The Next Black Diaspora?

One of my distracted–I’m right in the middle of a huge, consuming project–paranoid ramblings right after Katrina (I think the day after, but I’ve really been in a bubble), was that the aftermath of the hurricane, the estimated months of cleanup and years of rebuilding, would result in a diaspora of poorer New Orleans residents (a city whose population was 2/3 black and we don’t have to guess in which direction of the income scale they’re skewed). Now I see this editorial, from Black Commentator, which seems to very much agree with me.

My basic premise was, no one wants to put their life on hold for months or years. The poor especially can’t afford to wait around for a job or place to live to rematerialize. Renters and those without insurance will have no reason to return. Even middle-class property owners of the former city of New Orleans will find returning difficult when they learn that no one will sell them and their employers flood insurance for the next go around. Heck, we had a few cases of mold in Texas and couldn’t buy homeowners insurance for two years.

And the simple truth is, many people have already left. People are still leaving. Getting people out is, rightly, the focus of the “relief” effort at present. If they can’t go back for months or years, they’ll very quickly begin to build new lives in new places. They’ll get jobs, sign leases, put their kids in school. Even if they had the means to return, which many will not, what would be the draw? I don’t believe the average person is that sentimental, and practical limitations will dictate staying put (just as it did for the thousands who stayed in the path of the hurricane against all advice).

But I’m not saying New Orleans is finished. I’m saying a lot of people have left and won’t be returning. What this will probably mean is the availability of a lot of cheap real estate. I think developers, corporations and speculators will come in and snap it up. Once you have those kinds of deep pockets involved, they’ll apply serious pressure to get the levy and pumping situation straightened out for the long haul. So New Orleans will ultimately be a safer, newer city. But my questions echo Mr. Ford’s–what kind of city will New New Orleans be, and who will live there?

5 thoughts on “The Next Black Diaspora?”

  1. I was listening to NPR yesterday morning and they were actually interviewing refugees being housed in the Astrodome, and the overwhelming majority is, as you and this article say, planning to stay. There’s intense competition for menial labor. For instance, one man had the upper hand in an application for a hiring Burger King simply because one of the things he managed to take with him from New Orleans was his McDonald’s uniform shirt (which is the closest thing any of these people currently have to a job recommendation). So yes, what will this new New Orleans look like, but also, how are all these other cities going to absorb even more poor? According to Rick Perry, hospitably, but in reality there’s going to be some interesting sociological changes happening. We don’t often have refugees from this country in this country. One Nation Under God…we’ll see.

  2. As you and NPR point out, the displaced poor quickly become the working poor: arguably the basis of our economy. An influx of these on a national scale–whether it be from Europe and Africa (what, after all, were slaves if not the working poor?) in the 19th century or Asia and Central and South American in the 20th–has historically been a net economic boost for the country. This fact is one of the central hypocrisies of the conservatives–they hinge their economic and social policies on infinite growth, but consistently attempt to limit immigration, a driving engine of that growth throughout the history of this country. I wonder if this same effect can’t happen on a regional scale. After all, these are citizens, without most of the traditional legal, cultural and linguistic barriers to entry that true immigrants face. I think we’ll see that Houston, San Antonio and other post-Katrina boom towns actually come out of this “benefiting” economically through depressed wages and increased housing demand. The poor themselves will continue to struggle, no doubt, but the cities and communities will expand and accommodate and ultimately be stronger.

  3. The business section here in Houston has been rife with pieces that inarticulately dance around the basic facts: we don’t have the jobs here, and those jobs that we do have… well, if you thought those scarce few openings were competitive before then hang on!

    The poor and unskilled are the least likely to make out well in the beginning (no casino toilets in Houston) so they get the least press. Skilled/certified/professional workers may have a chance (Houston has, for example, had a long-term nurse shortage) so they get the Pollyanna words the local papers are looking to print. However, no paper dares directly address the Economics 101 suggesting that wages for those jobs are likely to be depressed. New Orleans natives might not notice (given their relative situation and prior earnings), but current and newfound Houstonians will eventually find an increasing number of traditionally middle-income jobs slipping into the borderline. This trend isn’t new, but now we get to watch it happen week-by-week in the Jobs section.

  4. From the perspective of population shifts, I find the story of Louisiana’s Vietnamese population drop the most significant. The persistent number is that fully half (15,000 of 30,000) of LA’s Vietnamese population has relocated to Houston. Houston’s demographics are both large and diverse enough to absorb this (as most any other) population fairly easily: Houston has one of the US’ largest Vietnamese populations at over 30,000 ethnic Vietnamese. This addition increases that by 50%, but only shifts the percentage from around 1.7% to 2.3%.

    How, however, is the character of the Gulf Coast impacted by the loss of the previously settled Vietnamese populations? I think this is one of the few ethnic issues that deserves mention alongside the overriding money question.

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