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"Structural Racism and Rebuilding New Orleans,"

by Maya Wiley November/December 2006 issue of Poverty & Race

How do we rebuild an entire region, rebuild our country, and make it healthier, increasing the economic, social and political well-being of all its residents? And why does it matter for the nation? These are questions posed by the story of Gulf Coast rebuilding and of the fight to recover New Orleans. To answer them, we must look at race, particularly the way it has driven our structural arrangements–multi-institutional interactions–which have created conditions for scarcity of resources instead of opportunities. We must also look at how to use race to transform the structural arrangements. Race has built an unsound house. The foundation is cracked, and the basement is filling with water. Those in the basement, largely people of color, thanks to generations of race discrimination, will drown first. But the upper floors will eventually fill with water too.

Consider that, nationally, from 2000 to 2005, housing costs rose 52% while incomes rose but 2%. Then consider that the US Department of Housing and Urban Development’s programs reach only 25% of those eligible. Our increasing insecurity across communities is a national issue brought into sharp relief in the Gulf Coast. Fifty-three percent of New Orleans’ units were rental units. Yet rebuilding policies barely address that reality. Rental housing costs have risen almost 40% in New Orleans since the levees failed, thanks to the destruction of much of the rental housing stock. Rebuilding the Gulf Coast provides an opportunity to adopt policies to fix our local and national problems. If we pay attention to the basement, pour a better, stronger foundation and make sure no one is relegated to the basement, our national house would provide a place of community and comfort, as well as a reliable shelter from the storms we must weather.

The structural racism analysis, a diagnostic as well as strategic tool, helps us identify and target the national investments and national, state and local policies and practices that will both build a stronger New Orleans and a stronger nation. Structural racism looks to the relationship and interaction between our public and private institutions which produce barriers for people-of-color communities and, therefore, everyone. Schools, colleges and universities, employers, banks, housing, transportation systems and news media do not operate in isolation. They work together and affect each other. Employers want to be near transportation hubs. We look for housing near good schools. Schools are locally funded, so they tend to be better where housing is expensive. Thanks to a history of race discrimination that both created and disinvested in poor communities of color and poor communities in general, these relationships do not impact communities in a race-neutral way.

Consider, for example, that the federal government invested in the creation of a white middle class with both New Deal and post-World War II programs, giving those who received those investments opportunities to improve their lives. These programs were critically important, but also largely discriminated against people of color. The Federal Housing Administration (FHA), created in 1934, subsidized mortgages and insured private mortgages, but often required new owners to add racially restrictive covenants to their deeds, ensuring all-White neighborhoods. By the 1950s, federal money insured half the mortgages in the United States, but only in segregated White neighborhoods. The FHA urged developers, bankers and local governments to use zoning ordinances and physical barriers to protect racial segregation. The post-World War II GI Bill fueled a massive movement of White men into high-paying professional and managerial jobs. Blacks, many of whom were denied entry to the armed services because of the color of their skin, were less likely to get GI Bill benefits. Black veterans who did qualify did not get the good-paying jobs. In addition to job discrimination, the United States Employment Service funneled many Black veterans into low-skilled, lower-paying jobs than their White comrades in arms. These policies resulted in the creation of White suburbs and the shrinking of urban tax bases around the country, increasing racial segregation and concentrated poverty.

If your grandparents had an eighth-grade education, could not get a mortgage loan and were not eligible for any government mortgage assistance programs because of their race, they had no house to refinance to pay for a child’s college tuition. They had no house to leave to next generations. They had no retirement benefits. White people, even poor ones, often had more educational opportunities, got more government help to buy homes and were able to buy them in areas where their homes would appreciate in value. This meant they could build asset wealth even if their incomes were low, and help their children and grandchildren. Racial disparities–high rates of poverty, unemployment, illnesses, etc.—are symptoms of structural arrangements that produced, directly or indirectly, disinvestment in communities of color.

This is an important point because while White poverty is unacceptable, White poverty and Black and Latino poverty nationally do not look the same. For example, 34% of poor Blacks and 22% of poor Latinos live in high-poverty neighborhoods (where at least 25% of the residents are poor), compared to only 6% of poor Whites. In fact, a low-income White family earning $15,000 per year has about $10,000 in asset wealth, while the same low-income Black family has zero asset wealth. In New Orleans, these disparities may explain why, as the Brookings Institution has reported, 32.7% of Black New Orleanians had no car to escape the flood waters, while more than 90% of Whites did. Again, White and Black poverty did not look the same, since 52% of poor Black New Orleanians lacked access to a car, compared to only 17% of poor Whites.

New Orleans exemplifies the multi-institutional historic policies and practices that produced White suburbs and nonwhite concentrated poverty. New Orleans has become more segregated and poverty more concentrated over the last 40 years. An important Brookings Institution report noted that as recently as 1976, there were no New Orleans neighborhoods with a concentration of Blacks. In 1970, although New Orleans was a poor city, its poor were not highly concentrated in hyper-segregated neighborhoods. Between 1970 and 2000, the poverty rates in the city didn’t change, but there were 66% more neighborhoods of concentrated poverty (here defined as 40% or more of the residents living at or below the poverty level). This means that poor people had fewer choices about where to live and were living in communities with few jobs, inadequate transit to jobs and underfunded, poor-performing schools. In 1970, 54% of the region’s population lived in the central city, but by 2000 New Orleans had only 36% of the region’s population. This loss of population also meant the loss of jobs. In 1970, the city had two-thirds of the region’s jobs. By 2000, the city’s share of jobs sank to less than half (42%) of the region’s jobs. The city lost jobs and tax revenues to the suburbs. Suburbs often do not thrive when the urban centers they are built around are struggling. The Census Bureau estimates that, in 2004, no population growth occurred in the New Orleans metropolitan region as a whole, and between 2000 and 2005 the city lost almost 29,000 residents.

Given that opportunity has not been spread evenly or fairly, it is not surprising that New Orleans’ people-of-color communities were both more vulnerable to the flooding and, while incredibly resilient under the circumstances, are struggling to rebuild. Sixty-seven percent of the city was Black before the levees gave way to a Category 3 Hurricane Katrina (compared to 42% in 1970). Almost one-third (28%) of New Orleanians were poor, and 84% of those poor were Black. Poor Blacks were four times more likely than poor Whites to live in extremely poor areas (43% compared to 11%) and, according to the Louisiana Department of Education, during the 2004-05 school year, the state considered 63% of New Orleans’ public schools “academically unacceptable.” Public education in New Orleans was 93% Black and only 4% White, and 74% of its black students were poor. Crime rates were high, and the city’s criminal justice system contributed about 16% of the state’s prison population.

Generally, those most significantly impacted by the current state of New Orleans, with the notable exceptions of the wealthy and predominantly White Lakeview neighborhood and the largely White working class St. Bernard Parish, are poor communities of color. In the city of New Orleans, communities of color made up nearly 80% of the population in flooded neighborhoods. Over 20% of people hit hard by the flood waters from the broken levees were living at or below the poverty line, and another 30% were living just above the poverty line. Almost half (44%) of those harmed by the broken levees were Black. Nearly 70% of poor people impacted by the storm were Black.

The Center for Social Inclusion’s (CSI) new report, “The Race to Rebuild: The Color of Opportunity and the Future of New Orleans,” examines how rebuilding is progressing in planning districts across New Orleans. According to CSI’s analysis contained in the study’s Report Card, rebuilding is not making the grade. Rebuilding is far from robust in any community, but communities of color, regardless of middle-class status, are having a harder time rebuilding. Previous residents of neighborhoods such as the Lower Ninth Ward (97% African-American), Bywater (88% people of color) and Village de l’Est (96% people of color) face the greatest challenges to rebuilding. This is, in part, because of the length of time to get utilities like water and electricity working in these communities; reliance on public transit and public schools; and the lack of flood insurance.

Wealthier districts with large White populations, such as Lakeview, also face adversity, and their residents have suffered tremendous loss. Relatively speaking, however, Lakeview residents have more opportunities to rebound from catastrophe because they had greater financial assets and relied less on systems likely to be disrupted by these horrible events, such as public schools and transportation. The impact of destroyed housing, an economy struggling to recover, inadequate health care options, a limited public education system, and a hurricane protection system that may not be sufficient to withstand another assault do not offer many New Orleanians sufficient opportunities to return.

So some have rationalized the exclusion of a traumatized population with arguments that they are better off in Houston, Atlanta and other cities struggling to absorb unprecedented numbers of displaced people. The argument is that schools are better and there are more jobs. Maybe, but that depends. The structural arrangements may not be sufficiently different in displaced communities to allow more opportunity. It depends on whether people are able to get housing near job centers. It depends on whether they are able to get mental health and other health services. It depends on whether they are actually in high-performing schools. We know little about how displaced persons are faring, except in Houston, where the city has produced some survey results suggesting that 59% of displaced New Orleanians remain unemployed one year later. It also ignores the importance of social networks in helping people rebuild their lives. Whether or not they are able to maintain or recreate important social networks is unclear.

What we do know is that the fates and well-being of Whites, Blacks, Latinos, Asian Americans and Native Americans are linked. White communities may be farther along in rebuilding than communities of color, but are hardly thriving. We also know that to help all communities thrive, we must address the structures blocking opportunity. To do this, we look to the most vulnerable and excluded, identify how the structures are excluding them, and develop policy and practice interventions. Research by economist Manuel Pastor and others finds that when we invest in poor communities of color, whole regions become wealthier and regional poverty rates decrease. We also know that policy strategies like inclusionary zoning, transit that connects poor communities to job centers, and revising education financing formulas to increase resources to public schools help to connect people to opportunity and build more opportunity. The structural race lens points us to the importance of all of these strategies, across institutions, coordinated in implementation and impact.

Government investment created the White middle class. It can create and rebuild a stronger and expanded middle class that includes people of color. We can start in the Gulf Coast and in the communities asked to absorb tens of thousands of displaced people. We will learn there how to build our new national house and make that house a home.

Maya Wiley is the founder and Director of the Center for Social Inclusion, in New York City, a national policy advocacy organization working to transform structural racism (

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