Thursday, May 11, 2006

Cut the Moral Superiority

I'm beginning to think that conservatives are right that the liberal tendency to blame things on racism is as simplistic as the conservative tendency to deny that racism still exists (my apologies for the David the Likeable style intro). Not everyone who hates Landrieu, or even "the Landrieus," is a racist.

A little background (dead horse flogging?) first, the "Chocolate City" speech might have caused some people to question Nagin's leadership, but his position was shaky long before then. He was still unpopular with blacks (and whites were largely undecided, at best) until the FEMA trailer placement issue. Then, Nagin somehow emerged as the champion of the displaced over the selfish, racist NIMBY's, led by Clarkson and Batt; at least that was the feeling I got from the couple* of emails that I received. I didn't absolve Clarkson and Batt of responsibility and I could certainly understand the feelings of the displaced, but frankly (IMO), the judgement of some returnees was clouded by their smug feelings of moral superiority. It's not racist, for example, to ask what's wrong with the site of the abandoned grocery at Claiborne and Carrollton before agreeing to give up the park across the street. Instead of deigning to answer such questions, Nagin smugly said NIMBY. Yet, people rallied around him. An issue that should have demonstrated his unfitness for office, instead bolstered his position. Frissons of moral superiority may feel good, but you shouldn't let them cloud your judgement.

I believe that there's a similar pattern evident in some of the comments in a discussion at Your Right Hand Thief. It's impossible to discuss New Orleans' decline, and Landrieu's role in it, without discussing race, but that doesn't mean that every Landrieu detractor is a racist.

To begin with an apparently forgotten point, nobody born after 1952 can possibly have lived in pre-Landrieu New Orleans, as an adult. O.K., even if they're not racists themselves, the Landrieu detractors (the "The Landrieus" detractors) might have been influenced by the racially-based anti-Landrieu feelings of their families. Still, it's a point worth remembering.

Second obvious point, the population of New Orleans reached its peak (according to decennial census figures) in 1960 and has declined in every census since. Landrieu was elected in 1970. The population of New Orleans experienced the same post-1960 decline as almost every major American city. There are two major exceptions to this trend: sun belt cities that have been able to expand their boundaries (Atlanta's population declined from 1970-1990 before rebounding somewhat from 1990-2000, for example) and some northern and west coast cities where the decline began in the 1950's-- undoubtedly because of superior roads and ability to commute by rail. New York is an entirely different case, with a basically unchanged population, except for a decline from 1970-1980, followed by a slight rebound in 80's and a larger rebound in the 90's to slightly greater population its 1970 peak.

What the Landrieu detractors are forgetting, in addition to the fact the decline began long before Landrieu became mayor, is that New Orleand was part of nationwide trend. In their defense, crime didn't increase and other urban problems become more apparent until the 70's. But again, that's part of a nationwide pattern--the middle class leaves, the city becomes poorer and crime and blight increase.

Something should be apparent from the above; racial fears weren't the initial cause of America's suburbanization, though they may have later become a primary cause. It occurred in cities without sizable minority populations; transportation was the primary factor in determing when it occurred. As to why it occurred, housing costs and the fact that GI bill favored new home construction provided the initial impetus. Of course, nationwide, people fled the problems that followed, but the term "white flight" is not a totally accurate one.

If you're thinking that New Orleans is different, the suburbanization all followed desegragation, you'd of course be largely correct. But it also followed the opening of the GNO bridge in 1958 and the expansion of the Causeway in 1969 (originally opened 1956). Still, you'd have to be living in utter denial to deny that race wasn't a major factor, but up until Katrina, housing was much more affordable outside of New Orleans. Put yourself in the position of a young, middle-come couple planning to raise a family as recently as 2004. Would you rather face the daily commute to the north shore, or would you rather gamble on your ability to get your children into one of the city's magnet schools? Factor in the cost of housing, and it wouldn't be such an easy choice.

Why the long-winded discourse? Partly because I sense come close mindedness on both sides; mainly because the overworked racism charge should be used more sparingly--for both intellectual and political reasons. Nationwide, Republicans successfully bash Democrats for labeling suburbanites racists. True, they do a good job of exaggerating, but if you use the term "white flight" too freely, you probably do other things to contribute to the perception.

Locally, what's the good of calling a Landrieu basher a racist? Why not just point out that the decline began long before Landrieu became mayor, was part of a nationwide trend and that Landrieu was mayor during the decade that was hardest on cities nationwide? You could even point out that the state and the city have always had a reputation for corruption and that, statewide, business as usual continued under Foster's Republican administration.

Of course, you could call all Landrieu bashers racists. Who knows, some of them just might have an epiphany, confront their inner racists and decide that it's O.K. to vote for one of "The Landrieus" after all. They might even decide that between now and election day.

*Literally, a couple. Hell, I'm lucky to get ten hits a day.

I apologize for missing this post when you wrote it, but I appreciate the commentary, and largely agree that blanket statements of "racism" are too simplistic. An easy, unilluminating answer.

Thank you for making these points.

I enjoyed reading them.
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