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tearing the rag off the bush again
New Orleans: Black and White, with Brown Water All Over PDF E-mail

The summer before Katrina, New Orleans was spinning out of control in a boozy maelstrom of guns and drugs, murder and corruption. Flush with tourist dollars, the sweltering city felt overripe and frantic, like some blowzy hooker who, late into besotted middle-age, sinks to new depths because she hasn't got much longer to live. In July, after my gentle dog-groomer friend was shot to death in a demented crime of passion, I wanted to run onto Canal Street, hold up my hands, and scream STOP, NEW ORLEANS, JUST STOP.

A month later, the hurricane took care of that.

Toward the end of the summer, the city had been plagued with three or four murders a day, so common that most went unreported. Every evening I'd scan the faces in the obituary columns of The Times-Picayune. Inevitablly, all of the young black men pictured there had died of gunshot wounds. Although predominantly centered in the drab brick housing projects, turf wars over the crack trade extended into almost every neighborhood. Children playing on their front porches were slaughtered in drive-by shootings; a grandmother was shot in the head while unloading groceries from her car in the driveway; an esteemed Carnival seamstress was gunned down along with her daughter, then the house was torched. The most violent gangtsa scenarios were being acted out in real life on the city streets, and the lives of a whole generation of young black men were written off as obituary boilerplate.
Lavelle, gunshot wound. Tyronne, gunshot wound. Jamal, gunshot wound.

And tomorrow looked even grimmer, if the future of a city can be predicted by the health of its public schools. Tony Amato, the fifth school-board superintendant in seven years, had just resigned, the board was paralyzed by petty quarrels, and the school system had gone bankrupt. Over the veto of the school board president, the state had sent in the New York accounting firm of Alvarez & Marsal to untangle the system's financial mess, and the accountants reported what everyone already knew: during the past twenty years, the school system had become an open cookie jar for the greedy hands of every tinhorn politico, shyster bureaucrat, and hack educator on payroll, and of their numerous family members. The middle class no longer wanted their rising property taxes to support a 117-school system with 102 failing schools, one in which girls were raped in the bathrooms, boys machine-gunned during general assemblies, students couldn't bring home text books, and metal-detectors were installed in doorways to guard what essentially had become penitentiary preps.

Kindergarten through high school, I was educated in this same school system, as were my parents. Then the schools had been racially segregated, and in my parents' day, segregated by sex. The lavender-scented Creole spinsters who taught there marched us through a blackboard bootcamp that today would rate as college preparatory. Many of us had hoped that the social injustcies of the city would be addressed when the schools were integrated, but they never actually were integrated. During the 60s, the middle class, both white and black, abandoned the public school system wholesale for private education, leaving behind schools made up 95% of kids from poor black families. The few integrated schools that worked, ones that could count a minority enrollment of 40 to 50%, were lambasted as "racist" and "elitist." Despite the overwhelming black majority, every issue was about race, and nothing about effective education. When the school board elected Superintendant Amato, a Hispanic who had turned around several failing school districts in other cities, a contingent of black ministers marched around the room in protest, singing "We Shall Overcome." The entrenched civil-rights establishment, which had made its heroic mark during the 1960s, didn't know any other song.

Most New Orleanians knew the school system was a boondoggle for the well-connected, a Tammany Hall of squabbling factions, and a tragic joke for the kids who suffered through it. What we also saw was the direct relationship between the crumbling schools and the exploding violence on the streets. The dazzling future that the public schools guaranteed their inmates was, for a girl, to get pregnant at fifteeen and then become a hotel maid, and for a boy, to lead a glamorous life as a gangsta dealer until gunned down at 18.

For the enormous population of poor blacks, New Orleans had become a town without pity or hope. Every day brought news photos of mothers wailing behind the yellow caution-tape at the crime scene where their sons had been murdered. And the mothers all said the same thing: "He was a good boy." I would see their sons singing in the church choir, carrying their grandmothers' grocery bags, playing ball among the weedy potholes in the street. This was what I did as a child, and in the same neighborhoods. I had studied in the same classrooms, as had my parents before me and, believe me, those classrooms haven't been painted since. These kids' aunties or grandmothers worked as housekeepers for ladies I knew, their uncles and grandfathers fixed my pipes and plastered my walls.

And it's possible they all were good boys—Lavelle, Tyronne, and Jamal—both the murdered and the murderers.
Maybe the city itself was killing them.

"When I was growing up here in the 50s," Father Ulysses D'Aquila told me, "St. Francisville used to be about 80% black. The sharecroppers would come buy their seeds and tools on credit at Mimi and Pawpaw's dry goods store. The town is a different place now, all white and gussied up."

We were standing on the main drag in St. Francisville, in front of what used to be Jimmie D'Aquila & Son Groceries and Dry Goods. The battered sign was still there, but the funky storefront had become a slimming salon called "Uniquely You." The town bank had been turned into an antique button shop, and several turn-of-the-century homes into quaint restaurants. This gentrified bedroom community 27 miles from Baton Rouge, with its moss-draped live oaks and genteel Anglican aura, is a sucess story, as far as small Louisiana towns go. People still live and shop here, even if the new residents work in Baton Rouge office towers and don't sharecrop on the large estates, as the inhabitants did a couple of generations ago. The Saturday-night honky-tonks and Sunday-morning revival churches have long closed, and the town has completely changed its complexion. We could be in Marin County, California, for all you see of an African-American presence.

Father Ulysses, one of my oldest friends, is now a priest at the Mission Dolores Basilica in San Francisco, and only returns here during the summers, when his mother drives down from Oklahoma to air out her parents' house. His cousin Billy D'Aquila is mayor, one of the few residents remaining from the Sicilian family that immigrated here a century ago. After a meal of meat balls, pasta, and cush-cush at his mother's traditional table, Ulysses and I set out in a rented car to New Orleans so he could catch a flight back to San Francisco the next day.

Walking down teeming Canal Street from the Budget car rental agency to my French Quarter apartment, we passed nothing but black faces on the sidewalks.

"You know, that's funny," I observed. "When I was a little boy in the 50s, Canal Street was mostly white. My mother and aunts wore their hats, gloves, and pearls to come shopping here. Look at it now." The people were mostly young and surpisingly obese, dressed in frayed running outfits and tunic-length white T-shirts.

It was as if the main streets of St. Francisville and New Orleans, over the past half century, had changed places.

The downtown neighborhoods I grew up in were racially checkerboarded, with one block of whites, another of blacks, and still another of people whom nobody could tell what they were. The black families were mostly light-skinned Creoles of color headed by tradesmen—bricklayers, plasterers, and carpenters—and their extended clans were as numerous as our own. Now these neighborhoods are exclusively black, historically so if you believe recent chronicles written about the faubourgs. Vivid memories tell me otherwise.

What is not in doubt is that by mid-century, a massive migration brought rural blacks pouring into the city, as the farming areas of small-town Louisiana were taken over by factories and the modern Sun Belt was born. Many of these rural migrants were moved into housing projects, where they lived for generations. They were looked down on not only by whites but by the long-established Creoles of color. Most of these country people were dark-skinned, Protestant, and did not have French last names. Unlike the sophisticated Creoles of color, they lacked any urban job skills. They were bumpkins.
This is a story as old as New Orleans.

In Old Creole Days (1882), George Washington Cable devotes one of his local colorist tales to portraying these city/country differences in the 19th century. In "Posson Jone'," a down-on-his-luck Creole named Jules St.-Ange, an "elegant little heathen," and Baptiste, "his yellow body-servant," hustle two country bumpkins in the French Quarter. Their marks are blond Parson Jones and his "very black" servant, the squat Colossus of Rhodes, visiting from the area around St. Francisville. This rollicking tale introduces for the first time that eternal New Orleans prototype, the Quarter con man. The two broke, smooth-talking Francophones use their city wiles and Catholic mumbo-jumbo to outfox the God-fearing Anglophone hayseeds, getting them to drink and gamble, almost making off with all of their money.

As in the Cable story, the differences that marked the mid-20th century migrants to New Orleans weren't racial or economic, but ones of color and origin. These were country people slow to get the hang of city living. I'm not sure why, but my parents' and grandparents' generations entertained a marked prejudice against anything or anyone that came from the Louisiana countryside. We may have been backward and Southern, but we were undeniably urban. When I was a hippie teenager with hair curling around the collar of my Army surplus jackets, blue jeans rolled up into stiff cuffs, the worst insult my father could pronounce was that I looked like a "hick."

As a matter of fact, I didn't grow up eating the crawfish now so closely identified with New Orleans. Back then they were considered "filthy mud bugs" that only poor country people ate. When I first came up with the novel idea of boiling a sack of live crawfish, my great-aunt Marguerite was so squeamish that first she made me give each one a little bath. Dozens of mud bugs squirmed from the sink and scuttled around her house for days until they died a slow death under the armoires and sideboard, far from the reach of my aunt's broom.

When I was growing up, I once asked her if the aunts on Bayou Road with the old-timey French accents were Cajuns. She screwed up her face and turned on me in a way I'd never seen before. "Don't you ever say that," she hissed.

Now New Orleanians have come to embrace country culture, and have enshrined Cajun food and zydeco music to the point that many visitors confuse it with our own. But there was a time when city people resisted anything that smacked of the country. Darker-skinned sharecroppers were not well received by New Orleanians of mixed African and French descent. This is why in a city now dominated by a class of light-skinned professionals anchored in Gentilly and New Orleans East, for decades an enormous percentage of the black population has moldered jobless in the violent housing projects and derelict downtown neighborhoods.
The disinction here is not about race, or even about class (in the American sense of mere money), but about background. Black Catholics with French last names educated in parochial schools, those with a long history of family in the city, are a people apart from the descendents of sharecroppers who arrived here a generation or two ago. These two groups came together during the Civil Rights era, in marches, meetings, and voter-registration drives, but have had little to do with each other since, except during elections. This is why New Orleans is home both to Xavier University, an African-American Catholic university with premier pharmaceutical and pre-med curricula, and to the worst public schools in the United States. There is little crossover between these two worlds.

During the 1960s, as the rural black population was moving into New Orleans, white New Orleanians were migrating in droves to the suburbs and exurbs, a white flight that hasn't slowed during the past decades. Now some of these ex-New Orleanians, moving farther and farther from urban hubs, have reached bedroom communities like St. Francisville. They are turning storefronts where sharecroppers once shopped into sleek fitness centers while the descendents of these sharecroppers occuppy the dilapidated historic neighborhoods where these white people's parents once lived. Mayor Moon Landrieu, while in office during the 1970s, speculated that in the past few decades "New Orleans lost 125,000 people—mostly white and affluent—moving out to the suburbs, and in their place, 90,000, mostly poor and black, moved in." During this era, New Orleans once again became a black-majority city, for the first time since 1840.

I grew up during this transition, unaware that the world had ever been any different. The countrified people who worked for us fascinated me. Mildred, my great-aunts' housekeeper on Bayou Road, was from Assumption Parish, and kept live turtles in the kitchen's garde manger to "draw the misery" out of her. Nana, my Irish grandmother, would ask me to help her yardwoman Irene, also from the country. Irene didn't know how to use a lawnmower or shears, and cut everything back by swooping a razor-sharp sickle, as if she were harvesting surgarcane. Both were towering and ebony. Neither trusted New Orleans people, whom they called "high-yella city slickas." And they let me know right away, cutting their eyes at the blond pipsqueak in their way, that they didn't have much use for white men.

I'm afraid that Mildred and Irene's children and grandchildren haven't done well in New Orleans. Nobody has ever taught them how to read, ply a trade, or open a bank account. These were the people whom the world watched huddled in the Superdome and Convention Center in the aftermath of Katrina, with their numerous children and few plastic bags of humble possessions. They were the refugees of a botched social transformation from country to city long before they were orphans of the storm. Finally, after a week of degrading privations, they were bused out of a city that never understood them, that seems pleased to be rid of them, carrying little more than the worn Bibles their grandparents brought from the countryside years ago, wrapped in kerchiefs inside of hampers.

This month the Preservation Resource Center gathered together a group of college-aged African-American volunteers from outside of the state with a group of young African-American volunteers from the city. The object was to restore a house in the Lower Ninth Ward flooded during Katrina, a home where generations of the same black family had lived since 1884. The coordinator explained the history of the house, which a white Creole had deeded to his octaroon mistress and their descendents, along with his name.

The volunteers "from away"—as we say of anyone not from here—were indignant. "We're not going to work on the house of any white man who raped a black woman," they protested.

"Who says it was rape?" the local volunteers asked. "This was a system called plaçage. In all of our family trees a Frenchman shacked up with a free woman of color. This is our history, our Creole culture."

The volunteers from away put down their hammers and walked out. The situation didn't fit the paradigms they had learned in the rest of the United States about race relationships. Like many, they wanted to help New Orleans, but just couldn't understand us.
In New Orleans, this thing called race has served as a legal punishment, a political cause and, at present, an ongoing family argument. But it has never been an easy matter of black and white.

More than a decade ago, a city councilwoman named Dorothy Mae Taylor introduced an ordinance that banned all-white Mardi Gras krewes from parading on city streets during Carnival. The injunction put the city into an uproar. Mardi Gras, many argued, is a liminal celebration in which men dress as women, women as men, whites as blacks, and blacks as Indians. A politically correct Mardi Gras is a contradiction in terms. At one point a city official called one of the offending krewe capitans to demand if their organization included any black members.

"Damned if I can tell," the krewe capitan replied.

In the 1880s, the Creoles of color burned down the court house, where the office of public records filed the birth certificates that specified their race. This was during the era of the "one drop" law, in which one drop of African blood would identify someone as "Negro." Ever since the arson, it has proven difficult to ascertain who is really black and who is really white in New Orleans. Many of those descended from the plaçage system have passe en blanc, or passed for white, for generations. It is generally assumed that most native French families have a black-identified and a white-identified side, so that many old-line New Orleanians, across the racial divide, are cousins.

Until the Civil War, what divided New Orleans was not race but language.

The term Creole originally was used to refer to French people born in Louisiana, and provided a practical distinction: this gentlemen was français from Paris, that one belge from Brussels, and the other one créole, born of French-speaking parents in New Orleans. This term, of course, eventually came to include the descendents of racially mixed unions. Together with the foreign-born and native-born French, the Creoles of color, produced by the Gallic propensity for horizontal integration, formed a unified culture. Both French and African elements were creolized into something entirely different, a New-World French mentality.

Speaking French was the defining principle of Creole, as opposed to the English-speaking américains of both races who lived on the other side of Canal Street, the "neutral ground" that separated the rival worlds. Recently, Creole has gained usage as a polite euphemism for the demeaning word "mulato," with its roots in animal husbandry (it means young mule in Spanish). In fact, many so-called mulatos are Creoles, but not all Creoles are mulatos. This term is further complicated by its meaning in the country, where Creole is used to distinguish Francophone blacks with origins in Saint Domingue from the Francophone Cajuns, those white descendents of 18th-century Acadian immigrants from Canada. In short, no matter what the racial identification may be, anyone born into a New Orleans family with French-speaking ancestors is Creole.

When New Orleans was Americanized after the Civil War, the cultural dividing-line switched from language to race. This was a deep historical wound for Creoles of color, one that has festered for generations. The American system would have segregated the Francophone servant Baptiste (from the George Washington Cable story) together with the Anglophone servant Colossus of Rhodes, although the two did not share a common language, religion, or culture. The Jim Crow laws of the 1890s exacerbated the situation, often to the breaking point for Creoles of color. Many decided to passe en blanc, if only so they could attend Mass in French, send their children to convent schools, or legally marry their spouses. Today in New Orleans it is not uncommon for their black-identified and white-identified descendents to meet, unaware they are related.

I though there was something strikingly familiar about Kichea Burt when we first became friends. When I found out that she was born a Landry, and this Landry family was originally from Ascension Parish, I began to suspect what I recognized in her. My great-grandmother was a Landry, also from a family with origins in Ascension Parish. Kichea, who is black-identified, is café-au-lait colored, from a prosperous family, was educated by nuns, and is a graduate of Xavier University. Both of my great-grandparents were born and raised in the French Quarter, but during their declining years, when I knew them, they lived in the Seventh Ward, the neighborhood most associated with Creoles of color. They both had that latté-hued, traditional Seventh Ward look, one in which the men dressed all in white and the women wore their long, straight hair pulled back tightly from their foreheads. My family was white-identified, something I never questioned until I began showing the crumbling 19th-century Landry photo alblum to black friends. They inevitably did a double-take and assured me that "honey, you mixed."

"I know these people," Kichea told me, flipping through the faded portraits in the same album. "I mean, they look just like the old photographs in my family's album."

This revelation brought to mind unspoken things about my family that I never could figure out. They carefully enunciated the word "Negro," quick to correct anyone who uttered the N-word in their presence. Yet my great-grandmother had a white housekeeper, a Cajun woman named Amelia from the country, during a time when every family I knew had black housekeepers. Those who passe en blanc must have lived in daily fear of being outed by one of their own. Their daughter, my great-aunt Marquerite, was a volunteer at Charity Hospital during World War II, "the only white woman who ever worked on the colored ward," as my mother told it. I doubt that, in the 1940s, she worked there out of integrationist zeal. In certain circumstances people passed, and in others they didn't.

In her later years, my mother received with stoic amusement what she called "your little theory" about her family's origins. She never quite identified with them anyway, their dark, heavy furniture, their Catholicism, and the language they spoke that she never learned. Like a second-generation immigrant, she rebelled, and Americanized herself with all due haste. These concerns—who had passed, or who hadn't, in the 19th century—were Old World distinctions that didn't fit into her modern perspective. During the 1950s, she had known where to sit on the segregated streetcars, and that is what mattered.

Doubts linger, but not heavily. This is something for Kichea and I to joke about. Certainly nothing about my life has changed, except that on questionnaires I sometimes check the "other" box and write in the blank next to it: "New Orleans." I don't know how else to describe what I am. The racial stock of the urban middle class is so mixed, and had been for so long before Kichea and I were born, that "damned if I can tell" has become the only response to questions of who may be what. As Washinton Post columnist Eugene Robinson observes, New Orleans is the only place in the United States with "so many black people who look white and so many white people who sound black."

Marc Morial, the city's mayor during two terms, comes from such a racially ambiguous Creole family. It always amused New Orleanians that his face on campaign billboards in poor, black neighborhoods appeared several shades darker than it is. Once at a party I met a man who looked somewhat like him, and after a few drinks together, we decided to go to Frenchmen Street to check out the live music at the clubs. When I asked him his name, he told me Jacques Morial. I wasn't at all surprised to be having a drink with the mayor's brother. What shocked me was that this light-complexioned man, who I'd assumed was white, was, by self-definition, black. After all, I had been visiting from California, where people wear their ethnic identities like name badges.
The Morials are a classic example of the kind of black-identified Creole family that, for the past few decades, has run the city. Marc Morial inherited the job as mayor from his father, Dutch Morial. Rumor has it that his mother Sybil prays to the lawn ornament of the Virgin Mary in her front yard. The family's roots run so deep into the world of Creoles of color that the family tomb in St. Louis No. 1 Cemetery is right next to another famous tomb, that of the Glapion family, where Marie Laveau is supposedly buried. In politics, the Morials followed the faultlines of corruption inherited from their predecessors, a system that the French taught to the Irish, the Irish to the Sicilians, and the Sicilians to the Creoles of color: take care of your own. Marc Morial was much beloved by the black population in New Orleans. He took care of his own, particularly with the open cookie jar of the Orleans Parish School Board.

Ray Nagin, the present mayor, is a charismatic Jay Gatsby of a self-made businessman. Dark-skinned and born in the housing projects, he speaks the language of his origins. During a previous hurricane, he advised the people of New Orleans to "go get yourselves a couple of benjamins"—ghetto-speak for one-hundred dollar bills—to prepare for the days ahead. He has tried to end the traditional tributaries of corruption at City Hall, which have excluded those of his background from power for generations. As a re-election bid to a dwindling black constituency, Nagin claimed in a widely ridiculed Martin Luther King Day speech that God intends for New Orleans to emerge from the hurricane as a "chocolate city." Yet black leaders have complained that Nagin is in the pocket of white businessmen. They claim that the most African-looking mayor the city has ever known is "not black enough" for New Orleans. With a poor black constituency and a rich Republican economic base, Nagin has been paralyzed as a politican, and the city along with him. He can't act in the interests of one group without betraying the other, so he does nothing. Whether or not New Orleans will rise again as a "chococlate city" is part of an ongoing family feud that, like those hot-button quarrels that erupt within families during stressful changes, has little to do with the fate of the city.

But at least Nagin got the color right. The signtaure strength of the city has always sprung from its café au lait mingling of races and cultures, not from the warring factions of its racial purists. And now our chief problem is not black vrs. white but brown, as in the nasty brown flood waters that threaten to engulf us all. One day New Orleans may well become a chocolate city, when the gumbo-colored waters of the Mississippi meet the dun salt-waters of Lake Pontchartrain several feet above the rooftops of what we now call home.

At the Madison Square Garden benefit several weeks after Katrina, the musician Cyril Neville sported a T-shirt onstage that read "Ethnic Cleansing in New Orleans." This is a perception shared by a number of Americans: that New Orleans has used the hurricane to get rid of its black population. It is also believed that all white people, obviously rich, inhabited higher ground and were spared the destruction of the hurricane and flooding, and that all black people, assumed to be poor, lived in low-lying areas and were either drowned or driven out. This Marxist dollhouse suggests a seductive dichotomy, providing a moral high ground from which to view the sheer irrationality of the devastation.

But hurricane Katrina was an equal-opportunity destroyer.

The hurricane and subsequent flooding didn't only devastate the working-class black neighborhood of the Lower Ninth Ward, that heart-rending poster child of New Orleans ruins. The middle-class white neighborhoods of Lakeview and Lake Vista, as well as the middle-class black neighborhoods of Gentilly and New Orleans East, were also wiped out. The economically and racially mixed Mid-City and Broadmoor areas were also hit hard, along with the middle-class white enclave of Old Metairie. I want to insert the adverb "largely" in front of these convenient demographic tags, because I know people of varied races and colors and classes displaced from these neighborhoods. My friend Ken Fontenot, a Cajun poet, is from the Lower Ninth Ward, and my friend Gina Ferrara, an Italian-American poet, lived in Gentilly. If I could simplify this for you, I would.

But life in New Orleans is too layered with nuances. Once the gumbo is cooked, you can't separate it back into the ingredients.
In the face of such random mayhem, the instinct is to reach for the cherished old verities, whether of a political or religious stripe. And the universal struggles of the poor vrs. the rich and of black vrs. white are comforting dichotomies, much like the catechismal good vrs. evil that the fundamentalist right trades in. But they just don't fit. An equal number of black and white bodies have wound up in the St. Gabriel morgue. The tribulations I hear are in similar proportions at the deli counter from white people living in FEMA trailers and in the unemployment line from black people staying with relatives.

What unites us is our anger at authorities.

Within an Aristotelian twenty-four hours, and with all of the tragic inevitability of a Greek tragedy, the hurricane landed, the levees breeched, and the city flooded. Yet the inhuman conditions that prevailed in the Superdome and Convention Center, and the violent chaos unleashed in the streets in the wake of the hurricane, did not need to occur. I doubt that a largely black city administration specifically discriminated against black hurricane victims. But it certainly was blind to the problems of the elderly, the poor, and the infirm.

For three days before Katrina hit, television screens were glowing with evacuation routes out of the city, according to a new contra-flow plan of streamlined highway access. It never occured to those in City Hall that a third of New Orleanians don't have cars, myself included. The TV maps of evacuation routes could have been a video game or a Japanese science fiction movie, for what they mattered to me. No provisions were made for those in nursing homes, hospitals, and prisons, or for those who didn't have the credit cards in their back pockets to sail off on a three-day evacu-vacation. Remember, this was at the end of the month in a city where a majority of the people live from check to check.

The city had at its disposal a fleet of public-transport and school buses, which should have been parked on dry over-rise highways to carry people out of the city in the event of flooding. I grow impatient with city officials' excuses about the lack of bonded drivers with chauffer's licenses, a cover-up, according to historian Douglas Brinkley in The Great Deluge, to the unpardonable bungling that actually occured: these officials couldn't find the bus keys. Impoverished Cuban and Mexican authorities routinely execute a bused evacuation of their populations whenever a dangerous hurricane approaches. But in the city of New Orleans, the needs of those who fall outside of the able-bodied middle class remained invisible.

Urging all New Orleanians to evacuate in their cars was akin to passing out FEMA website addresses to evacuees in the Houston Astrodome. What could these myopic bureaucrats possibly have been thinking? Perhaps they hallucinate that we live in a city in which everyone can toss the Mac laptop into the S.U.V. and zoom off to lounge by a Holiday Inn pool for three days.
That is not the city where I live, not where most of us live.

A humpbacked legless man with powerful forearms wheels himself every day from the projects through the streets of the French Quarter to beg on Canal Street. I'm thinking of him, and of the bobbing gray perms of the disoriented ladies slouched in lobby armchairs at the assisted living center where I used to visit my mother. And of the uniformed housekeepers and Walgreens clerks seated beside me on the buses and streetcars, so tired at the end of the day they can barely hold up their heads to watch out of the windows for their stop.

Where was the contra-flow for these citizens?

The people who wound up in the ill-conceived shelters set up in the Superdome and Convention Center were not there because they were black, but because they were poor and forgotten. A wide cross-section of other poor and forgotten New Orleanians couldn't get there, or wouldn't have dared set foot inside. New Orleans was not "ethnically cleansed" of the black but of the weak. Across the board, the sector most affected by the hurricane has been the elderly. New Orleanians 60 years and older account for only 15% of the city's population, but comprised 74% of the dead left by the hurricane, nearly half of whom were over 75 years old. An entire generation of our parents and grandparents has been wiped out, if not by the storm itself and subsequent flooding, then by the ardors of the chaotic evacuation that lost them in nursing homes all over the country, where most still linger. Those in their late 70s and 80s who, before the storm, were defiantly hanging onto their independence, have given up, and are now dying in states located light years from everything they once called home. The effects of the hurricane represent not a genocide but a genrontocide.

Not since the Third Reich has any Western nation demonstrated such cruel public disregard for the weak.

For a week no buses arrived to rescue the panicked crowds stranded here without transportation. Gang members, not the city, provided food and water to those trapped in the Convention Center. While young men were looting TVs, with nowhere to plug them in, their grandmothers lay dying on rooftops. And those of us who wanted to stay, to maintain some modicum of civic presence, were forced out at gunpint.

Yet New Orleans is still a city of extended families, tight neighborhoods, and caring church communities. How could our leaders have allowed such a callous free-for-all to happen?

We weren't rasied that way.

For black and white, rich and poor, old and young—and most New Orleanians fall somewhere in between—the effects of the hurricane provoke an overwhelming question: Who have we let ourselves become?

"The hurricane blew America's dress up for all the world to see," a preacher recently said, "and her drawers were dirty."

Reproduced with the author’s permission from Boulevard, Nos. 65 & 66
Vol. 22, Nos 2 & 3, Spring 2007
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