Black to brown: The changing face of New Orleans

OPINION - Drawn by the promise of reconstruction jobs, Latinos comprise as much as 15% of the city's population today

The aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans and throughout the Gulf Coast and the ongoing economic recession have much in common. Then as now, communities already marginalized by race, poverty, and geography also the ones hardest hit.

Then as now, we learned that there is no such thing as a natural disaster. Local, state, and in particular, federal policies were as culpable in exacerbating the effects of the hurricane and the recession as they yet may be helpful in preventing future disasters and mitigating the effects of unavoidable ones.

Then, and hopefully now, we came to understand that “recovery” must mean more than restoring the status quo. To invoke a gulf coast refrain, it must mean that we “build back better,” narrowing the equity gap and promoting greater opportunity for all our people.

The lessons learned from the rebuilding are still unfolding. Consider some key insights that New Orleans offers on the challenges and opportunities of immigrant – African American relations.

In New Orleans, as in the country as a whole, changing demographics provide one reason for the surge of interest in relations between African Americans and immigrants. Drawn by the promise of reconstruction jobs, Latinos comprise as much as 15% of the city’s population today, up from only 3% in 2005. While black residents are the majority, their numbers remain below pre-Katrina levels. With many more businesses and services owned by and catering to Latinos, for some black New Orleanians the feeling that they have lost ground to Latinos culturally is as sharp as the certainty that they have lost ground to whites politically.

Other tensions between the groups, from competition over social service resources to pervasive anti-black and anti-immigrant stigmas to language issues, also draw attention. The issue of jobs is most divisive of all.

On one hand, the rebuilding of New Orleans has been accomplished largely on the backs of Latinos, many of them undocumented immigrants. They have done much of the dirtiest, most dangerous work, including gutting homes, clearing debris, and risking exposure to toxins. On the other hand, roughly half of African Americans believe that Latino workers limit job opportunities for African Americans and depress wages.

The preference by the federal government and some residents for punishing immigrants through deportation and ICE raids, rather than focusing their ire on the companies that employ them doesn’t help matters, neither does a widespread media storyline that highlights examples of inter-group conflict while ignoring signs of cooperation. The truth is that in New Orleans, as elsewhere, grounds for fruitful collaboration and actual instances of cooperation do exist.

A recent report by Oxfam America notes that while many Latinos in New Orleans do feel uncomfortable working with African Americans or having them as neighbors, majorities of both groups cited affordable housing, access to health care, and the criminal justice system as areas of “major” concern. These are grounds for alliance building. Solid majorities also agreed that it was very important for their communities to “establish alliances to achieve social and economic equity.”

Examples of successful alliances between immigrants, especially Latino immigrants, and African Americans are out there. They provide invaluable lessons on how to start, operate, and sustain alliances that achieve mutually helpful policy advances and improved relations.

Few lessons out of New Orleans will matter as much to its future, or this nation’s future, as those we learn about the relations between blacks Latinos and immigrants. Let’s inform the process as best we can, hope, and learn.

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