Battle for New Orleans, 6 Years After Katrina

Political power has shifted to whites, but blacks have not given up their struggle for a voice -- and justice.

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As this weekend's storm has reminded us, hurricanes can be a threat to U.S. cities on the East Coast as well as the Gulf. But the vast changes that have taken place in New Orleans since Katrina have had little to do with weather, and everything to do with political struggles.

Six years after the federal levees failed and 80 percent of the city was flooded, New Orleans has lost 80,000 jobs and 110,000 residents. It is a whiter and wealthier city, with tourist areas well-maintained while communities like the Lower 9th Ward remain devastated. Beyond the statistics, it is still a much-contested city.

Politics continue to shape how the changes to New Orleans are viewed. For some, the city is a crime scene of corporate profiteering and the mass displacement of African Americans and the working poor; for others it's an example of bold public-sector reforms, taken in the aftermath of a natural disaster, that have led the way for other cities.

In the wake of Katrina, New Orleans saw the rise of a new class of citizens. They self-identify as YURPs -- young urban rebuilding professionals -- and they work in architecture, urban planning, education and related fields. While the city was still mostly empty, they spoke of a freedom to experiment, unfettered by the barriers of bureaucratic red tape and public comment. Working with local and national political and business leaders, they made rapid changes in the city's education system, public housing and nonprofit sector.

Along the way, the face of elected government changed in the city and state. Among the offices that switched from black to white were mayor, police chief, district attorney and representatives on the school board and City Council, both of which switched to white majorities for the first time in a generation. Louisiana also transformed from a state with several statewide elected Democrats to having only one: Sen. Mary Landrieu.

While black community leaders have said that the displacement after the storm has robbed African Americans of their civic representation, another narrative has also taken shape. Many in the media and business elite have said that a new political class -- which happens to be mostly white -- is reshaping the politics of the city into a postracial era.

"Our efforts are changing old ways of thinking," said Mayor Mitch Landrieu, shortly after he was elected in 2010. After accusing his critics of being stuck in the past, Landrieu -- who was the first mayor in modern memory elected with the support of a majority of both black and white voters -- added, "We're going to rediscipline ourselves in this city."

The changes in the public sector have been widespread. Shortly after the storm, the entire staff of the public school system was fired. Their union, which had been the largest union in the city, ceased to be recognized. With many parents, students and teachers driven out of the city by Katrina and unable to have a say in the decision, the state took over the city's schools and began shifting them over to charters.

"The reorganization of the public schools has created a separate but unequal tiered system of schools that steers a minority of students, including virtually all of the city's white students, into a set of selective, higher-performing schools, and most of the city's students of color into a set of lower-performing schools," writes lawyer and activist Bill Quigley, in a report prepared with fellow Loyola law professor Davida Finger.

In many ways, the changes in the New Orleans school system, initiated almost six years ago, foreshadowed a battle that has played out more conspicuously this year in Wisconsin, Indiana, New Jersey and other states, where teachers and their unions were assailed by both Republican governors and liberal reformers such as the filmmakers behind Waiting for Superman. Similarly, the battle of New Orleans' public housing -- which was torn down and replaced by new units built in public-private partnerships that house a small percentage of the former residents -- prefigured national battles over government's role in solving problems related to poverty.

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