If you hear the dogs, keep running. That's what Hillary Clinton told us Tuesday evening, invoking Harriet Tubman shepherding runaway slaves through the dark night toward freedom. It was an inspiring refrain, especially given the fact that, to many, it is still controversial to suggest that the U.S. government should apologize for the barbarity from which Tubman fled. Like so many moments during the Democrats' convention, I was stirred, until I remembered just how many black people continue to chase liberty.
All week long, commentators and delegates alike have thrown around words like "transcendent" and "historic" to describe Barack Obama's ascendance to the head of his party. For four nights, symbolic flashes of America's determined progress and storied opportunity poured from the Democrats' dais. Historic coincidences abounded—the anniversaries of the March on Washington and the 19th Amendment, Ted Kennedy's valedictory address—adding gravitas to the business at hand.
But when it all ended last night, we arrived at the week's most fitting symbolic moment: the third anniversary of Hurricane Katrina. As the Democrats concluded their coronation of America's would-be black president, black New Orleans entered a fourth year of running from the dogs of our government's criminal neglect. That's a sad, sobering reminder that, feel good political history aside, America is still stalked by its racial demons.
It would take remarkable cynicism to dismiss the stunning sight of the Obama family on the convention's opening night. The image of a beautiful, confident and clearly loving black family launching a competitive run for the White House was electrifying. The sharp, commanding speeches of both Clinton and Michelle Obama offered similarly exhilarating examples of what the future may hold for America's daughters.
Barack Obama's deft, forceful articulation of where he plans to take the country as he accepted the Democratic nomination was also substantively hopeful. Unlike most other speakers, he acknowledged Katrina, arguing that we are a better country than one that "sits on its hands while a major American city drowns before our eyes." Under a President Obama, that may, in fact, be so.
Tomorrow, however, is not today. And nowhere is that fact more apparent than in the Gulf Coast. Long after cable news celebrities left Louisiana, after Kanye West's decorum-breaking condemnation faded from memory, after America turned its collective outrage elsewhere, black New Orleans remains a disaster zone. The flood receded years ago, but the damage to community lingers like stagnant, toxic water.
Take the most basic measure: a place for people to live. A report earlier this month, from the think tank PolicyLink, showed major housing recovery programs are falling far, far short of actual need. The three largest federally funded programs will cover the cost of less than a third of the rental units Katrina destroyed and have thus far made just 10 percent of those units livable. Former homeowners aren't doing any better: Four out of five got grants that didn't cover their repair costs, falling short by an average of almost $55,000.
Not surprisingly, then, the recovery has been stunningly segregated, with the most concentrated rebuilding efforts taking place in affluent, white communities. As of this June, the Lower Ninth Ward had regained less than 20 percent of its population, according to the Brookings Institution. Meanwhile, population in the tourism-focused district that includes the French Quarter had actually grown from its pre-Katrina level. By all measures, that area of the city is, in fact, experiencing a remarkable revival. Property values are higher, sales tax revenues are up, jobs are multiplying, and that area of the city is home to a substantially greater share of the population than before the storm hit.
The rebuilding imbalance should surprise no one—it's the same one that existed before the flood. Displaced Ninth Ward resident Scott Roberts said it best when explaining, in the new documentary Trouble the Water, why he didn't expect to see much difference when he got back to his old neighborhood. "We were staying in slum conditions anyway it goes," Roberts sighed. "You know, we was the Season-All at the bottom of the can that don't want to shake out."
Roberts' astute, if unsettling observation could have been said about far too many poor neighborhoods and communities around the country. But it's not the sort of sentiment that made it into the Democrats' hopeful showcase this week. Clinton's now famous "18 million cracks" in the glass ceiling for women, for instance, was a recurring boast. But which women are we talking about? Women overall earn just 77 cents on the dollar compared to men; black women earn a lousy 62 cents. Latinas get 53 cents.
Americans prefer forward-looking politicians, people with solutions and hope for a better tomorrow. Change we can believe in. That's a positive strain in our political culture. But it often runs parallel to a steadfast refusal to acknowledge difficult realities and explore their root causes so they can be altered.
It's an indisputably amazing feat that, 45 years to the day after Martin Luther King Jr. delivered his "Dream" speech demanding equal opportunity in America, a black man secured the Democratic Party's nomination to be president. Surely, it shows this country has undergone profound changes, no matter how gradual. But just as surely, our nation's willingness to shrug and move on just three years after watching the government's horrific abandonment of black New Orleans is damning evidence of just how much remains the same.