Once again the entire country is confronted with the legacy of Reconstruction.
It is too simple to chalk the tragedy that continues to unfold in New Orleans to the force of nature, or to an unfathomable God. Hurricanes, like earthquakes, tornadoes, eruptions, and tsunamis, do come, but who or what sends them is only half the story. Such disasters whatever their origin smash into worlds of our making. What they do when they make landfall, what they meet when they reach the coast, is largely up to us. In the case of New Orleans, Hurricane Katrina hit a city of intractable poverty, in which the most desperately poor are African American. It also hit a city that was largely defenseless precisely because it is black and poor. And because its once powerful white citizenry has largely vanished.
In the decade following the Civil War, the white business and political leaders of New Orleans and Louisiana begged the federal government to take the lead in sealing the city off from the waters that surrounded and all too often inundated it. These same men had just fought a war against the United States government, they liked to tell themselves, to protect states’ rights, and they could not wait for the occupying army to pack up and leave. The irony in asking for federal money, expertise, and leadership in controlling the Mississippi, and in admitting that the state of Louisiana was simply not up to the task, was probably not lost on them. But the war over state’s rights, if that’s what it was, was behind them. What they and the nation needed in 1866 was to get the cotton and sugar plantations up and running, and to safeguard their region’s largest port. To accomplish that white leaders in New Orleans and surrounding plantations needed safety from flooding and they needed certain control over their predominantly black laborers. The first required federal assistance, the second required the federal government to back off efforts to assist the former slaves.
Over the next two decades they succeeded in getting both. In 1877 the new Republican administration of Rutherford B. Hayes withdrew the army from the Southern states and abandoned the former slaves to white “redeemers,” as they were called, because they redeemed the South for the Democratic Party and for white supremacy. But in the bargain that settled the disputed election of 1876, Louisiana demanded and got a promise of federal leadership in flood control. Over the next half century, the federal government worked to protect the land and businesses of whites, who in turn used their control over the land to control black laborers. The great flood of 1927 momentarily made visible the descendants of the former slaves. But when Herbert Hoover, then secretary of commerce, visited the scene and empathized with victims-an act that helped put him into the White House the next year-he reached out to whites. Black folks were disfranchised.
The black population of New Orleans in slavery and freedom has largely been poor and powerless. Their city was protected from flooding, however, so long as white leaders had clout, which they had back when cotton and sugar mattered, and when the Solid South of white Democrats ruled Congress. Louisiana did not vote for Hoover, but that did not matter. Southern Democrats ruled Congress. Hoover needed them more than they needed him.
Civil Rights destroyed the Democratic Party in the South, as whites fled to the party of Richard Nixon and Ronald Reagan. The demise of cotton and sugar, and the end of seniority privileges in Congress, meant that white political flight in Louisiana brought little to the Republican Party. The Southern states that matter most are those filled with migrants from the North, namely, Texas and Florida. Louisiana, and within that state New Orleans most of all, is a place of poor blacks abandoned since Reconstruction to powerful plantation interests who protected them by default when protecting the plantations. But Louisiana’s whites no longer have any clout.
Civil Rights, it turns out, did little to give power to New Orleans’s black population. In the early 1990s the Clinton Administration overhauled welfare. It was part of a Democratic political strategy to ward off conservative Republicans whose campaigns played on latent fears of vicious black rapists and welfare moms, an angry politics energized by outright white supremacist populists, such as Metairie’s David Duke. At the same time Louisiana’s leaders began to express concerns about New Orleans’s vulnerability to flooding. Fears grew with the 1993 floods in the central Mississippi Valley, though the lower valley was spared that year, and following a series of devastating hurricanes that collided with the Gulf and Atlantic coasts.
The Clinton strategy failed to secure the Democrats against the Republicans. As in 1876, Louisiana in the contested election of 2000 helped to put another Republican in the White House, a man who, like Hayes, promised drastic reduction of federal intrusion into state affairs. Just as in 1876, Louisiana once again sought an exception to the states’ rights philosophy it otherwise espoused: massive federal funding for flood control. What changed between then and now was what Louisiana politicians could not see clearly. They no longer mattered. In 1876 Louisiana was a player, one of the states (along with Florida and South Carolina) that delayed the election of Hayes. New Orleans, in addition to federally administered flood control, held out for a transcontinental railroad, which it eventually got.
Louisiana did not put George W. Bush in the White House, nor did it later hand his party control of Congress. Florida did. Texas did. When Louisiana’s leaders asked George W. Bush for funds to shore up New Orleans’s defenses against the waters that surround the city, the president turned them down. There was nothing they could do. They had, after all, signed on to a political philosophy and Republican agenda of tax cuts and minimal federal intervention in state affairs. They had agreed with the Republican and Democratic Parties when they cried out against the special privileges of affirmative action, welfare, and aid to families with dependent children. They agreed, too, with a Republican Party that measures worth in terms of market value. No corporation came forward with a plan to build better levees around New Orleans, and by the logic of the Bush administration, therefore they couldn’t be worth building.
New Orleans and Louisiana might have gone a different route over a century ago. White leaders might have linked the future prosperity of their city and state to the prosperity of the former slaves. Had they done so then, black and white might stand today united, as a real political force to be reckoned with. Together, they might have demanded and received the protection they so desperately needed. Over much of the last century, whites in New Orleans gambled that they could build a society of white privilege and black disfranchisement, and do so with the help of the rest of the nation. Tragically, that is exactly what happened. But they did not see the day when black powerlessness would drag them down too. Sure, the white folks of St. Charles Avenue were able to drive their BMWs out of the city as Katrina approached. We will hear a lot over the coming weeks about how whites survived the storm just fine, while blacks lost everything. But that isn’t quite true. More whites than blacks will have homes to return to. But their city will be gone, unlikely to return. As major industries announce divestment and departure-petroleum companies have begun to say they will not return to New Orleans-affluent whites will lose too.
We will also hear a lot about the natural environment of New Orleans, how it is to blame for the disaster, and people to the extent that they live there. A good case can be made that New Orleans ought never to have been built, or rebuilt after the fires, floods, and hurricanes that have devastated it in the past. The environment around New Orleans is probably no more unsuitable for urban development than south Florida. Speaker of the House Dennis Hastert questioned the wisdom and worth of rebuilding New Orleans. No doubt many around the nation share his sentiments. It is hard to imagine he or anyone else would make similar remarks about San Francisco or Los Angeles, were they devastated by earthquake and fire.
New Orleans wasn’t built just on a swamp. It was built, too, on the backs of black laborers. White supremacy helped make New Orleans an important place. In recent decades it has become a curiosity of little real import. If the city never recovers, it w
on’t be just because of the natural environment. It will be because long ago the whites of New Orleans, and whites in Washington and around the nation, made a bargain with the devil of white supremacy, and now they, we, will have now lost it all.