Allegations of Racism, Classism Rattle New Orleans Community

Officials in the St. Bernard Parish of New Orleans violated the Fair Housing Act by blocking the construction of mixed-income apartment buildings, a federal judge has ruled. Guest host Jennifer Ludden talks with Jarvis DeBerry, an editorial writer with the Times-Picayune, for an update.

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JENNIFER LUDDEN, host:

I'm Jennifer Ludden, and this is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. Michel Martin is away this week.

Coming up, according to the American Heart Association, get ready to yank out that sweet tooth. The group says high sugar intake could endanger your health. We're talking obesity, high blood pressure, the list goes on. We'll hear from some of TELL ME MORE's Facebook friends about how hard it is to let sugar go.

But first, a federal judge ruled last week that officials in St. Bernard Parish, southeast of New Orleans, violated the Federal Fair Housing Act by blocking a developer's attempt to begin construction of four mixed-income apartment buildings.

Last night, in the first meeting since the ruling, the parish's planning commission continued to oppose the builder's bid. Supporters of the bid claim race is what's motivating opposition, the commission insists otherwise.

Joining us to talk about the case is New Orleans Times Picayune columnist Jarvis DeBerry. Welcome to you.

Mr. JARVIS DeBERRY (Columnist, New Orleans Times Picayune): Hi, thanks for having me.

LUDDEN: The federal judge in this case, Ginger Berrigan, has issued a pretty harshly worded ruling. She said that the parish efforts to block this developer, quote, "is and was racially discriminatory." It's pretty strong stuff for a federal judge.

Mr. DeBERRY: Yes, it is. There have been previous rulings I've read where a judge will take the position that such a policy has a discriminatory effect. Here, Berrigan is very clear that there is a discriminatory intent, as well as an effect.

LUDDEN: Well, can you give me a sense of the history? In St. Bernard Parish, you know, were there African-Americans that lived there before Katrina? Were apartment buildings knocked down, or is this some new effort to change the parish?

Mr. DeBERRY: A little bit of both. About 88 or 89 percent of the population of St. Bernard Parish before Hurricane Katrina was white, and about seven to eight percent of people were black there. You can read the judge's ruling and see that about 97 percent of the rental units in St. Bernard Parish were damaged.

Since the storm, St. Bernard Parish has seemed to want to reinvent themselves in a way that doesn't include people who rent their homes.

LUDDEN: Last night at the first planning commission meeting since this ruling, the chairman, Earl Dauterive, said look, you know, you can camouflage this as racism, but it's not. He said there are many reasons why it didn't pass. Officials have said that there are health and safety concerns. They've cited concerns about social and economic instability. What is their argument for…?

Mr. DeBERRY: Well, I found Mr. Dauterive's remarks interesting because the judge is accusing the parish of camouflaging racial remarks, not vice versa. I just thought that was a very interesting response that he's now accusing others of camouflaging racial motives.

What the judge has said is that concerns about people not being like us or different values or blight and crime and loud music and the like are - they have been considered by other federal courts to be camouflaged racial expressions and that she is saying that this is exactly what St. Bernard Parish officials are doing now.

And the ruling is infuriating, I mean, not the ruling itself but the facts behind the ruling, where you see that the planning commission staff says oh, this is fine, there's no problem with your application, and then there's a meeting, and developers are blindsided by complaints of, you know, I don't want people blasting loud music or gangbanging people, and Mr. Dauterive, we actually had a conversation earlier this week when he was trying to defend a conversation that was held about the Black Panthers at a planning commission.

LUDDEN: Someone brought them up, as in that could happen again.

Mr. DeBERRY: Yes, yes, as the Black Panthers were known to have been a presence at a housing development in New Orleans in the 1970s. Ergo, we need to prevent apartments from being built in St. Bernard Parish in 2009.

LUDDEN: You know, we should say you are a columnist, and one of your columns is titled "Thinly Veiled Racism Blocks Fair Housing." You have a clear position on this. I was looking at the comments in an article in today's Times Picayune, and one of them says look, this is not racism, it's about people who sit outside all day drinking liquor in chairs, throwing trash everywhere, letting their children run wild. And I'm African-American and I don't want that in my own neighborhood. I mean doesn't the area have a right to kind of decide what kind of development they want?

Mr. JARVIS DEBERRY (Columnist, The Times-Picayune): I'm not opposed to anybody who wanted - who wants, excuse me - a nice life or wants to live in a nice area. I just don't think that a high income should be the threshold you have to clear before you can have such nice and decent housing.

I think it's deplorable, these attempts and consistent attempts to segregate the poor off to the side and out of sight, and I think that's part of the problem. You know, you have segregated ghettos, essentially, and no one wants to take the position that it is better to have mixed income units...

LUDDEN: Okay, we just...

Mr. DEBERRY: ...or it's better to have places...

LUDDEN: We just have one minute left.

Mr. DEBERRY: ...that's not segregated. Yes.

LUDDEN: Can I ask you, looking ahead - we've now got the parish continuing to block what the judge has said is a violation of the Fair Housing Act. What happens next?

Mr. DEBERRY: I don't know. I mean that's a good question. I'm guessing that the judge is not amused this morning. This is the second time - her ruling last week said this is the second time that the St. Bernard Parish, or one of its commissions, has violated the consent order that was agreed to in February 2008. So this repeated defiance is clearly not going to amuse her. How far St. Bernard Parish wants to take this or at what cost, I'm not sure, but it's very frustrating to see that they continue to do this.

LUDDEN: We'll keep checking in.

Jarvis DeBerry, columnist for The New Orleans Times-Picayune, he joined us from New Orleans. Thanks so much.

Mr. DEBERRY: Thank you.

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