Public Housing: Rooting the Struggle in Past Reconstructions

The political conflict surrounding the Department of Housing and Urban Development’s attempt to demolish public housing in New Orleans is part of a historically grounded struggle in the city over urban space and social consumption. Several other epochs of “reconstruction” serve to contextualize the meaning and consequences of the current struggle for the black working class and the confederacy of forces that oppose them.

The all black, working class communities that live in and around the major public housing developments such as BW Cooper and Lafitte are the immediate heirs of a movement that rebelled against Jim Crow segregation throughout the 20th Century. Indeed, many of these women and men are the children of this Movement’s leadership. Some of the elder residents and former residents of public housing even held leadership positions in organizations as diverse as the National Welfare Rights Organization and the Black Panthers. In the face of white intimidation, violence, and an all white political regime (until the 1970s) they managed to pry open formerly all white spaces and create at least the legal precedents for a more egalitarian New Orleans.

These same New Orleanians, agitated for the creation of what historian Kent Germany has called the “soft state” – a combination of federal/local community programs during the 1960s and 70s that attempted to reconstruct New Orleans, to provide educational, housing and job opportunities for working class blacks. Struggling to rebuild New Orleans during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement, the goal of New Orleans black working class has tended to swing between an integrationist platform, and a black power platform – the former involving efforts to desegregate housing, schools, and city space, and to equalize public spending between blacks and whites, while the latter philosophy has sought to empower existing black institutions and create greater autonomy of black spaces in the city.

Stretching back even further, the struggle for power over community in New Orleans is rooted in pre-Civil War forms of resistance amongst blacks (many of them slaves), and later in the brief period of Reconstruction from 1865-1877. Post Civil War Reconstruction was a visionary attempt to create a more democratic society, abolishing not only racial-apartheid, but also the crushing class inequalities that crippled poor whites. This movement, led by the black working class, was violently overthrown in 1874 by the White League, and finally defeated with the re-establishment of rule by the racist plantocracy in1877. True democratic reconstruction was brutally destroyed by a phalanx of white supremacists who, with the tacit support of the federal government, would more or less rule New Orleans (and the South) until the second half of the 20th Century.

During this time, space in the city of New Orleans was legally segregated, and the laws governing this prevention of “mixture” were designed to keep blacks not only physically separate, but materially and politically subjugated. Blacks were not allowed in certain sections of the town except as laborers. Housing for blacks was established in the “bottom of the bowl,” or else in the pocketed patterns required by white Uptowners who employed black servants. Blacks were relegated to inferior classrooms, the back ends of street cars, separate train cars, and barred from government office. Racialized oppression was most powerfully enforced through these methods of spatial domination. The purpose of spatial control was to enforce a larger and more profound regime of white supremacy.

The 1930s produced a major break in this racial regime. However, it would further entrench racial inequalities and literally lay the brick and mortar foundations for today’s struggle to reopen public housing.

With the passage of the National Housing Acts of 1934 and 1937 the US embarked on a massive program of subsidies for homeownership. Backing up loans and reducing the costs of mortgages well below 10%, the federal government set the foundations for an enormous expansion of home ownership (and along with the post-WWII GI Bill virtually created the US middle class). Concurrently, the federal government built public housing across the US. All of this, plus the establishment of Social Security and the recognition of organized labor by the federal government constituted Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Several of New Orleans’ public housing developments, such as Lafitte and Iberville were built during this era. In tune with the times, these developments were racially segregated, splitting the working class into an all white Iberville and all black Lafitte, a white Florida and black Desire. All of the other developments in the city would follow suite. Race was further embedded in this era of housing redevelopment in the Federal Housing Administration’s protocols. The FHA, legally allowed for and facilitated the red-lining of non-white and immigrant neighborhoods and developed a ranking system for loan-fitness based on a block’s racial composition. The FHA provided sample restrictive covenants in loan manuals to enable homeowners to exclude non-whites and other “undesirables” from ever owning valuable property. The overall effect of this was to build trillions of dollars of wealth among those who could take advantage of these programs, and to actually dis-accumulate wealth from the zones of cities occupied by blacks. The racism of the New Deal went much further than just these housing programs. The whole package of legislation was riddled with exclusions, implicit and explicit, that cut non-whites out of these huge government subsidies and insurance programs.

From the 1960s through the early 1980s the Civil Rights Movement managed to force the legal desegregation of public institutions, including public housing. But what the Movement could not secure was the power necessary to truly reconstruct US society, to secure the power that working class black’s needed to rebuild their communities and stand on equal footing with whites. New Orleans was no different. The Movement could not secure the political power necessary to re-invigorate the promise of abolition democracy, nor to address the centuries of racist dis-accumulation from black communities. This failure resulted in a shift away from legal segregation to de facto segregation. Whites fled the newly “integrated” public institutions, including public housing, education, healthcare, and many of the public spaces they formerly dominated through law. In New Orleans this produced the massive suburban expansions of Jefferson, St. Tammany, and St. Bernard Parrish. Whites who exited public housing during the 50s, 60s, and 70s found easier housing through FHA programs, and never encountered the racial steering practiced by realtors, nor the hostility of neighbors in all white neighborhoods. Blacks found it much more difficult to get out of public housing. Meanwhile the condition of this housing stock began to deteriorate. “White flight” meant more than just moving to the suburbs, it meant the flight of federal, state, and local capital from the newly “integrated” public institutions.

The Civil Rights Movement also produced empowerment for the small but politically significant black middle class and elites, many of who also fled from “public spaces” “won” by the Movement, or else moved in to new roles whereby they would “represent” the black working class, they would serve as intermediaries between capital, the new white majority exurbs, and the black poor. Thus, the reconstruction promised by the Movement fell far short of what working class blacks needed and struggled for. The loss was immense. Legally, much had been attained. But in fact, without the achievement of real power, and faced with the hostile and privatizing response of whites and the tiny black middle class (the former group having been massively enriched over more than century of federal racist subsidization, from the Homestead Act to Social Security), the black working class found themselves trapped in decaying institutions. Without the financial power to sustain them, and under direct or indirect political control of majority white and increasing conservative federal and state governments, the black working class has come to a new crossroads in their struggle for freedom and dignity.

All of the rhetoric against public housing from the political Right contradicts this history, and is impossible to support beyond an irrational level (unfortunately politics often runs on irrational fears and desires). All of the rhetoric from the so-called “moderates” and liberals who support the demolition of public housing in New Orleans ignore this history, and refuse to contextualize the struggle of the black working class. Only by placing the conflict over public housing in its historical context can we begin to imagine just solutions. However, what is also clear from this history is that the leadership and vision for truly just reconstructions, after war or storm, has come from the grassroots. In New Orleans this has historically been the black working class and their allies, not the City Council, State, or Federal Government.

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