Reconstruction II: The Fire Next Time

United for a Fair Economy
Date Published: 
June 6, 2005


Back in 1962, James Baldwin wrote about the nightmare of race in the US. He spoke of the hopelessness of those born into a black skin. "Even the most doltish and servile Negro could scarcely fail to be impressed by the disparity between his situation and that of the people for whom he worked, and to realize how little one could do to change one's situation." He repeats God's warning to Noah after the great flood that sinners would not be given repeated chances to get it right: it would be "the fire next time."

In New Orleans and the South, the order was reversed. The first time was the fire, and the second time was the flood. In both cases, the fire and the flood revealed a nation divided.

The South suffered level-five scale devastation during the Civil War. In that case, it was a man-made catastrophe. New Orleans, for example, had been a bustling center of trade with mansions and banks and the glory of financial success—for whites. How did they get so rich and create such a fair city? Slave labor created that beauty and that wealth that accrued to those who were born into a white skin. Some say that white New Orleanians sacked the city themselves rather than deliver it to the Unionists, so dead set were they against giving up the comforts of the slave system. In any case, the city was reduced to rubble and to an economic condition from which it never fully recovered.

Reconstruction I

With the end of the Southern slave system, Reconstruction was not meant to reconstruct New Orleans and the South as a replica of what it had been before the Civil War. On the contrary. Its goal was to construct a new Southern economy that would overcome the legacy of slavery, and to provide the newly freed slaves with the opportunity to gain wealth and power equal to that of their former owners and oppressors. It was to build an economy not of the very rich few and the very poor multitudes, but to enable everyone to reach the dream of prosperity.

To accomplish this, it was obvious to leaders from both North and South that it would be necessary to provide the freed slaves with financial independence from whites. Economic self-sufficiency was a prerequisite to political power as well. Land would be needed and a tool to work that land: forty acres and a mule.

When hurricane Katrina blew the cover off of New Orleans nearly a century and a half later, it revealed the failure of Reconstruction I. The Freedman's Bureau set up in 1865 worked to get jobs, protect rights, and distribute land to freed Blacks. But there was a lack of resources and a lack of will to ensure a peaceful transition to an integrated South. In 1867, two years after the end of the War, the Freedmen's Bureau in New Orleans reported on "the number of outrages" reported to them:

"Freedmen killed by whites 70
Freedmen supposed to have been killed at Riot 10
Freedmen murdered - no clue to perpetrators 6
Freedmen shot at, whipped, stabbed, beaten &c 210
Freedmen supposed to have been wounded at Riot 20
Freedmen murdered by Freedmen 2
Whites murdered by Freedmen 1

"In no instance in any of the foregoing cases has a white man been punished for killing or ill treating a freedman... On the other hand, of the three freedmen charged with murder, two have been convicted and hung. There can be no doubt but that in some of the North Western Parishes of this state many murders and outrages have been committed which will never be brought to right and it is thought the aggregate number of murders given above would be more than doubled had all the cases been reported to the Agents of the Bureau."

Whose law? Order for whom?

Alan Farago wrote in The Orlando Sentinel that "the single lesson to take from Hurricane Katrina is how little separates civilized society from lawlessness when large-scale systems fail." For most of their time in these United States, African Americans have not lived in a civilized society where large-scale systems protected them. It was true in 1867, and it was true in 2005. No levees were made strong enough in their neighborhoods, no arrangements were made to take them out of the city, no water or food or rescue was thought through beforehand. And yet, white society was appalled when those left behind with nothing in the wake of Katrina took what they needed to survive from abandoned stores and homes. That was how "lawlessness" was defined from the white majority point of view.

No Acres, No Mule

The Freedmen's Bureau has a list of those applying for land. For instance, "James Morgan, Freedman, New Orleans, La., September 8, 1865. Number of men: 1. Number of women: 1. Number of children: 0. Means: 1 horse cart & c., small amt. of corn & forage, $50 in money. Remarks: This applicant is a discharged soldier and desires (10) ten acres of ground or less located if possible on Metarie Ridge, Parish Jefferson."

Did Mr. Morgan get his 10 acres? Was he able to keep it if he did? Since President Andrew Johnson returned all land to their Confederate owners in 1866, just a year after the Bureau was created, very few freed slaves were able to acquire the basic minimum to guarantee their ability to profit from the fruits of their own labor. Forced back into dependency on white farmers/employers and into a life based on subsistence, most blacks were not able to save or to own property, or to pass along what they owned to their children. Each generation has been economically limited to jobs in which a meager survival is eked out. If Reconstruction had given former slaves opportunities similar to those for European immigrants, we would not have seen the racialization of poverty on the rooftops of New Orleans after Katrina.

Reconstruction II

It was interesting to hear the word "reconstruction" fall from President Bush's lips as he talked about the disaster. Once again, reconstruction is needed. Once again, the reconstruction of the Gulf Coast and the city of New Orleans should not be about re-creating the old New Orleans, with its gross economic and racial inequalities. A new paradigm is needed: to broaden wealth and opportunity while addressing the structural racial inequalities in our society.

Katrina gives us an opportunity to get it right the second time around. This country has had a tradition of government assistance to European Americans through redistributing wealth, whether that be through land grants, government funded colleges, subsidized home mortgages, worker and business protections, social infrastructure, and tax incentives. The Gulf Coast should be rebuilt in this tradition—only for those left out the other times around. This time, we can build equity and create stakeholders, not a new generation of low-wage virtual sharecroppers.

Nearly a century and a half after the Civil War, nearly 50 years after the Civil Rights movement, the great-grandchildren of those who created the wealth of the South, who fought for equality in several wars, and who have been repeatedly promised full enfranchisement, are still in desperate poverty. It is not only African Americans who are in this boat. Native Americans, many of whose ancestors were force-marched from their Southern homelands in abrogation of treaty rights to Oklahoma and other states, have also been left out of the economy. More recent Latino immigrants have created large profits for their employers pay taxes, but they too have been left out of relief efforts due to their immigration status.

This Second Reconstruction should repair the failures of the past. Reconstruction dollars should build capacity and ownership of local community development organizations. They should pay a living wage to workers. It should create new stakeholders, new landowners and homeowners. It should jumpstart new businesses that employ local residents at living wages. Land should be taken and redistributed to those who have lived and worked in the city and who want to return.

Funding the Dream

A Second Reconstruction requires a bold commitment of treasure, not more debt for our children or regressive taxes on workers. The burden of rebuilding the Gulf should not fall primarily on low and middle income taxpayers. These resources should come from a progressive federal tax system that reverses the billions in dollars of tax breaks given to multi-millionaires and corporations: wealth whose origins lie in the land of Native peoples and the labor of African Americans.

The Civil War exacted a terrible cost—and yet, the nation stopped short of making good on its promises. We have seen the cost of that failure in the faces of the sons and daughters of Katrina. With a new national awakening to the dangers of a house divided, we cannot afford to stop short this time.

We cannot afford to wait for the fire next time.

Next: A Death in Destrehan