Beyond Repair

I am struggling with a moral and intellectual dilemma. I am a progressive, African American academic committed to battling racial inequality and I do not want my public voice deployed against struggling communities. So I have been reluctant to admit that I am ambivalent about racialized demands to rebuild New Orleans. Displaced black citizens are insisting on return -- they want their city rebuilt as it was before Katrina -- because they reasonably fear the loss of all they have invested. But simultaneous and complete urban reconstruction is impossible. I finally choose to speak because I fear that if we focus exclusively on rebuilding we will miss an opportunity to demand another and arguably more just option: restoration.

I want New Orleans back. I am not a native of the city, but I am grieving the enormity of its loss. We witnessed the devastation of one of the most artistically innovative, linguistically complicated, and culturally rich black communities on earth. Black people built the city's culture, staffed its hotels, harvested its resources, and developed its neighborhoods. But the investment they made was never reciprocated. Local and national governments allowed black citizens to live in segregated, vulnerable communities. When decades of government neglect and incompetence led to the catastrophic levee breaches this summer, the government allowed black people to starve in American streets while the world watched on television.

I went to New Orleans in November and talked with dozens of survivors as they demanded justice. They were trying to carve out a new life in the devastated city because, even in ruins, New Orleans felt like home. But many also recognized that the city for which they sighed was irretrievably lost. When they told me they wanted to go home, they were really saying that they wished this had never happened.

Our country's history is littered with the black bodies of citizens victimized by institutional racism and broken promises that went by the names “states rights,” “Southern custom,” “separate but equal,” “selective sterilization,” “meritocracy,” “urban redevelopment,” “war on drugs,” and “welfare to work.” National surveys show that Katrina tapped into this history and fueled deep racial distrust. In September I conducted a national survey with two colleagues. We found that more than 80 percent of black Americans believe the federal government's response would have been faster if most victims had been white; by contrast, only 20 percent of whites believe that. And nearly 90 percent of African Americans believe the disaster revealed continuing racial inequality, while only 38 percent of whites agree. A wide perceptual gulf separates black and white Americans on each of these issues and leaves many African Americans feeling that there is no safe place for them in America.

I believe these respondents are correct: There is no justice in the simple right to return because the waters will rise again. Future hurricanes may increase in frequency and intensity. The natural barriers against the storms are eroding annually. The political barriers against destruction eroded long ago. There is no national will to provide adequate protection. Just a third of white Americans believe that we should spend whatever is necessary to rebuild the New Orleans. There will be no category-five levees.

But there is another route to more certain, if less complete, justice. The citizens of New Orleans can be restored. What would restoration look like? The federal government would pay homeowners the pre-Katrina, fair-market value of their homes and land. The federal government would provide educational grants and living assistance for two full years to all Katrina survivors. The federal government would underwrite the full cost of physical and mental health care for all survivors for two full years. Rather than haphazard redevelopment of the eastern parts of New Orleans, the city should designate substantial portions of remaining, safer neighborhoods for low-income housing. All Katrina survivors would be immediately re-enfranchised and given the choice of registering as New Orleans voters for the next two years or of registering in their new communities.

Americans are suffering because their government failed to protect them from Katrina. They deserve to be restored. Black people have sustained the loss of our motherland, our names, our histories, our languages, our freedom, and our children. In the midst of our losses we have always taken fragments of our homes with us into terrifying, forced Diasporas and with these fragments we enriched every land we touched. We made new communities. We must do it again, but this time we should be compensated for the losses we suffered.

Melissa Harris Lacewell is assistant professor of political science at the University of Chicago and author of Barbershops, Bibles, and BET: Everyday Talk and Black Political Thought.