The big guns of mainstream black leadership from the Congressional Black Caucus to the NAACP have royally beat up on President Bush for his bumbled, and bungled response to Katrina. Bush deserves their fury for his terrible stumble. But black leaders also deserve blame for their abysmal failure to be an active voice for the black poor. Their failure to loudly speak out on their behalf happened long before Katrina struck, and it tells much about the glaring disconnect between mainstream black leaders and New Orleans and the nation’s black poor.
The first warning of that disconnect came in the 1950s. Sociologist E. Franklin Frazier complained that many blacks were becoming what he contemptuously branded a black bourgeoisie that controlled the wealth and power within the black community. Even then, many members of Frazier’s black bourgeoisie had begun to distance themselves from the black poor.
The expansion of federal entitlement programs, civil rights legislation, equal opportunity statutes and affirmative action programs initiated during Lyndon Johnson's administration during the 1960s broke the last barriers of legal segregation. The path to universities and corporations for some blacks was now wide open. More blacks than ever did what their parents only dreamed of: They fled big city blighted inner-city areas in Chicago, New York, Los Angeles, Detroit, Atlanta, and, of course, New Orleans in droves. By the end of the 1980's, a significant percentage of blacks were affluent enough to move to the suburbs. They now owned more and better businesses, marched into more corporations, and universities, spread out into more of the professions, won more political offices, bought bigger and more expensive homes, cars, clothes, and jewelry, took more luxury vacations, and joined more country clubs than ever before in their history. Mainstream civil rights organizations, and black Democrats became the political voice for this fast emergent black middle-class. They fought hard to get more blacks in corporate management, in elite universities, in front of and behind TV cameras, elect more black Democrats, secure more business loans, and, waged symbolic fights against antique icons such as the Confederate flag. This grabbed media, and public attention, and corporate support, but their symbolic victories also sped their retreat from visible cutting edge activism on the thorny problem of black poverty.
Civil rights leaders and black politicians were trapped in the middle by the twisting political trends and shifting fortunes upward of the black middle-class, and downward of the black poor. A tilt by them toward a hard-edged activist agenda carried the fearful risk of alienating the corporate donors and the Democratic politicians that the civil rights leaders have carefully cultivated in past years. They depend on them to gain even more jobs, promotions, and contracts for black professionals and businesspersons, to bag contributions for their fundraising campaigns, dinners, banquets, scholarship funds and programs, and increased political patronage.
This left the millions of blacks that wallowed below the official poverty level with no one to cajole, browbeat, and prod business leaders and public officials to deal with their increasingly dire plight. Lacking education, competitive skills and training, the black have-nots were further hurtled to the outer fringes of society.
New Orleans is a near textbook example of that neglect and leadership disconnect. In the months before New Orleans’s current black mayor Richard Nagin, a former corporate communications executive, slammed Bush and the feds for their glacial response to Katrina, he drew fire from anti-poverty activists and some black residents for being snuggling up to close to business interests, while ignoring the poor. Nagin was hardly the first black official to take heat for the plight of the city’s poor. For the past three decades, blacks have had near unbroken control of city government in New Orleans. They’ve controlled city hall, and had black majorities on the school board, and the city council. The police chief, and the District Attorney are black. During their tenure, Bourbon Street, the French Quarter, the Casinos, and tourism, have boomed. Large parts of the city have become gentrified, downtown business interests have grown richer, and black businesspersons and professionals especially those with close ties to the black establishment at City Hall have done well. City officials have been hammered with accusations of cronyism, patronage, and influence peddling.
Before he left office in 2002, two-term mayor Marc Morial, who now heads the National Urban League, got credit for cleaning up the police department, and creating a friendly climate for business. Yet, the city’s poverty rate by then had soared to triple the national average, and had become a national disgrace. Black leaders did not ignore the poor in New Orleans or anywhere else for that matter out of indifference, callousness, or insensitivity. It was simply another case of black political and economic shot callers protecting their class turf; a turf that the poor could never inhabit.
Now thousands of New Orleans poor, and displaced have no turf at all to call theirs. While the Bush administration deserves much blame for that, so do those black leaders that ignored their plight and their numbers for so long.