22 April 2006

Chocolate City

New Orleans mayor Ray Nagin has deservedly taken a lot of stick for promising that his town would remain a "chocolate city," though it's far from the only reason he should be turned out of office in today's election. What's heartening is that the double standard seems to finally be fading away, and a black politician can be called to account for playing the race card just as surely as a white one who promised a "vanilla" or an "angelfood" city would be.

Of course there are still plenty of exponents of the "black people can't be racist" school of thought, including author Tim Wise, who trots out that tired canard, arguing that, "To blacks, racism is systemic. To whites, it is purely personal."

That may sound profound or insightful at first glance, but it's essentially ideological gobbledygook. True, there was a time when laws and institutions were deliberately used to prevent black people from living in certain places or from enjoying basic human rights, but that time is largely past. Wise undercuts his own claim when he points out how many major American cities have become predominantly black (what happened to the "system," then?) and compounds his error by maintaining that this is the fault of white people (isn't it always?) who "fled in order to get away from black people."

I'm sure there are white racists who pack their bags at the first sight of a black face in the neighbourhood, and I'm just as sure (because I've met them) there are black people who'd prefer not to have anything to do with white people, and who don't hesitate to say so. But the vast majority of people who move out of the inner city, often incurring great financial loss to do so, are not trying to "get away from black people," they are fleeing endemic crime and violence, unlivable neighbourhoods, and corrupt and incompetent local governments. Whether you want to associate all those factors with "black people" is up to you; I'll only point out that many blacks are just as eager to move out of the ghetto as whites are. Does this mean they want to "get away from black people," too?

New Orleans' problem, both before and after Hurricane Katrina, was not the racial composition of its citizenry, it was that it was crime-ridden, corrupt, mismanaged, and essentially a dumping ground for huge numbers of America's underclass. The colour of that underclass is not the main issue, even if it can hardly be ignored. But the main question New Orleans has to answer is this: in whose interest is it to rebuild large sections of the city that functioned mainly as a dysfunctional welfare colony?

Of course there's a longstanding tendency to conflate race and class, as though all blacks were poor and all whites were rich, just as ther's a tendency to conflate race and culture, wherein it's assumed that black people all love hiphop and white people can only get down to the arrhythmic bleatings of a Barry Manilow. The result is that time and again, perfectly understandable values - people not wanting to live in a crime-ridden ghetto or not wanting to have a housing project full of drug dealers in their neighbourhood - get branded as "racist," usually by self-serving politicians who don't have to live anywhere near the troubled areas they romanticise as "chocolate" cities.

I don't mean to diminish the very real hardships being experienced by perfectly respectable poor and working people who are having no end of trouble moving back into their New Orleans neighbourhoods while the politicians dither about whether to rebuild or raze them. And I wouldn't deny that there probably is an element of racism in the foot-dragging that has gone on. But these people are as much the victims of the neighbours who turned their areas into slums as they are of politicians who understandably are in no hurry to re-establish those slums.

Because ultimately nobody, of any race or colour, has an intrinsic right to live in any city. I'd love to live in Manhattan, but the fact that I can't afford to is not a function of institutional racism or classism; it's simply because I wasn't born rich or clever or lucky enough to. And cities aren't intrinsically "black" or "white" or any other colour; they're living, constantly evolving organisms. Ideally, the people who live in the new New Orleans will come in all colours, but they won't be chosen for their colour, but for their commitment to making it a great and truly livable city again. Sadly, many of the city's pre-Katrina inhabitants, from the corrupt government and ruling classes right down to the muggers and gang bangers and dope dealers, sorely lacked that commitment. And if they don't come back, I don't think anyone's going to miss them, no matter what colour they might have been.

2 comments:

JasonSpalding said...

Elect Nagin to spite those that stay in New Orleans?

drydock said...

Tim Wise and his fellow traveller's politics are just warmovered 70's maoism minus some of the rhetoric. Every article he writes is an utterly predictable diatribe against "white privilege". It's funny how professors like Wise build their academic careers telling white people to give their privilege. Has anybody suggested that he start with himself?