How Black is New Orleans?

New census figures donu2019t tell the whole story.

By Alex Jung May 01, 2008

IT WOULD HAVE BEEN MORE ACCURATE of Mayor Ray Nagin had he declared New Orleans a milk chocolate city rather than a chocolate one. The U.S. Census Bureau finally released numbers confirming what many people have already seen for themselves: the devastation begun by Hurricane Katrina and continued by inept and/or racist politicians and policies has displaced more Black citizens than white ones, resulting in a noticeable shift in the racial status quo. New Orleans, much to the glee of developers, is now a whiter, older and better-educated city with more pocket change after the hurricane than before.

The data, compiled and analyzed in a new report entitled “Resettling New Orleans” released by the Brookings Institution, provides a snapshot of the city in 2005 before the hurricane hit and then a year later in 2006. The numbers are as follows: in the city of New Orleans, the Black population dropped from 67 percent to 58 percent while the white composition of the city jumped from 26 percent to 34 percent. These figures mean that Blacks suffered a 57-percent population loss, whereas whites experienced a 36-percent decline.

“What happened is that people who had more money and more resources—both financial and social—who could have gotten out before the storm, did,” said Audrey Singer, a senior fellow at Brookings and co-author of the report. For poorer, Black residents, the “choice” to stay was hampered by means as well as actual places where they could go, because most of their kin were in a similar situation. “People’s networks didn’t allow them to make a move [in or near New Orleans],” Singer added.

Disparities also exist in the destinations of the displaced New Orleanians. Black citizens were most likely to be moved (by the government or of their own volition) to the Houston metro area, or other faraway urban centers like Dallas or Atlanta. Dislocated white residents could stay closer to home—moving to the suburban parishes near the city or to Baton Rouge.

But it wasn’t just that Blacks from New Orleans couldn’t move in with their relatives nearby. The Gulf Coast’s hostility towards Black survivors of Hurricane Katrina was evident and was perhaps crystallized the moment that St. Bernard Parish passed a law decreeing that only “blood relatives” of the predominantly white town could move into the city (the law was later struck down). These hostilities fall outside of the scope of the Brookings report, which declines to identify the root causes of the racial disparities.

Another new report by the Institute for Southern Studies entitled, “Hurricane Katrina and the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement” delves into the systemic racism that occurred before, during and after the storm to explain why the racial balance in New Orleans has shifted. It documents how Black families from New Orleans were met with gunfire in the majority-white suburb of Gretna; how they have been housed in trailers with high levels of formaldehyde; and how Black homeowners have had their homes gutted without notice.

New Orleans’ future remains uncertain, at best. “The longer you’ve been gone, the less likely you are to return,” Singer said. “As New Orleans struggles to recapture some of its past, including some of its past population, it’s going to become harder and harder because New Orleans is no longer the same place that it was.”

—Alex Jung