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One Thing New Orleans’s Poor Haven’t Lost

As a society, we suffer from attention deficit disorder. One minute it’s Iraq, the next it’s Paris Hilton, then on to the mine disaster and thence to Darfur. We are bombarded by snippets, like a manic bumper car jostled now in this direction, now in that.

Oh, we are engaged after a fashion, but our engagements turn out to be spasms.

This week is the anniversary of one such spasm. Its name was Katrina, and it happened just two years ago. Rarely has the nation been so moved as by the reports from New Orleans and the nearby communities that were so badly devastated. And perhaps never had the impact of race and poverty been revealed to us so forcefully.

Writing (in this space) at the time, I described what almost none of us had known before the awesome hurricane: “The city’s black population, as we now all know from the television reports, are — most of them — poor, very poor. And until the flood, they were also largely invisible. Now, they disturb our waking hours. Who are these people, these huddled masses yearning to be — to be what? Fed? Housed? Or simply: noticed.” And I then went on to observe that, “We will never know how different it would have been had a neighborhood of middle class whites been the principal victims of the flood.”

I was mistaken about that, because now we do know, and what we know is decidedly unpleasant.

The rebuilding and repairing of New Orleans has moved along more slowly than predicted, far more slowly than is required if the city’s residents are to be reasonably safe from the effects of future hurricanes. Surely New Orleans is not on target, as the president promised, to “rise again and be better still.”

One of the reasons for that is the failure to rebuild the 77,000 destroyed rental units that once housed a large number of New Orleans’s poorest citizens. Nor is that failure the product of neglect; in many cases, it is quite purposeful.

“Rental units” at a price poor people can afford, built in the neighborhoods where they would be best insulated from natural calamity, would intrude on the middle class character of the housing. According to The New York Times, “at least five jurisdictions in Louisiana and Mississippi — St. Bernard, St. John the Baptist and Jefferson parishes in Louisiana, and Pascagoula and Ocean Springs in Mississippi — have begun revoking permits for trailers or allowing their zoning exemptions to expire.” Those moves affect families still living in 7,400 trailers across the Gulf Coast — at the same time that there is money in place to build only 1,000 new affordable rental units.

Race, anyone? There’s no readily available racial census of the remaining 30,000 evacuees, but the informed estimates tell us that at least 90% of them are black. And we know their fate: Come the annual anniversary of the disaster, they’ll get their 15 minutes of attention and we will cluck our tongues once more, very sincerely.

Whether or not New Orleans should have been rebuilt at all, given the vast engineering challenge it represents, fact is all levels of government agreed to rebuild it and billions of dollars were allocated to the task. And once the decision was taken, we outsiders were entitled to nurture a tiny hope that the result would be a creative and inspiring response to the challenges of race and poverty (and their intersection) that were so shockingly revealed to us during the days when the news was all Katrina, all the time.

Back then, I indulged myself such a dollop of hope. But I had the foresight to write also, “These poor people may have lost everything, but they have not lost their invisibility. Wait a week, or a month or two, and they will be gone, out of sight, out of mind.”

It is right to feel anger, and shame as well. And our government? Where history and circumstance called for grand vision and sustained effort, we got instead sophomoric cheerleading and constricted effort — and de facto racial discrimination. So today, the state of flood control remains uncertain, though safer for whites than for blacks, and the state of new housing for displaced poor people, almost all black, is disgraceful.

In 1945, Frank Sinatra starred in a film version of a song that became, at the time, a very big hit, and which has lasted through the decades since. The song was a schmaltzy hymn to America — at least to the America that could be.

It was called “The House I Live In,” and a typical verse reads: “The house I live in, a plot of earth, a street; the grocer and the butcher, and the people that I meet; the children in the playground, the faces that I see; all races and religions, that’s America to me.” We know from its writers that it was intended as a song against antisemitism in particular, against bigotry in general.

But when the film was edited, a key verse was omitted. (This so enraged one of the song’s writers, Abel Meeropol — who, with his wife, would later adopt the children of Ethel and Julius Rosenberg — that he stormed out of the theater where he was watching it. Meeropol also wrote Billie Holliday’s signature song, “Strange Fruit.” And Earl Robinson, his co-writer on “The House I Live In,“ wrote “Ballad for Americans,” Paul Robeson’s signature song.)

The omitted words: “The house I live in, my neighbors white and black; the people who just came here, or from generations back; the town hall and the soapbox, the torch of liberty; a home for all God’s children — that’s America to me.”

The omission happened in 1945. It is now 2007.

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