The Presence of Justice and the Greater Good
How to Make New Orleans Anew, Seriously
By J.B. Borders
Like hundreds of thousands of people who evacuated for Hurricane Katrina, I had no clear idea where I was going when I left New Orleans. It didn’t matter that much at the time. I only expected to be gone from my Gentilly flat a day or two.
As it turned out, after hours of meandering along rural back roads leading north, I spent my first night away from home in the Mississippi Delta, at the fabled crossroads of highways 61 and 49 – the spot where the great blues man Robert Johnson sold his immortal soul to the devil in exchange for what has turned out to be enduring musical renown and an abbreviated life.
I wouldn’t realize until much later how apropos the “crossroads” motif and the notion of “making deals with the devil” would become to my own displacement or to the devastation and unfolding redevelopment of New Orleans.
I also had not grasped how pervasive “the blues” would become to our situation from that point forward – in both the literal and the figurative sense. I was merely seeking temporary shelter from an impending storm. And after several attempts, I found it at a decrepit motel in Clarksdale, Mississippi, called the Southern Inn. It was operated, and presumably owned, by an Indian family. Not Native Americans, mind you, but immigrants from South Asia.
I didn’t actually ride out the storm in the Delta, however. Clarksdale was in the hurricane’s projected inland path. Instead, I got up early the following morning, Monday, August 29, and headed northwest to Hot Springs, Arkansas, the boyhood home of former President Bill Clinton.
Hot Springs had once been a world-class resort city known for the healing powers of its bath waters. The wealthy and famous had flocked there religiously from all corners of the globe. And during the days of strictly enforced racial segregation, a black-owned tourism sector with hotels, public baths, night clubs and restaurants had developed and thrived by catering to African-America’s social elite.
Now, of course, Hot Springs is just a shell of what it had been in its heyday. No natural disaster devastated the town in one fell swoop, however. It has just slowly declined over the past several decades from a combination of social and economic forces. Maybe a lack of planning, leadership and balanced wealth distribution have played a part in the demise of Hot Springs, too. I can’t say for certain. I haven’t had the time to give it a good, hard look.
Bigger and Blacker
What I have been trying to look at and to think about lately is New Orleans, a city at its own crossroads. Like a lot of people, I have been trying to figure out what needs to happen to make New Orleans the kind of place we would crave to live in and for which we would kill to defend its right to exist.
I’m clear about the big picture. I want New Orleans to be bigger, blacker, wealthier, smarter, funkier, greener, cleaner, safer, more wired, more scientific, more spiritual, more ethical, more productive and more joyous than ever before.
The question is: How do we get to there from here? The short answer is: With continual organizing, planning, improvisation, integrity and a bit of collective enterprise.
I’m no Pollyanna and I know the odds are stacked against us. I realize that the only people who really want to see a blacker New Orleans are black people themselves – and maybe not even a majority of us. I recognize that many of the people who envision a wealthier, better educated, less crime-plagued city can only imagine it happening if the black populace is suppressed, reduced, eliminated even.
There are still 200,000 of us who are internally displaced persons. Many of us have no viable businesses or jobs to return to. Tens of thousands of health care, education, tourism and government jobs have been washed away. Construction-related employment may be booming, but the prospects of black folks getting a fair slice of the reconstruction dollars are still pretty slim unless we raise an incessant hue and cry.
Some observers say that only two percent of the more than $5 billion the federal government has invested to date in the redevelopment of New Orleans has been spent with African-American contractors and subcontractors. The situation may be slightly better in the private sector, but the bulk of the building jobs and contracts are still being awarded to Latino immigrants and white out-of-towners.
Now that the really big money is about to be unleashed in the city, it’s imperative that Afro-Orleanians get organized and stake our claims in the rebuilding process.
We have to start demanding equitable shares of the redevelopment pie and we have to insist on equitable outcomes for Afro-Orleanians.
We also have to accept responsibility for tracking, measuring and monitoring this progress. We can’t let that be anyone else’s duty, not even the so-called national civil rights organizations that claim to speak on our behalf. We have to do this for ourselves whether we are a thousand miles from town or just down the block.
The good news in this whole tragedy, however, is that race and class are front and center in the examination of post-Katrina New Orleans. From now on, no one from any part of the globe will be able to talk about the recovery of the Crescent City without mentioning the status of the black poor. And the only way the city can redeem its reputation in the eyes of the world community is to lift tens of thousands of people out of poverty. Denying them re-entry to the city or simply dispersing them from public housing projects will not suffice.
Those of us who are not as poor as some of our less fortunate brethren are obliged to play an active role in this struggle, too. “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere,” Martin King wrote to a bunch of critical clergymen back in 1963 while he was being held in the Birmingham City Jail. They had asked him to stop his direct action campaigns against segregation in Birmingham.
“We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny,” King replied. “Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
My New Orleans
King also wrote something else in that famous letter that bears repeating. He noted the distinction between “a negative peace, which is the absence of tension” and “a positive peace, which is the presence of justice.” He preferred the latter. So do I. And as I have attempted in my own mind to formulate the kind of new New Orleans I envision, I have tried to filter it through two operative notions – “the presence of justice” and “the greater good”.
So when I imagine what the presence of justice would look like in New Orleans, I see every citizen having access to quality health care; decent housing in safe neighborhoods; employment and business opportunities that provide living wages in exchange for products and services that benefit the community at large; and great schools that prepare young and old alike to engage life on rewarding terms.
In my New Orleans, large numbers of people would not be living in public housing projects for generations. The New Orleans airport would be within the city limits so that the people of New Orleans could enjoy all the tax revenues generated by the activities there, even if that meant buying out the property owners in Little Woods or Eastover so that the airport could be sited there.
In my New Orleans, tax assessments and collections would be transparently uniform and fair; public school teachers and police officers would be honest and ethical; judges and other elected officials would be incorruptible; musicians would actually own local lodging establishments that sport names like Hotel Domino, Maison Toussaint, Neville House or the Satchmo Inn.
There would be no black boys killing themselves to be part of the illicit drug trade. People wouldn’t want or need to take or buy drugs, they’d be happy and productive. Every family would own its homestead and every worker in the private sector would have an ownership stake in her or his place of employment.
I could go on but you get the picture. The point I want to emphasize, however, is that my vision of utopia is attainable. More important, it is closer than we think.
Positive Social Epidemics
Like millions of other people, I have re-read Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point: How Little Things Can Make a Big Difference in the past year. I picked up a used copy shortly after it became clear that Hurricane Katrina had radically altered my little corner of the world. I wanted to go back to it to see what clues it could offer me about rebuilding my life, my community. I wanted to see if there were any special secrets, clues or instructions for launching positive social epidemics.
There aren’t. Like negative epidemics, there are some general rules that apply but there is no magic button that can be pushed to make something good spread through a community and take hold.
Nevertheless, I am now convinced that there is enough money, will, vision and organization in place to build a better New Orleans. The federal funding commitments, the state involvement, the city and neighborhood planning initiatives, the private sector investments and the tenacity of individual citizens all have combined to tilt the momentum toward redeveloping an excitingly new New Orleans.
We just have to make sure the new city is infused with the presence of justice for black people and all others who must call it home.
We are at a crossroads. Some of us have been or will be tempted to make all sorts of deals with the devil. If we stay on the path of righteousness, however, we will find greater rewards.
The presence of justice can profit us all. That much is crystal clear. So let’s not tolerate anything less – unless we’d prefer to be just another beat-up, backwater, has-been southern town.