Racial Tensions Linger In Post-Katrina New Orleans

Former mayor Ray Nagin once famously promised that New Orleans would remain “a chocolate city” - majority African American - after it recovered from Hurricane Katrina. But the storm brought several changes to the city’s demographics, including an increase in the number of Latinos. That’s caused some tension between that group and African Americans who believe they’ve been displaced in several New Orleans neighborhoods. Gerod Stevens, Program Director of local radio station WBOK and Saket Soni, Executive Director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice, discuss the growing racial tensions in the Big Easy.

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ALLISON KEYES, Host:

This is TELL ME MORE from NPR News. I'm Allison Keyes.

We continue TELL ME MORE's look at New Orleans and the Gulf Coast today as we move closer to the five-year anniversary of Hurricane Katrina's landfall. We're checking in on the dynamics between black and brown people especially - African-Americans and Latinos.

Later, we'll tell you about the passing of a civil rights icon, Mario Obledo, who once ran Jesse Jackson's National Rainbow Coalition and the League of United Latin American Citizens.

But, first, the Greater New Orleans Community Data Center says Katrina resulted in more than 1,400 deaths and the displacement of over a million Gulf Coast residents. The damage was almost incomprehensible and is still visible in many areas.

With so much construction and reconstruction work needed, a great many Latino immigrants have been flooding into the city for the work, and that's led to a significant shift in demographics. To talk about it, we're joined by Gerod Stevens, program director of the local radio station WBOK, and Saket Soni, executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. They both speak with us from New Orleans. Welcome to the show.

M: Hello, how are you?

M: Hello, thank you for having us.

KEYES: Saket, let me start with you. What is the economic relationship between local blacks and the Latinos that have moved to the city?

M: Well, I would say that economically speaking, they are part of one community. I think it's very important to remember that five years ago, when Katrina made landfall and the levees were breached, hundreds of thousands of African-American workers and their families lost their jobs and their livelihoods and they were excluded from return. They were displaced and effectively locked out of jobs in the reconstruction.

Meanwhile, immigrant workers were brought in - included, but exploited. While one community was excluded and locked out, another community was exploited. And because of public policy and because of, you know, very divisive public policy and corporate practice in the last five years, there has been a sense of competition among these communities. These communities have found themselves pitted in some ways against each other.

On the ground, however, as far as everyday economics of real life goes, I believe that they are part of one community and that a closer look reveals a lot less competition and a lot more cooperation than one would think.

KEYES: Gerod, your radio program takes calls mostly from African-Americans. What have they been saying about the influx of Latinos into the city?

M: I can agree wholeheartedly with his previous statements, but I do think that there has been some discontent with the African-American population more so because of the fact that they were here before. And one thing that has been discussed is that the Latino population that has come into the city did some jobs that not necessarily African-Americans or any other race wanted to do in the rebuilding process. So, a big thank you went out to the Latino population in helping with the rebuilding of this city.

I do think that what has been brought up and probably talked about more so is the number of jobs, the number of millions of dollars that have come into the city for the rebuilding population - rebuilding the population. And African-Americans have been left out of the process.

And who has been exploited is the Latino population because they've come in - being brought in by a lot of, I would say, huge contractors that get these big federal contracts, bring in a Latino population that may be working for less, just so they would have some income and also could be in the United States, and then after they do the work, maybe even exploited to the position of being called by Immigration to deport them so they don't have to get paid.

KEYES: Let me break in here because I wonder if - I read that a lot of Latinos actually came to New Orleans right after the storm. People drove down there. People slept under bridges to get these jobs. So, what would you say, Gerod, to the question of: Are black people not just complaining? I mean if they wanted these jobs, should they not be working harder to get them? And should they not be complaining now that they've been taken over by people that came to take them?

M: Well, I think that when a man, woman, whoever, does a day's work, they deserve a decent pay and not have to go through the rigmarole of trying to see who's going to do it for less. And that's where there ended up being competition between the African-American population and the Latino population.

It's funny that if the African-American population and the Latino population combined forces and became one, it would be much greater as a force than the two races fighting amongst each other to see who's going to get a job.

KEYES: Since both of you think that, Saket, I wonder, why do you think there seems to be such tension between these two communities? And it's not just in New Orleans.

M: Well, I really agree with what Gerod said. And I think that the tension and the competition are really an outgrowth of the public policies and corporate practices that have created the world as it is. To give you an example, you know, as a point of fact, many, many African-American residents and their families came home very heroically, even when the Bush administration didn't allow them to. They came home often in the middle of the night, often sneaking past National Guardsmen and often crawling through fences to get home.

They wanted nothing more than to rebuild their homes and rebuild their lives and livelihoods. But, you know, let's remember that days after Katrina, the federal government suspended the Davis-Bacon Act by executive order, meaning that they threw out prevailing wage in many industries, allowing the wages to plummet. And...

KEYES: Meaning, just so we're clear, people didn't have to be paid at the federal minimum wage.

M: That's right. That's right. As a result of the suspension of a law called Davis-Bacon, workers no longer had to be paid the federal minimum wage in construction. And that allowed wages to fall through the bottom. And then also, you know, the White House suspended affirmative action in contracting by executive order, meaning that hundreds and hundreds of African-American contractors, you know, didn't get the contracts that they deserved to rebuild locally.

It was in this context, as wages started falling through the floor and as, you know, locks and chains were put on the doors of public housing and the doors of contracts, while African-American families were locked out, immigrants were then recruited. Many of our members arrived to New Orleans and the Gulf Coast areas to work way below the minimum wage, face severe labor exploitation and even found themselves in many cases in labor camps.

So, you know, when you talk about the men and women who came down while the federal government did nothing, the brave men and women who came down in cars to live under bridges and rebuild the city, you know, those people were not treated, you know, with dignity and as human beings. They were considered disposable workers.

And Gerod is right. When they finished their work and demanded to be paid, employers would call Immigration and deport them.

KEYES: I've got to jump in here because I need to make another couple of points. Gerod, you just did a live radio broadcast yesterday in the Lower Ninth Ward and I was there a couple of weeks ago and a lot of people I spoke to in that neighborhood think that this has all been deliberately done by the government to keep people of color from being able to work and come back.

M: There are so many issues in the Lower Ninth Ward. It's appalling. And even if you live in the city of New Orleans, if you don't go to the Lower Ninth Ward, you sometimes forget that the Lower Ninth Ward was the poster child for the flooding of New Orleans, why the millions of dollars poured in here in the first place.

It was the photos and the video that we saw of the helicopters lifting people off of rooftops. That was the Lower Ninth Ward. On the other side of the Industrial Canal where the breach happened is the Lower Ninth Ward. So you would automatically think that the millions of dollars that poured in here from the federal government, from the state government, from the charities, from the people that did donations, that would be where the money would be more significant than any other part of the city, but that is not true.

I did a Lower Ninth Ward broadcast yesterday morning and honestly I sat there and listened to the people, but I looked in their eyes to hear the pain, the suffering of trying to put together their structures, trying to put together their homes still and it's been five years. And if you ride through the Lower Ninth Ward, which was one big significant issue, one man walked up to the microphone yesterday and said, you know, it's not that no one here knows. I got people that come from all across the country to do documentaries.

We got people that come all across the country to do news reports. People even ride tour buses through our neighborhoods making a dollar bill on us, and we still don't have our homes together.

KEYES: Saket, let me ask you to give me a final thought because we're running against the clock, sorry, but do you think this is a solvable problem between the blacks and Latinos, and I mean really short answer.

M: I think that if poor and low-income African-Americans and poor and low-income Latinos and other immigrants unite around common ground and fight for economic justice, for fair housing, for inclusion and equity, then, yes, I think that we can fix this and other problems and change the structure in which we live so that we can all have more prosperity.

KEYES: Saket Soni is the executive director of the New Orleans Workers' Center for Racial Justice. Gerod Stevens is the program director of the local radio station WBOK. They joined us from New Orleans. Thank you, gentlemen, for your thoughts.

M: Thank you, Allison.

M: Thank you.

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