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Do You Know What It Means to Be Poor and Black in New Orleans?

As sprung as I am about New Orleans and all that the city has given me, I can’t deny that it’s a terrible place to be poor. Oddly enough, for some newscasters, encountering this truth was like discovering an amazing secret. The projects in New Orleans are arguably worse than the Nickerson Gardens and Jordan Downs of Los Angeles, and that’s saying something. The joy of eating an oyster po’ boy doesn’t change the reality that the city has one of the highest homicide and infant-mortality rates in the nation. Seeing bare-naked ladies shaking it all in the French Quarter for Mardi Gras beads doesn’t salve over the pain of a world-class failure of a school district. Hearing Doctor John in New Orleans is divine, but it doesn’t make a city awash in guns any safer. Orleans is a tough town. If you make it there — pull yourself up by your bootstraps and out of the projects — you can make it anywhere. Folks do it, but it’s damn hard. The worst scourge of inner-city life isn’t drugs, gangs or poverty. It’s the fact that if you’re a young man, the odds are good that you will get shot. If you live in a hot incubator of rage, like New Orleans at its worst, you must live an extremely cautious life. If you want to wash cars, sell ice cream from a cart, deliver pizzas, sell crack or insurance, you must have eyes in the back of your head. It’s the logic of “shoot first” because “I’d rather be judged by 12 than carried by six.”This is what we expect in poor neighborhoods in the United States — and New Orleans is the United States, though we sometimes want to pretend otherwise. It’s not easy to accept that in the richest country in the world we have poverty that too easily compares with conditions in Jamaica or the Dominican Republic. It’s poverty with a dark face, a black face. It’s poverty that makes it easy for me to imagine the post-hurricane Superdome as some kind of vicious experiment by an ambitious social Darwinist: Put all the elements of race and class conflicts under one roof, add extreme pressure and see the results. Tens of thousands of black people experience cruel deprivation while the heartless and ruthless few terrorize the many. Everyone waits for deliverance that never comes. Anticipating bad times ahead, my parents, like many people, left New Orleans for greener pastures long ago. Back then, they wanted to get ahead of the hurricane of social unrest that was about to unload on New Orleans. (With impeccable timing, however, my family ended up in south Los Angeles two years before the Watts riots.) New Orleans didn’t just experience white flight, but Creole flight, black middle-class flight. Some Tervalons made their way to Philly; some disappeared into the great white way and were never heard from again. We abandoned the old country because, like most old countries, it didn’t work in the modern world anymore. And something scared my parents. On one hand, maybe it was the image of a black militant, or a tan Huey Newton, talking about the coming revolution, and on the other hand, all the bloodthirsty white cops who wanted to kill and beat ungrateful Negroes. My parents didn’t want to be caught between that hammer and anvil, so they got the hell out. But we, their sons and daughters, came back to visit the old country, along with our distant relations, and we fell in love with the place in spite of the poverty, the blight and the danger. I have never visited the Desiree Projects — my aunt suggested it wouldn’t be a good idea to get too close to it even on the highway. She told the story of how one of her former husbands, fresh out of Angola Prison, took her there to visit his brother, and how, because of her light skin, everyone knew she was an outsider. Suddenly, she and her husband were besieged by a crowd until her brother-in-law arrived in a car and rushed them to safety. The moral of this cautionary tale: Leave these people alone. That’s what we do as a country. We practice quarantine and pretend that there isn’t Dickensian bleakness right around the corner of this shining city on the hill — this French Quarter on higher ground. Sure, assholes loot big-screen televisions in a city without power or transportation, on streets neck-deep in fetid water; people probably stole silverware on a sinking Titanic. So what? Let the poor receive the treatment that the rest of us hope to get if disaster strikes — the expectation of public order, of services that aren’t laughable, and maybe relocation to a place with a functioning public school system. If kids somehow find themselves in Salt Lake City, where they don’t have to worry about getting shot on the way home from school, I’m happy for them. I hope they yearn for the Big Easy, and when they return, they’ll be educated and ready for the fight to make New Orleans a progressive, inclusive city, a city without dark secrets, not so well concealed.


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