Race, Place, and Poverty Intersect in New Orleans

Photo by Rafael Shimunov

This commentary by Angela Glover Blackwell originally appeared in the Spotlight on Poverty and Opportunity. Sign up for other commentaries from the Spotlight here.

At no time in recent American history did the intersection of race, place, poverty, and policy become more shamefully evident than during the events surrounding Hurricane Katrina. The storm and the catastrophic flooding exposed black suffering and government neglect to a shocked public and sent a message to everyone who cares about building a just, prosperous nation: we must change the counterproductive and dangerous way we have created and inhabit many of our cities and regions, excluding people of color from opportunity.

That deep poverty exists, that it is concentrated primarily in black and brown communities, that disinvestment of low-income neighborhoods of color perpetuates disadvantage across generations was not news to the millions of people living in such places. But the searing images of New Orleans – bodies floating in the floodwaters, families stranded on rooftops, the sea of desperate faces in the Superdome – jolted many Americans from the blind complacency of their suburbs, their gentrified urban enclaves, and other affluent communities where it was possible to tell yourself that ours is a land of opportunity for all.

America was forced to recognize that, for Black America, far too little has changed since the civil rights struggles of the 1960s. Despite antipoverty efforts, our nation had not addressed the fundamental factors that keep people poor. To lift people out of poverty and make good on the promise of opportunity for all, we must honestly and authentically confront our nation’s deepest fissure and most entrenched barrier to equity: race.

That learning has propelled the nation onto new terrain, where policymakers, funders, advocates, and the public increasingly recognize race as an overarching consideration that affects every aspect of society. This new terrain isn’t always comfortable. Discussions of race add a layer of complexity to policy and politics that many people are unaccustomed to, and uneasy about, confronting directly. And sometimes the terrain is downright ugly—just ask Shirley Sherrod.

Yet this new landscape offers tremendous opportunities for building a nation that is more just, fair, and inclusive. It points the way toward strategies that have the potential to transform distressed communities into socially and economically vital places where all residents can participate and prosper. By crafting solutions based on a clear understanding of the connections among race, place, and poverty, we have a chance to get things right.

Five years later, this essential lesson of Katrina is informing action at all levels, from the federal government to the streets of New Orleans. The Obama administration is spearheading bold, comprehensive, place-based initiatives to increase opportunities available in vulnerable communities and achieve broad improvements in the well-being of residents.

For example, the Sustainable Communities initiative will help regional consortia lay out a smarter, more environmentally sound, and more inclusive future for entire regions. The Promise Neighborhoods and Choice Neighborhoods initiatives leverage and combine the resources of programs that have historically operated in distinct spheres – neighborhoods and education in the case of Promise, and housing, transportation, economic development, and education in Choice – to break the cycle of generational poverty.

By targeting high-poverty areas, these programs zero in on communities of color. And by focusing simultaneously on people and the places they live, these programs avoid the past mistakes of antipoverty efforts that invested either in physical makeovers of neighborhoods while leaving residents high and dry, or in services to individuals without addressing the environmental factors crucial for sustained advancement.

These federal initiatives hold real hope for changing the life trajectory of poor children of color for generations to come. They must be fully funded.

A growing number of foundations, too, are directing resources at the nexus of race, place, and poverty. As a starting point, they are grappling with long-unspoken questions about skin color and ethnicity. What roles have bias and racism played in the disinvestment of communities? In the inequitable delivery of services? In the widely disparate outcomes in health and education, two areas of longstanding concern to philanthropy?

The Open Society Institute’s Campaign for Black Male Achievement, for example, addresses the exclusion of black men and boys from social, educational, and political life. The Kellogg Foundation recently launched a five-year, $75 million initiative to improve outcomes for vulnerable children and their families by promoting racial healing and eliminating barriers to opportunities – and received nearly 1,000 proposals for funding.

A similar shift is happening at many think tanks, community organizations, and advocacy organizations dedicated to fighting poverty. Race was for so long an untouchable consideration. At last people are engaging the subject forthrightly. Katrina jolted even veterans of antipoverty struggles into recognizing that African American poverty is a special problem, rooted in a history of racism older than the country itself and supported by inequitable structures and systems that undergird communities like the steel skeleton of a skyscraper.

But those structures and systems can change. Just as Katrina opened the nation’s eyes to African American suffering, bottom-up recovery efforts are showing us the resilience and enormous potential of low-income communities. The best of the recovery work has capitalized on the rich cultural and aesthetic assets of New Orleans and the Gulf region. Residents, advocates, volunteers, and faith organizations have kept the spotlight on the disparate impact of the disaster on African Americans and the dire needs yet to be addressed.

The work has gone beyond a single fix – for instance, housing restoration, critical as that has been – to press for the services and opportunities that make a place the kind of community we all want to live in—a community with high-quality schools, grocery stores, transportation, health clinics, and parks. Innovative projects are emerging as models of equitable development. In the process, residents have discovered their voice, their imagination, their power.

The rest of the country needs to pay attention to the lessons from the Gulf region today, as we did five years ago.

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