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More Than Black And White

This column was written by LaNitra Walker.

When Hurricane Katrina bombarded the Gulf Coast last week, she blew open a Pandora's box of race and class issues that Americans thought they had packed away. In the wake of a destruction of the hurricane, we simply weren't prepared to see how poor Americans in the South really are, and how many of the poorest are black. The media focused on the tired and desperate victims in the Superdome and the New Orleans Convention Center pleading for aid in the hours after the storm, and television audiences could see that they were almost all black. Journalists were too busy covering the dramatic rescue efforts to ask why only black Americans had become victims of the storm. Instead, the media focused on how federal and local officials were handling the disaster. Then, after much footage of Army helicopters shown plucking entire black families off of rooftops, the questions turned to whether or not the victims' race played a role in the slow relief response.

In New Orleans and most of the South, race relations are inextricably bound to a caste system that most Americans have spent little time trying to understand. The amount of poverty in New Orleans is astounding, and black residents of New Orleans bear the greatest burden. According to the 2004 American Community Survey, the median family income in New Orleans is estimated to be just two-thirds of the national average. An estimated 80 percent of those living below the poverty line are black.

But not all black people in New Orleans are poor. The city has a substantial population of middle-class blacks and Creoles, as well as people of mixed-race background. Because of its geographic proximity to the Caribbean islands and its history as an outpost in the French and Spanish empires, New Orleans has become as rich and culturally mixed as its famous gumbos and jambalayas. In the years following the Haitian revolution, which raged from 1791 to 1804, black slaves and French slave owners sought refuge in New Orleans, bringing new ideas about race and class to our budding nation. In addition to these refugees, thousands of free blacks, known as "free people of color," lived in New Orleans in the 19th century. Many of these blacks were educated and owned property, and some even owned slaves. The mixture of landowners of French, Spanish, Indian, Acadian, and African descent created a middle class of Creoles who have helped to define New Orleans' culture.

Although it's still a taboo subject, sexual relationships between blacks and whites also played a role in blurring the color lines in the South, producing a series of fine gradations that still determine class status in New Orleans and other southern cities. The perception that the lighter your skin color, the greater your chances of achieving economic prosperity and higher social status has lasted throughout the 20th century.

Many light-skinned African Americans attempted (and succeeded) in "passing" for white in order to gain access to better jobs and educational opportunities. Others "passed" to challenge racist segregation laws. For example, Homer A. Plessy -- the plaintiff in the landmark 1896 Supreme Court case Plessy v. Ferguson, which upheld a Louisiana law sanctioning the segregation of railway carriages -- was so light-skinned that the train conductor did not know his race until after Plessy had entered the "whites only" section of the train. Plessy was a member of the Creole middle class in New Orleans and was chosen to test the segregation laws precisely because his race was not obvious. He used the ambiguity of his light skin color to prove that race should not determine class status on a train or anywhere else in society. Unfortunately, the Supreme Court did not agree, and the Court's decision to uphold the doctrine of "separate but equal" solidified the insidious covenant between race and class that persists in American society today.

In the South, poverty transcends racial lines. But Hurricane Katrina has reminded Americans that poverty is an unforgiving reality for a disproportionate number of blacks. The dual southern legacies of slavery and segregation mean that you can't really talk about class without talking about race. Many of the interviewed hurricane victims, black and white, denied that their suffering was solely a result of their race but rather a result of their class. As the hurricane approached the coast, wealthy blacks were able to flee New Orleans just as wealthy whites did. Those who were left to fight the floodwaters stayed because they were poor. Sadly, so many of them also happened to be black.

It's hard to believe that race and class still determine who lives and dies in America. But, the worst of the horrors is still to come. As New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin has reiterated, when the waters are drained from New Orleans and its suburbs, Americans might see several times the number of casualties that resulted from the terrorist attacks on September 11. Many of the dead will be poor and black. It is unclear what will happen to New Orleans' displaced residents, but it is clear that New Orleans' social landscape will be dramatically different.

After the last victim is rescued and the rebuilding process begins, we should not forget the horrific images of thousands of people fleeing the rising floodwaters, nor should we forget the abject poverty that many of them left behind. New Orleans' history is an intrinsic part of American history, but it is also a reflection of the racism and classism in America that Katrina's fury has made it impossible to deny.

By LaNitra Walker
Reprinted with permission from The American Prospect, 5 Broad Street, Boston, MA 02109. All rights reserved

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