How New Orleans’ Largest Newspaper Played a Key Role in Public Housing Demolition

On Thursday, December 20 the New Orleans City Council voted to demolish their city’s four largest public housing developments. Bulldozers are set to roll over the next few months. The highly controversial vote was 7 to 0 in favor of demolition, despite the fact that the city is experiencing its worst housing crisis since the end of the Civil War. There are reportedly more than 12,000 homeless, hundreds of whom lived under the I-10 freeway just blocks from the tourist heavy French Quarter. Rents have skyrocketed while wages have stagnated making decent housing unattainable. Hundreds of thousands remain displaced, many of them still in Houston and beyond.

Leading up to the Council’s vote, New Orleans’ only daily newspaper, the Times Picayune, stepped up what can only be described as a propaganda campaign against public housing. The paper’s effort to stoke negative public opinion comes in response to multiple victories by residents and activists to delay demolition of the complexes and to force a vote by the City Council to determine the fate of the more than 5000 apartments.

Published on the 15th of December, the paper’s most blatant piece of anti-public housing material was entitled “Demolition Protests Ignore Some Realities.” Three staff writers penned the editorializing piece. It ran on the paper’s front page and was prominently featured on the newspaper’s nola.com website. Under the guise of “news” and reporting the facts, the Times Picayune claimed that the position taken by residents and their allies against demolition are “demonstrably false.”

“The public housing residents who support the demolitions struggle to be heard, while well-organized protesters - including many who are not displaced public housing residents - have achieved a degree of success in portraying the demolitions as oppressive. Bulldozers are coming to knock down public housing, they say, in a city in desperate need of housing for the poor.”

Adopting the tone of investigative journalism the reporters simply re-state talking points given to them by the Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD). Nothing in the article reflects any genuine research on the part of the Times-Picayune. The three reporters repeatedly copy misleading press statements made by HUD. It appears that the Picayune’s editors have not even attempted to fact check the figures, policies and on the ground realities handed to them by the government.

At a press conference on the steps of City Hall on Tuesday, December 18, law professor Bill Quigley went over HUD’s various claims point by point. The Times-Picayune chose not to report on this except for two sentences in another articles mentioning some sort of “protest” at City Hall. Only several news stations found time to cover the conference, and none reported on it in depth to correct HUD’s misleading “facts” and figures. Publishing a list of 10 “myths” HUD has fed to reporters, Quigley writes:

“MYTH #1:
"Federal officials, in partnership with developers, are pushing a plan that will demolish 4500 units of traditional public housing, replacing them with 3343 units of public housing and 900 market rate rental units." Statement in Times-Pic 12.16.2007

HUD is aggressively working to demolish 4500 units of traditional public housing. HUD and HANO's own numbers state that less than 800 units of traditional public housing will be built by the developers who demolish those 4500 apartments. In order to get to the 3343 number they trumpet, HUD is actually re-counting over 2000 old public housing apartments (in Iberville, Guste, etc) which they have not yet scheduled to demolish. Thus, they are not telling the truth – they are not replacing the 4500 with 3343 at all, they are replacing the 4500 with less than 800 – a 82% reduction in public housing apartments.”

One day after the Council’s vote the Times Picayune ran an editorial (at least this time on the editorial page) entitled, “Public housing, plot or paradise.” The piece by staff writer Jarvis Deberry, accuses opponents of public housing demolition of clinging to a “foolish inconsistency” and chalks this up to their “small brains” and penchant for conspiracy theories; “do you believe that the American government's hatred for black people is evident in its decision to tear down huge apartment complexes that were occupied exclusively by the poor?” What’s the foolish inconsistency he identifies you might ask? According to Deberry, the activists and residents opposing demolitions were the same people, before Katrina, denouncing the “projects” as segregated, over-policed, under-funded – in short, difficult places to live. Why, he asks, would these same people want to save the projects? Deberry concludes that, “The object ought to be what is best for the residents.” As an essay to rationalize the pro-demolition vote, Deberry’s piece works well. Unfortunately, he completely mischaracterizes the position of the Coalition to Stop Demolition. The Times Picayunes overall coverage has served this very function since June 2006 when HUD announced their intentions to tear down public housing. Never having bothered to ask the Coalition’s leadership – public housing residents such as Stefanie Mingo, Sam Jackson, Sharon Jasper, or their legal council – the Times Picayune instead chose to spend a lot of ink on portraying the Coalition as “foolish.”

The Times-Picayune’s bias against public housing goes much deeper than just their lax journalistic standards and willingness to uncritically report HUD’s claims. From present and past coverage it is clear that the paper’s reporters and editors assigned to the story believe strongly in several erroneous, pseudo-scientific theories concerning housing, architecture, poverty and crime. Their favorable treatment of HUD is partly due to their affinity with the agency’s ideological biases. For example, in the Dec. 15 Times Picayune article the reporters state authoritatively that, “[b]lending different income classes helps break the poverty cycle associated with public housing for decades, federal officials and many others argue.” Unfortunately, the T-P’s reporters have never sought out other expert opinions on the matter besides HUD’s. There is nothing close to consensus amongst sociologist that would support the theory that “blending” classes through real estate redevelopment alone “breaks the cycle of poverty.” In this instance the reporters are the ones who ignore realities in favor of abstract ideas.

Their desire to believe in real estate redevelopment’s power to “break the cycle of poverty” by “deconcentrating” the poor leads the Picayune’s editors and reporters to ignore some realities.

For instance, once the developments are torn down, it will take at least 1-3 years for the “mixed income” housing to be built on site. What are residents supposed to do in these intervening years? This is in addition to the fact that they’ve been locked out of their former homes for more than 2 years now. The highest priority for most residents has been simply to come home to New Orleans, not to pursue grandiose redevelopment plans in a time of crisis. Furthermore, New Orleans has several past examples of mixed income public housing redevelopment that serve as examples of what will likely happen this time around: the St. Thomas, Florida/Desire, and Fischer homes. Instead of seeking out authoritative numbers or independent studies on how many former residents were able to return to these demolished and rebuilt neighborhoods, the Picayune and its reporters have chosen instead to interview current residents of these developments (already a flawed sample that by its very method omits those who were permanently displaced), and report their anecdotal experiences. For example, in their Dec. 15 attack-article the Times Picayune chose to run a picture of a tenant sitting on her porch at the newly redeveloped Guste homes (formerly a low-rise series of buildings housing hundreds of families, now a series of town houses and single homes housing dozens) with the accompanying caption: “[Gwnell] Morgan did live in one of the old sections of the development and said she is much happier in the newly constructed home.” No need to track down displaced residents and explore their experiences, no need to read any of the social scientific literature on public housing redevelopment, no need to listen to what the Coalition to Stop Demolition is actually saying: one current resident privileged enough to move back likes her new apartment, case closed.

On Wednesday, December 19, 2007 the Times-Picayune reported in an article entitled, “Housing officials claim surplus,” that contended, “As housing activists continued to protest the proposed demolition of four public housing complexes, federal housing officials provided new details Tuesday about hundreds of public housing units available across New Orleans, with dozens of units ready for occupants in the B.W. Cooper, the former Desire and the Guste developments.” Again parroting statements from HUD alongside disputations of activists, the paper uncritically supports HUD’s “surplus” housing figures. The reporters make no attempt to tally available units on their own or judge the veracity of either HUD or the Coalition’s tallies. Nor do they dare link the overall housing situation with the crisis of homelessness that has overtaken the city.

An accompanying photograph to the piece shows former St. Bernard public housing development tenant Sharon Jasper sitting in the narrow living room of her new Section 8 rental home. The story’s online version collected a phenomenal 181+ comments in under 18 hours. The vast majority of comments are directed at Ms. Jasper, calling her a “welfare queen,” “typical moocher,” “waist [sic] of a person,” “crap,” and telling her to “get a job,” and stop “leeching” of the taxpayers. What is amazing is that virtually all of these commentators make these objections in response to her possession of a big screen TV which is visible in the photo, or else to the fact that her home has hardwood floors (hardly a luxury in New Orleans, most homes have wood floors). The Times-Picayune published the photo in full color in its print version.

Misquoting Jasper several times, the Times Picayune failed to contextualize her interview and ran the piece even after Jasper called the reporter to ask that the photo not be run. “I had a feeling,” explained Jasper afterwards, “that they would do something like this.” Talking about the general situation for renters in New Orleans and past experiences friends family members have had with section 8 housing and the rental market, Jasper attempted to explain that many properties are slummed by landlords who simply exploit their tenants and the government voucher programs. The Times Picayune ran the quotes in a manner implying that Jasper was talking directly about her own landlord and the rental home shown in the photo. Jasper’s main contention with the government’s section 8 voucher program went unreported, however. According the Jasper, the biggest problem for her with section 8 is that no matter how nice a place she can find, the market is volatile and often forces tenants to move if prices increase or if there is a conflict between landlords and tenants (conflicts that are almost always won by landlords in New Orleans). “I can’t move. I’m tired and old. I just can’t move every year, it’s too much,” explains Jasper.

What is unreported by the paper is just as important. Ms. Jasper is elderly, disabled, and worked the majority of her adult life. She is now a retired grandmother living on a fixed income. The photograph and erroneous quotes quickly drifted into the blogosphere and have been seized upon by all sorts of opponents of welfare and public housing including pundit Michelle Malkin.

The Times Picayune could not have done a better job to smear Ms. Jasper or fan the flames of hostility against working class blacks in New Orleans, especially public housing residents. Days after the photo was published I visited Jasper in her home. Her two daughters had come to visit, one driving all the way from Dallas along with her two children. Jasper’s modest little home, located in a black working class neighborhood in New Orleans’ 6th Ward is unassuming from the outside. It looks like any of the other little shotgun houses on this street. Several of the houses on each block are still empty from the heavy floods that devastated this neighborhood. Most of her neighbors are families crowded into several little rooms, struggling to pay rent. The inside of Jasper’s home belies the gritty neighborhood outside with leaking water pipes, pot-holes, and tattered homes. Jasper might be working class and black, but she likes nice things and has worked hard for what she owns. This is what much of the public housing debate in New Orleans boils down to: a hostility against public housing residents who have been demonized for decades as burdens to society. They have been locked out of their homes for more than 2 years and now stand to lose their communities to bulldozers and dubious mixed income schemes. The vast majority of residents oppose these plans and have never been asked by the federal government what they need and want.

But you wouldn’t know this from reading the Times Picayune.


Words cannot describe the level of injustice and brutality:


Reading Racism and More on Nola.com
What’s Really Driving the Demolition of Public Housing in New Orleans?

On Thursday, December 20th 2007 the New Orleans City Council voted unanimously to demolish more than 4500 units of public housing in the city. The vote was taken after the council locked out opposition from the meeting, even though the chambers were reportedly not filled to capacity. The Council and mayor had prepared for the day weeks in advance by assigning more than 120 police officers to 12-hour shifts, placing officers around the building and blocking all entrance points. According to spokespeople for the Coalition to Stop Demolition, the Council also made sure to pack the room with demolition supporters early in the morning to fill up more than half of the seats.

Outraged and desperate to defend their homes, the collective of public housing residents and their allies locked outside of City Hall’s gates broke through the fence twice, demanding entrance. Both times they were turned back with pepper spray and tazers by the NOPD. Inside the chamber pro-housing activists were tackled and dragged out after disrupting the meeting to demand the gates be opened and empty seats filled.

The Times-Picayune published video of the incident online at nola.com along with a congratulatory story about the vote entitled “Unanimous”:

Over the next 2 days more than 190 comments were made by readers of the Times-Picayune in response to the following question: “were police reckless?”

Most of these comments reveal the deep and vicious racism that lies beneath support for demolition of public housing. The majority of comments made about the protest at City Hall and public housing give several major justifications for housing demolition, along with unabashed support for a highly repressive police state to quell dissent (sorry Times-Pic, what was that about “unanimous”?). Much of the support for demolition rests on openly racist notions of public housing residents as “animals,” and “welfare queens” and visions of the “projects” as nothing more than environments that serve to “breed a particularly bad criminal element.” There is zero recognition that as tough as it was to live in a hypersegregated working class neighborhood, these were still communities, these were still affordable homes.

Many commentators call for using “attack dogs” and “water canons” on protesters without any apparent irony. They are, purposefully of not, evoking imagery of the mid-century Jim Crow police state attacking civil rights activists across the South, and later the use of highly militarized police force to crush the urban rebellions of the late 1960s.

“Posted by widewater on 12/20/07 at 3:07PM
A couple of police dogs behind the gate would of prevented all of that.

Posted by 70114 on 12/20/07 at 3:08PM
Bring out the fire hoses. Most of the protesters looked like they needed a bath anyway.

Posted by mineshaft on 12/20/07 at 3:09PM
well said Mocatova! funny! we all need a good laugh.... widewater is right too.....what about them dogs!?

Posted by RIVER500 on 12/20/07 at 3:44PM
Withabeard: I agree the police should be better prepared. Full riot gear, horses, and K-9s would have kept these losers 10 blocks away!

“12/20/07 at 2:54PM

Posted by outtahere64 on 12/21/07 at 12:08AM
I miss the water cannons (using tanks of cold water) and police dogs. I guess Tazers are ok but the rubber bullets and electrified fences were a real kick.”

It seems that many of the Picayune’s readers want to return to these good old days when the police could just beat down dissent in New Orleans and elsewhere, when attack dogs and water canons could be unleashed without a second thought, when the Bull Connors of the world reigned supreme. Pre-Katrina was too much a post-civil rights era for these New Orleanians who see the post-Katrina opportunities of re-establishing a pre-civil rights regime. One commentator even asks:

“Whatever happened to NOPD's tank? I haven't seen it since the earily 1980's. It was bought back during the Black Panther days in Desire Housing Project. Did it drown in Katrina?”
(Posted by kabel on 12/20/07 at 4:32PM)”

True enough, when the Black Panthers attempted to organize the Desire housing development in the 1970s the NOPD carried out a full-scale military siege of the Party’s headquarters (at one time an apartment in the development). Brutal police repression against public housing residents and their allies has a long history in this city. Radical political campaigns by the black working class have always been beat back with police and military forces.

Railing against “hippies,” two commentators indirectly recognize the scale of the police state’s grasp on public housing residents:

“Posted by govtwatchdog on 12/20/07 at 6:33PM
The ones trying to break the gate open should be put in central lockup for the weekend. They can then bond with their people from the projects.

Posted by diamondsea on 12/21/07 at 6:08PM
Ley them in - Let them In - Let them in ...to CENTRAL LOCKUP!!!
Hopefully the courts are adjouned until Wednesday Jan 3rd.
Then they'll have a cance to mee a lot of the former residents of the projects up close and personal.”

Of course neither “govtwatchdog” nor “diamondsea” seem to have any critical insights into why such a large proportion of New Orleans’ (and Louisiana’s) incarcerated are young black men. They and other commentators explain this in terms of criminal nature, personal irresponsibility, and law and order. They cannot understand how the very racism and hostile privatism they foster helps create the conditions of impoverishment and inequality that often leads a small percentage of ghetto residents to crime. Nor can they understand the most important factor, how a structurally racist police force and legal system work to lock up blacks at rates far disproportionate to whites in New Orleans and nationally. Louisiana has the highest rate of incarceration in the US, 835 per 100,000 residents. Blacks constitute 32% of Louisiana’s population, but 72% of its prison population.

Many commentators refer to public housing residents as ungrateful dependents instead of the hard working citizens that many of them are. These comments stem from a general anti-welfarist mentality that is highly racialized. Several commentators invoke a “culture of poverty argument” placing the blame for poverty squarely on the shoulders of the poor while also criminalizing and pathologizing poor people’s attempts to eek out a life of dignity under the given conditions.

“Posted by jas1 on 12/20/07 at 3:39PM
I guess when you live off of the system ALL your life and teach your children to live off of the system it's hard to change. They don't want to get a job and rely on themselves, that would be against what they learned ALL their lives. Why isn't the people that are for demolition there, BECAUSE WE WORK TO SUPPORT THE HANDOUTS!”

Posted by DrWiggles on 12/20/07 at 9:58PM

The Times-Picayune even fanned these reactionary flames several days before the council vote by running a photo of Sharon Jasper, a public housing resident in her new section 8 home. (http://blog.nola.com/updates/2007/12/housing_officials_claim_surplu.html). Jasper, a resident from St. Bernard development who has been leading the mobilization to reopen public housing was shown in a red gown and slippers in her living room with a big screen TV against the wall. Nearly 300 comments were made about the photo, most of them declaring fraud, ingratitude, calling Jasper “lazy,” a “welfare queen,” “leech,” and “animal.” Nowhere in the story was it mentioned that Jasper is elderly, disabled, and worked most of her adult life. She lives on a fixed income in a small subsidized unit after losing her apartment in St. Bernard. Her portrayal by the Times-Picayune, however, drew up condemnations and hate from a deep well of racism and hostility against government assistance, especially that which benefits black people.

Many of the comments following nola.com’s protest video referred to the activists as “outsiders” who have come to New Orleans and are only getting in the way of the real reconstruction efforts. In a literal throwback to white supremacist rhetoric during the Reconstruction era “nolahero” exclaims:

“12/20/07 at 8:07PM
That looked like a bunch of carpetbagger hippie losers.”

Although the word nigger remains unused by any commentators, one uses the word “wigger” to identify whites at the City Hall protest. It seems to serve as a sort of placeholder or indirect referent:

“Posted by oracle2005 on 12/20/07 at 5:56PM
It is the most appropriate use of the word WIGGER I have ever seen. They are useful fools.”

Another commentator asks, “who is behind this?,” implying that the struggle has no real roots in the work of public housing residents themselves. It is a question that just as easily could have been uttered by reactionaries during the McCarthy era, but it’s 2007. Others demand that the “hippies” go home, and again refer to black New Orleanians as “animals.”

“Posted by MrGunn on 12/20/07 at 3:51PM
Will we ever know who's behind all this?

Posted by TIGAZZFAN33 on 12/21/07 at 10:30AM
The majority of those protesters are professional protesters brought in from out of state. They are PAID protesters who will protest whatever you pat them to….

Posted by livingpo on 12/20/07 at 4:36PM
Go home hippies and take the animals with you!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

Posted by delta13894 on 12/20/07 at 5:30PM
Ah I long for the good old days When these people could be driven to the parish line, dropped of, and told to go back to whatever rock the crawled out from under. I think it would be a great idea to round up the out of state protesters and lock them up for a few weeks, or at least until after the bowl games. Let's take out the trash.”

The most disturbing commentary appearing in response to the Times-Picayune’s coverage is that which is supportive of ethnic cleansing. It appears in both openly racist terms, but also in thinly veiled liberal terms. The black working class is alternately referred to as “apes,” “the criminal element,” or “vermin.” Lest we too quickly identify this kind of rabid racism with no-name commentators on nola.com, remember that even elected representatives in high office (Rep. Richard Baker for example) have praised the “cleaning up” of New Orleans’ public housing.

“Posted by mineshaft on 12/20/07 at 4:58PM
Hooray for the Rebirth of one of the greatest cities in the world!
The cleansing of the (New) New Orleans.....it has begun, let us all keep it going...doing whatever it takes to prevent it from slipping back into the control of the people who would destroy it for their own greed.

Posted by govtwatchdog on 12/20/07 at 6:44PM
I don't owe a damn thing to nobody. Tear them down and DON'T rebuild anything for them. Go out and work and earn and save and invest. New Orleans is turning white and some people don't like it. So MOVE.

Posted by deaconblue01 on 12/21/07 at 2:48PM
Were the animals pounding at the gate acting responsibly? I think not. NOPD is to be commended for handling the scum the way they did. Many of those poor excuses for humanity are the very vermin living in public housing. That's what people are protesting for? Get real. Thank you City Council for voting the way you did. If Katrina did one thing right, she washed out the biggest collection of slums and ghetto residents in existence. Keep the momentum going and maybe New Orleans has a chance of once again becoming the great city it used to be.”

One commentator even offers a decent political analysis to praise the ethnic cleansing he and others see occurring via the City Council vote:

“Posted by ward9son on 12/20/07 at 11:59PM
The election of Jackie Clarkson as the 4th vote for reforming public housing is the ONLY REASON this vote passed today.
For a set of minor conccesions, the three black members voted with the white majority to bring a chance for reform and quality to the failed, disgraceful status quo.
And this NEVER would have occurred had Willard Lewis been elected to Council at large, and her seat filled by yet another politically connected black racial coward from New Orleans East to take her place in District E. Instead, the plantation would have rolled along, and the black majority council would have stalled demolition until
Hillary Clinton won, and Mary Landrieyu helped move a new genration of unemplyed-forever dole takers into 9,000 rehabed HANO apartments to go along with the affordable units contained in every, and I mean every, apartment coming online in this city.
And then, the black politicos and the Dems would have their Choclate City as desired, bigger, and more hopeless, and more vote-producing than ever - the quality of the people the claim to help BE DAMNED !!!”

But for the final word, I will let one of the minority commentators on the Times-Picayunes coverage speak:

“Posted by SeaSalt2 on 12/20/07 at 8:56PM
Listen to you all, so near to the birth of Christ, ranting and raving against the poor, asserting that the only reason they can't afford better living conditions is because they're "financially irresponsible" or lazy. Shame on you all, it must be easy to sit back and tell people why they're poor and starving. Maybe if you worked all day for below minimum wage, maybe if you got suckered into drug dealing because you wanted to feed your family, maybe if your employer took all the jobs to Mexico or another country where he/she doesn't have to pay as much for labor. Maybe if the school system failed you, preventing you from getting a good education, or if you never even went because you had to work to help your parents eat. Maybe then you'd figure out that social mobility and the American Dream are about as real as Santa Claus, and maybe then you wouldn't be so smug or ravenous.
It's funny, you keep referring to the protesters as animals, but the way you talk about them, shrieking with glee when they're pepper-sprayed, right or wrong, makes you no better.
Sure, the protesters are privileged. If anyone from the projects could afford to stop working for a second I'm sure they would be there too. I'm sure if they all had computers they could come to this site and defend themselves to, and communicate their hardships. But they, unlike you, don't have that luxury. So keep kicking them while they're down, and keep mocking the people that are privileged who actually care about those who can't defend themselves, who don't have a voice in this society because it's parched by thirst and hunger. But remember, in your unsympathetic privilege:
The Lord giveth, the Lord taketh away.
Who would Jesus evict?
Whose home would Jesus destroy?
Blessings to you all, and to all the afflicted and evicted.”


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.


2-Cent is a project that brings together some of Nola's best rappers under the banner of the Right of Return Movement. Check this out: