Wednesday, August 20, 2008

Guest blog: "The prejudice engine: or, Notes on bias in New Orleans"

Posted By on Wed, Aug 20, 2008 at 6:27 AM

(The following is by Gambit guest blogger and New Orleans resident Leigh C., who maintains her own blog, Liprap’s Lament: The Line. You can read more of her writing there.)

I was reminded recently that we as a nation are only a couple of generations removed from the core civil rights legislation that made integrated schools and public places the law of the land. Discrimination in hiring practices, in college admissions, and in housing applications was to be a thing of the past. Race, creed, or religious denomination was no longer going to prevent anybody from casting a vote, so long as the person was a United States citizen.

And with that, prejudice went underground.

It’s not easy to pinpoint the outright instances of racism as a result. The burden of proof rests even more heavily on the wronged party these days in any case in which bias and bigotry is a factor. Which is why what is being done to this city’s schools is difficult to pin down simply on the basis of bias.

Case in point: the Recovery School District’s Facilities Master Plan.

Let’s add some statistics and some interpretation of those numbers to this and see what happens, with, say:

Low Scenario

This scenario is fundamentally conservative in that it assumes future growth in

population and public school enrollment in New Orleans, but it nonetheless anticipates

that the population of the City by 2017 will still remain substantially below its pre_

Katrina population. Underlying this scenario is the notion that affordable housing will

not be replaced on a one_for_one basis due to the evolution in federal housing policy

and due to the fact that so much of the affordable housing stock prior to Katrina was a

result of the dilapidated (yet habitable) condition of so many structures. Many of these

dilapidated structures have been rendered uninhabitable, thereby precluding their

future occupancy. This scenario also assumes a future deficit in affordable housing as a

consequence of the decision to direct the preponderance of post_Katrina housing

assistance to owner_occupied, rather than renter_occupied, housing.

In terms of market rate housing, this scenario assumes that a diminished local economy

will act as a ceiling on population recovery in the City. The fact that the City was

witnessing a decline in its corporate sector even prior to the storm coupled with quality

of life concerns and concerns about the City’s long_term security from flooding are the

basis for this assumption.

The low scenario assumes that some new, “infill” housing units will be built and

occupied in the coming years, but that the mortgage crisis, an overall slowdown in the

national economy, elevated construction costs, and a soft real estate market in New

Orleans will limit the number of units that will eventually be completed.

Granted, this is only one interpretation of the data, but it seems our mayor was correct in telling us that the market economy would decide how the recovery of this city would go. Economics in the form of reducing everything and everyone to raw data is also deciding for us as parents where and how our children will be educated. The numbers are telling the almighty Pauls – Pastorek and Vallas what is to be demolished and what is to be rebuilt, what will be restored and what will be closed.

The picture is much, much greater than the numbers would suggest. If it could really speak freely, it would say that decisions our government has made at all levels has dictated the way in which these numbers are moving. Like a butterfly flapping its wings halfway across the globe, the doings of folks in New Orleans City Hall, in Baton Rouge, and in Washington DC have contributed to what is happening with the schools here. Money is headed overseas to wars and reconstruction in Afghanistan and Iraq rather than to investment in our own people and places here. Real, lasting change in the form of legislation buttressing the civil rights gains already on the books is repeatedly put off. A form of accountability for the public schools across the nation known as No Child Left Behind actually encourages the schools to become arenas for a one-size-fits-all education based on – you guessed it – the numbers of students they can generate who can pass a certain test.

There’s still a huge hole in this picture – one that Dr Diane Ravitch touched on in the recent New York Times Magazine article on the New Orleans schools.

“The fundamental issue in American education — I say this after 40 years of having read and studied and written about the problems — is one that is demographic”. Poor children, Ravitch said, simply face too many problems outside the classroom. “If you don’t buttress whatever happens in school with social and economic changes that give kids a better chance in life and put their families on a more stable footing, then schools alone are not going to solve the problems of poor student performance. There has to be a range of social and economic strategies to support and enhance whatever happens in school.”

Nothing says “no confidence” like demolition of school facilities with nothing to replace them. There are currently no plans to replace 41 out of 66 of the schools on this map created by Francine Stock. A school is an anchor to any community, and this demographic determination, made without community input , kicks the rebuilding, recovering communities in New Orleans right where it hurts: in the free public education their children, by all rights, should have and are not going to get.

The prejudice engine is further fueled by these underground ways and means to socially and economically cripple the people who cannot afford to be hurt in these ways: the people who desperately want to return and cannot do so. The people who – let’s face it – were mostly poor and black. The people who made up generations of New Orleanians who were displaced by much more than a Federal Flood…

They were displaced, in the end, by those who had the power to bring them back and chose to do otherwise. And those with the power are still blocking the way.

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