectively, of course), and it is my hope that what I say below might prove helpful in some way to those affected by this recent tragedy.

“You rape our women and you're taking over our country. And you have to go.” --The Terrorist (who shall go un-named by me)

The terrorist hate crime that was committed Wednesday night against a group of black churchgoers in Charleston, South Carolina was many things: horrific, unforgivable, heinous, repulsive, and heart-breaking. No, that last one is too weak, too small. Not heart-breaking…heart-rending. There are many things it was not: new, random, unimaginable, or senseless.

This terrorist attack against a black congregation was anything but new. If you have even the most basic understanding of American history in general, much less the history of the American South in particular, you know that crimes like this have happened before. Indeed, they have happened at the very church that was attacked on Wednesday night: Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal church. To use the word “historic” in reference to Emanuel A.M.E. is a vast understatement. Emanuel houses the oldest black congregation south of Baltimore, MD. As one historian put it, 
“This church is much more than a place where people sing gospel. It’s tethered to the deep unconscious of the black community.” 
Congressman James Clyburn (D – SC) stated things beautifully when he said: 
“Emanuel A.M.E. Church is the rock upon which the A.M.E. Church throughout the South is built.” 

 The significance of Emanuel A.M.E., as is the case of so many things that are vastly important to the black community in the South, is written in our history books with blood and flame.

One of the founders of the church was Denmark Vessey, a former slave who was executed in 1822 after being convicted (in a secret proceeding) of planning a slave revolt in which Vesey and his followers were supposedly going to kill slaveholders in Charleston, liberate the slaves, and then sail to Haiti for refuge. Not only were Vesey and thirty-four others executed, Emanuel A.M.E. was burned to the ground. After that fire, the congregation met in secret until the end of the civil war, with the church being rebuilt at its present location using plans created by Robert Vesey, Denmark’s son.

The history cited above may seem distant, even irrelevant, to some, but it is directly related to Wednesday’s massacre. While Denmark Vesey’s original plan in 1822 was to stage the slave revolt on July 14, Bastille Day, the possibility that the plan might have been compromised prompted him to move the date up to June 17, exactly 193 years before the terror attack against Emanuel A.M.E. It seems highly unlikely that the correlation between those dates is a coincidence. 

 The white supremacist who committed the murders is known to have displayed historically-based white power symbols such as the Apartheid-era flag of South Africa and the flag of Rhodesia (as Zimbabwe was known when it was still under the control of its white minority). (NOTE: I will not dignify this terrorist or his views by writing his name or posting his image). It does not take any imagination at all to see that a white power fanatic who sports the symbols of bygone days of Caucasian control selected an historically important black church as his target and attacked it on what would have been the anniversary of a major slave revolt, and he did so specifically because of that history. There was nothing random about this attack.

Wednesday night’s racist massacre was not, in any way, unimaginable. It has strong parallels to one of the worst hate crimes of the civil rights era: The 1963 bombing of the 16th Street Baptist Church in Birmingham, Alabama. Four little girls were murdered that day in Birmingham, struck down as they were changing into their choir robes. Nine congregants were killed Wednesday night in Charleston as they conducted a prayer service. The 16th Street Baptist Church was a focal point for civil rights activists in Birmingham. Emanuel A.M.E. was similarly important to Charleston’s civil rights activists. As a nation, we have been here before. We have witnessed this suffering. We need not imagine anything, we need only to remember.

The killings at Emanuel A.M.E. were not senseless. There is a difference between an act being senseless and an act being indefensible. It is perfectly easy to make sense of what that white supremacist did: He acted on his racial hatred. He acted on the lessons he's been taught by white American culture. His crime is entirely consistent with American history, PARTICULARLY the history of the South and ESPECIALLY that of South Carolina (which is where the Civil War started). As one web commentator wrote, [The TERRORIST] Is America.

In the face of all of this, it seems especially difficult to maintain any sense of hopefulness regarding the future of race relations in this country. This year alone has seen repeated cases of unarmed black people being killed by police, of racial slurs being brazenly hurled at black children, of public school teachers pining for the days of segregation. My white brothers and sisters have been sadly predictable in their responses to Wednesday’s terror attack, calling it “extraordinary” to refer to it as a hate crime; describing the terrorist as ”a quiet, shy boy who mostly kept to himself”; leaving the Confederate Flag” at full mast in Charleston; attributing the attack to mental illness”; and saying that the terror attack cannot be blamed on structural racism, because that no longer exists. Meanwhile the terrorist has already confessed, and stated that <a href="http://www.cnn.com/2015/06/19/us/charleston-church-shooting-main/">he wanted to start a race war</a>, and my fellow Caucasians continue to express doubt that this is "about" race.We are nothing if not consistent in our blindness.

I have spent several decades as a white man living in close connection to the black community. I’ve seen things ebb and flow between the races, and inevitably been caught in the middle. This aspect of our culture has always been very immediate and present in my life, and I cannot recall any time when things were this bad. We have spent too much time as a nation avoiding any real and honest understanding of our history, and refusing to address the cancer of structural, institutional, cultural racism. We have allowed this open wound to fester, and gangrene is setting in.

So how can we “keep hope alive” when things are so fraught with anxiety and danger? Before I answer that rhetorical question, let me just say that I am no one’s idea of an optimist. I don’t just assume “it will be OK,” because that statement is demonstrably untrue. It MAY be OK. It COULD. But I never, EVER say that it WILL. And yet…I am not without hope. Things can get better, even at times when it seems least likely that they will.

I’ve seen examples of this in my own family history. My grandparents, much as I loved them, were all products of white Southern culture in the early 20th century. Which is to say, they were racists. Not to the same extent, not with the same behavior as a result, but yes, all racists. In that they were hardly unique. By all rights, my parents, who grew up in segregated New Orleans in the forties and fifties, should have followed in the footsteps of their parents. In the vast majority of cases, that’s what happens. And yet…it didn’t. Instead, my parents went in the complete opposite direction.

My father was the pastor of a very small church in rural South Carolina from 1973 to 1975. He made his deacons angry when they found out he’d been teaching an elderly black man to read. They got even angrier when my parents sent my siblings to the newly-integrated schools. They were the first white parents in the community to do so. When we moved back to New Orleans from South Carolina, my parents bought a house in an integrated neighborhood, sent us to schools with a lot of diversity and never, EVER, taught us to judge or hate anyone based on skin color (or anything else, for that matter). The difference between how my grandparents saw the world, and how my parents see it is dramatic, even startling. I remain in awe of my parents to this day because of their break from tradition. I asked my father one day how that difference came about, and he told me, quite simply, that when they sang the old church song that Jesus loves the little children, all the children of the world, he believed it. He acted on it.

My parents have many, many admirable qualities (not the least of which is having excellent taste in youngest children), but they are not super-human. They aren’t heroes, and they’ve never been activists. They are regular people who made a series of choices that radically altered how they related to people of other races. They did so in the course of mundane events, quietly, with firm convictions but far more reticence than one might expect from people who had jumped so far away from what their own parents had taught them. My family is as Southern as they come. I literally cannot find any record of an ancestor of mine living further north than South Carolina. I know for a fact that at least two of my ancestors were Confederate soldiers. We had every reason to continue to live in the same way, generation after generation, seeing the world through the lens of racism. But we didn’t, because of my parents.

I not only grew up seeing mixed-race neighborhoods and mixed-race schools as the norm, I forged most of my lasting friendships in the black community, and I married a black woman.  My grandmother did not approve of my choice, but would not honestly say why (she claimed it was my age, though I was older than anyone else in my family who had gotten married).  Years later I found out that my mother had told her that if she didn't go to my wedding she would be disowned.

Things got better, not through momentous events but through daily living. That gives me hope. If my parents could do what they did, in the South, in the fifties, sixties, and seventies, than surely others could do the same. Others have DONE the same. People can make dramatic changes, and they sometimes do. Sometimes they live up to more than our expectations. Knowing that helps me keep hope alive. And in times like these hope is the ONE thing we cannot do without.



Thursday, December 4, 2014

When Do We Stand Up to the Racist Bastards In Our Midst?

I want to be able to say that it's only a small segment of the white population that feels and acts the way Darren Wilson's supporters do. I really want to say that.

But I can't, because the REST of us haven't risen up to smack these racist bastards down. When do WE stop sitting around quietly, feeling vaguely uncomfortable because of what our fellow white people say and do, but not DOING anything about it?

If they win, if they continue to dominate the news, and the political debate, and Fox News (fuck YES I said it), it will be because WE let them. It's time for the supposed majority of "good" whites to do something. If we don't, well, WE AIN'T SHIT.

This Grand Jury in Ferguson is NOT The Last Word on Darren Wilson

This is what people don't get about a grand jury proceeding: The only evidence the grand jury sees is what the prosecutor WANTS them to see.

Darren Wilson only testified in front of that panel because the DA wanted him to. If there were witnesses favorable to Wilson's version who testified at the grand jury, that's because the DA wanted it. There's no obligation for a DA to put on a "fair" presentation in front of the grand jury. He can put on only the evidence he thinks is favorable to an indictment. There is NO "defendant's side of the story" in these proceedings.

Don't be fooled. Don't blame the jury panel. Blame the DA. This played out exactly as he wanted it to. How do I know? Because he didn't immediately call for a new grand jury panel.

I Don'T Want...

I don't want to see businesses burn. I don't want to see property destroyed.

But you know what I REALLY don't want?
I don't want young black men gunned down for not being respectful enough to white cops.
I don't want black men shopping at Wal Mart to be gunned down for handling merchandise that Wal Mart sells.
MOST of all, I don't want to see so many of my friends have to tell their sons how to behave in order not to be gunned down by police.
I don't want to have to wonder if today is going to be the day they tell me one of my friends was gunned down by police.
I don't want all this injustice, and all this fear.

So, no, I don't want to see Ferguson burn. That's important. But the other things I don't want are MORE important.

Let Me Show You Where to Stick Your Good Old Days...

This is not a "pull your pants up" moment. I see people posting stuff about how things used to be better way back when, before "these kids" started acting up, back when parents were married, etc. and so on. You know what? Bullshit.

That "back in the day" you talk about was when cops used attack dogs and firehoses on peaceful marchers; when civil rights workers were murdered with impunity, and their killers never prosecuted; when lynchings were not just common, they were public CELEBRATIONS. People took their KIDS to lynchings, they ate picnics under the trees where their victims swung.

This isn't about America needing to return to Jesus, or to a time when there was more respect for authority, or anything like that. Stop the Norman Rockwell festival of naivety why don't you? (Actually, don't blame Rockwell, that painting he did of Ruby Bridges being escorted into school was the TRUTH).

This is about a sickness that has infected the very heart of white culture for centuries, a disease that we still haven't beaten, mostly because so many of us don't SEE the disease, or when they do they don't want to fight it. And it is OUR sickness, and ours alone. WE did this, over centuries. WE built this.

You want to salute the flag? Wonderful. All hail patriotism. But make it honest patriotism. Know what you claim to love. Know who built that capitol in D.C. (slaves); who built the White House (slaves) and who cleared the forests in Alabama, Mississippi and Louisiana so that those states could be settled by white people (slaves again), and who did the work that put food on the table for the ENTIRE country for over 240 years (Yes, slaves). This country literally would not EXIST without the crime of slavery being committed.

To hell with your good old days.

White Privilege 101

Want proof of white privilege? The only times I've EVER had a cop act rudely and aggressively with me was when I was out and about with black friends. When it's just me, they're all about some yes sir and have a nice day. But let a white dude hang out in public with a brother, Johnny Law could well start some ish. Add a white girl to that mix and it's ON.