April 1, 2006
Black Like Me
Living in New Orleans—post-Katrina—gives the author a new appreciation for exile and neglect.
I’ve been black for four months, one week, and five days. I’m still not used to it, and that’s kind of a funny thing since I grew up Jewish in Waco, Texas. Believe me, you know what it means to be different when you grow up Jewish in Waco. But over the last four months I’ve learned that being black means more than just being different: it means being forgotten. It means being ignored. It means being in-sulted. It means being stripped of your dig-nity repeatedly. It means being the object of mistrust, ignorance, and fear. It means many, many unpleasant things.
But it means good things too. It means camaraderie for one. We don’t all know one another, of course, but we know what we share. Being black means having a more nuanced worldview and a keener understanding of human nature. It also means pride: we have been through something together and we’ve grown from it. That feels good.
You’re probably thinking that Reed Kroloff doesn’t sound like a black name. And for those of you who used to see my picture in Architecture magazine once a month, you might swear you remembered me as a white guy. You’re right: I was a white guy, and that was fine with me. I probably would have gone on happily being a white guy my whole life and never thought much of it.
Then Katrina hit and everything changed. At first the change was just shock. I live in New Orleans, and watching that great city disappear beneath the brackish waters of Lake Pontchartrain was strange. I had felt the feeling before: I was walking through Greenwich Village when the World Trade Center was at-tacked, and I remember the whole thing just didn’t seem real. I watched the buildings come down, and still it didn’t seem like it was happening. It felt like some weird, bad television show. The same was true as I watched New Orleans in those first few days. I just kept staring as the water spread and spread, and I felt almost nothing.
But hell soon belched its way up and through the city, and my emotions came back to life. As we saw people suffer and watched the federal government decide to sit this one out, I got angry. Later as we learned the whole thing could have been prevented—that our levee system had been improperly engineered, badly built, and poorly maintained—I got angry again. And then I sat and listened to the ranting of one Republican congressperson and senator after another—implying that this was somehow our own fault, that New Orleanians were shiftless people who couldn’t take care of themselves, that the city had only high crime and good music to recommend it, and that the rest of the country had begun to “fatigue” of us. They said these horrible things directly to us, things you wouldn’t say to someone you hated, and said them as if they couldn’t see us, as if we weren’t there. That’s when I noticed I had become black.
At first I wondered if it was just me, but I quickly realized it wasn’t. In fact everyone who lives in New Orleans became black late last summer, if they weren’t already. The sad thing, of course, is that most of our African-American population—more than 65 percent of the city—isn’t even here right now. They’re waiting to learn if they can move back into their homes, whether there will be a school for their children to attend if they do come back, whether they have a job here, whether they will be able to exercise their constitutional rights and vote in our upcoming mayoral election. They’re waiting, like the rest of us, for the government to release the baseline information that will enable people to begin answering those questions.
For instance, the state of Mississippi, whose governor is the former chairman of the Republican National Committee, learned from the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) in November how its new flood elevation maps would look. These are the documents that tell people where they will be able to build (or rebuild) and expect little niceties like flood insurance. Why, do you suppose, are New Orleans and nearly the entire state of Louisiana still awaiting that information? Is Mississippi that much easier to map?
How can Congress refuse to protect the nation’s fifth-largest port from killer storms? The money appropriated to repair the levees last December will only bring them to where they were supposed to be when Katrina hit, but they still wouldn’t be able to withstand a category-five storm. The real estate value of this city is estimated at $500 billion—and that’s without its oil and gas refineries. Restoring the coastal wetlands, improving the levees, and creating a series of sea gates would cost about six percent of that—or just over $100 per person, spread out over the entire United States.
It comes down to this: forget that New Orleans is one of this nation’s greatest cultural capitals. Forget that it generates billions of dollars annually in goods, services, and taxes. Forget that it has the country’s largest collection of intact single-family Victorian architecture. Ultimately none of that matters. What matters is that New Orleans is an American city. Americans live here, nearly half a million of them. Through ineptitude and lethal neglect, the U.S. government unleashed on this fragile city one of the worst man-made disasters the country has ever seen. More than 1,000 people died. And through no fault of their own, hundreds of thousands more were driven from their homes, and most are still gone. Miles and miles and miles of this city have been ruined.
We’re industrious folk down here, despite rumors to the contrary. We’ve spent the last 12 weeks engaged in a remarkable effort to chart our future. Citizens’ committees have met, a mayoral commission has reported (I sit on its Urban Design Committee), and we are ready to begin the planning effort that could bring our people home. At this point, though, I’m not at all sure we will save the city. We need Congress to pass legislation that will allow us to compensate homeowners who lost everything. (Again, these people didn’t build the faulty levees.) We need loans to keep our local government—which suddenly has no tax base—alive. We still need help hauling away refuse that totals more than our normal output over 30 years. We’re still here, and we still need help.
Ich bin ein New Orleanian. Where is the ringing rhetoric now? More important, where are the soaring ideals, and the best and brightest solutions? Excuse me, but I don’t think FEMA is the answer.
I also know, of course, that I am not really black. As an American Jew, I know firsthand about prejudice and ignorance, and I can share that pain with African-Americans. I can even sympathize with histories of exclusion. But we’re talking orders of magnitude here. And what I haven’t shared—what I haven’t experienced—is the slow-burning frustration of being at the table but not invited to sit down, of people talking right through me to some other audience. In other words, I’ve never known what it means to be invisible—until now.