[News] Battle Over Discriminatory Housing Laws in New Orleans

Anti-Imperialist News news at freedomarchives.org
Fri Sep 11 12:01:05 EDT 2009


September 11-13, 2009

Alice Walker, Oprah Winfrey and Obama Have Been Drawn Into the Fight

The Battle Over Discriminatory Housing Laws in New Orleans


Rebuilding efforts in St. Bernard Parish, a small 
community just outside New Orleans, have recently 
gotten a major boost. One nonprofit focused on 
rebuilding in the area has received the 
endorsement of CNN, Alice Walker, the touring 
production of the play The Color Purple, and even 
President Obama. But an alliance of Gulf Coast 
and national organizations are now raising 
questions about the cause these high profile names are supporting.

The dispute focuses on the responsibility of 
relief organizations to speak out against 
injustice in the communities in which they work. 
Since September of 2006, St. Bernard Parish has 
been aggressive in passing racially 
discriminatory laws and ordinances. Although 
these laws have faced condemnation in Federal 
court and in the media, rebuilding organizations 
active in the parish have so far refused to take a public position.

Racial discrimination has a long history in St. 
Bernard politics. Judge Leander Perez, a fiery 
leader who dominated the parish for almost 50 
years, was known nationally as a spokesman for 
racial segregation. The main road through the 
Parish was named after Perez, and his legacy 
still has a hold on the political scene there. 
Lynn Dean, a member of the St Bernard parish 
council told reporter Lizzy Ratner, "They don't 
want the blacks back
 What they'd like to do now 
with Katrina is say, we'll wipe out all of them. 
They're not gonna say that out in the open, but 
how do you say? Actions speak louder than words. There's their action."

The action Lynn was referencing is a “blood 
relative” ordinance the council passed in 2006. 
The law made it illegal for Parish homeowners to 
rent to anyone not directly related to the 
renter. In St Bernard, which was 85% white before 
Katrina hit, this effectively kept African 
Americans, many of whom were still displaced from 
New Orleans and looking for nearby housing, from 
moving in. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing 
Action Center sued the Parish, saying the 
ordinance violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act. A 
judge agreed, saying it was racially discriminatory in intent and impact.

The story doesn’t end there. St. Bernard’s 
government agreed to a settlement, but the 
illegal ordinance was followed by another, 
blocking multi-family construction in the Parish. 
Last month, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan 
found the Parish to be in contempt of court, 
saying, “The Parish Council's intent
is and was 
racially discriminatory." An editorial in the New 
Orleans Times-Picayune agreed, saying, “This 
ruling strips off the camouflage and reveals St. 
Bernard's actions for what they really are: an 
effort to keep lower-income people and 
African-Americans from moving into the mostly white parish.”

Relief Work Questioned

St. Bernard Parish was heavily damaged by 
flooding in the aftermath of Katrina. Thirteen 
percent of households lived below the federal 
poverty line, and every home took in water. Many 
organizations and volunteers have come through to 
volunteer time and donate money, including United 
Way, Salvation Army, and the Greater New Orleans Foundation.

An organization called the St. Bernard Project, 
which was founded in 2006 by two transplants from 
Washington, DC, has become one of the most high 
profile organizations active in the region, with 
millions of dollars in corporate and individual 
donations and thousands of volunteers.

This has been a big couple of weeks for the St. 
Bernard Project. On August 29, President Obama 
mentioned them in his weekly address, saying, 
“The St. Bernard Project has drawn together 
volunteers to rebuild hundreds of homes, where 
people can live with dignity and security." Last 
week, the touring production of the Broadway show 
The Color Purple, produced by Oprah Winfrey, 
announced that they will be raising money for the 
organization, and that author Alice Walker will 
be personally participating in the fundraising. 
Last year, CNN named co-founder Liz McCartney its Hero of the Year.

But this national acclamation has only increased 
criticisms of the work happening in the Parish. 
Lance Hill, the executive director of the 
Southern Institute for Education and Research at 
Tulane University, first raised his voice on the 
issue in 2006, after the ordinance was passed. 
Hill is quick to point out that he is not against 
rebuilding work in the Parish. However, he adds, 
“If they chose to rebuild homes that Blacks and 
Jews would be barred from, at a minimum they have 
a moral obligation to inform volunteers of the 
policies of the Parish. To not do so is to 
mislead volunteers and donors and to become complicit with racism.”

Hill is also one of the signatories of an open 
letter, released this week, which expresses deep 
concerns over rebuilding efforts in the parish. 
“Regrettably, many relief and volunteer 
organizations chose not to respond to the ‘blood 
relative’ law, remaining silent on this issue,” 
the letter states. “With the benefit of 
hindsight, we now know that St. Bernard Parish 
officials interpreted silence as consent, which 
has now emboldened this rogue government to 
pursue other means to defy the Fair Housing Act.”

Organizers say that the letter is intended to 
pressure organizations to think about larger 
issues of injustice as they work in the region. 
“It is time that we take a stand against housing 
discrimination in St. Bernard and throughout the 
Gulf Coast,” the letter states. “And make clear 
what the moral imperatives are for all 
organizations that seek to rebuild the Gulf Coast 
as a fair and just society.” Among the signers of 
the letter are human rights organizations like 
the National Economic and Social Rights 
Initiative, regional groups like Moving Forward 
Gulf Coast, and local initiatives like MayDay 
Nola, which works on housing in New Orleans.

Zack Rosenburg, the cofounder of St. Bernard 
Project, is angered by the complaints of Hill and 
others. “We are not an advocacy group and we're 
not commenting on that,” he told me, referring to 
the laws of the Parish. “We’re helping people get 
home.” Rosenburg added that at least 30% of the 
families they have worked with have been African 
American, and he asked me to “think about the 
Black families who are living in FEMA trailers 
and want to move home, before writing this 
try to build things up instead of pulling things down.”

Lance Hill and other advocates claim that working 
on relief without challenging systemic injustices 
actually exacerbates the problem. They point out 
that the number of houses rebuilt for African 
Americans in the community – perhaps two hundred 
at the most, if you include all nonprofits 
working in the area – pales in comparison to the 
thousands that have potentially been excluded by 
the laws of the parish. “The main reason that 
these relief groups have had to 
disproportionately rebuild Black rentals,” 
explains Hill, “is because the Parish is tearing 
down or blocking construction of affordable 
housing faster than the relief groups can rebuild.”

“This is why this issue in St. Bernard has 
troubled me so much,” adds Hill. “Exclusion is at 
the core of the injustices of Katrina. The 
deliberate efforts to prevent people from 
returning and the denial that these policies and 
practices were in place has been the central 
issue. The exclusionary ideology that was 
widespread in the white community in New Orleans became law in St. Bernard.”

Organizers hope that the multiple levels of 
pressure will ultimately challenge elected 
officials in St. Bernard Parish to make the area 
an example of rebuilding with justice for all. 
“Our silence doesn’t help anybody,” says Hill. 
“It destroys more than the relief groups can ever dream of building.”

Jordan Flaherty is a journalist based in New 
Orleans, and an editor of Left Turn Magazine. He 
was the first writer to bring the story of the 
Jena Six to a national audience and his reporting 
on post-Katrina New Orleans shared a journalism 
award from New America Media. He is also 
co-director of PATOIS: The New Orleans 
International Human Rights Film Festival. He can 
be reached at <mailto:neworleans at leftturn.org>neworleans at leftturn.org.

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