Friday, October 19, 2007

New Orleans: Deja Vu All Over Again

The more we hear about the attempt to "cleanse" New Orleans of its poor black population (while reconstruction and recovery from Hurricane Katrina proceeds rapidly for the white, heavily-touristed areas), the more we realize that history runs in repetitive cycles. For the truth is, Americans have always been suspicious of the exotic denizens of that most fascinating of all American cities. Were it not for its position as indispensable port city at the mouth of the Mississippi River, it probably would have been abandoned to floods and tides long ago. But it is important. And so Hurricane Katrina has been turned, in the rah rah atmosphere post-Katrina, into an "opportunity." And the opportunity, again, is not to rebuild New Orleans better, but to rebuild it cleaner, more like what Americans seem to prefer these days—a theme park without the problem of messy, unsightly poor folks.

Sadly, this is not new. From the time when New Orleans was transformed from an outpost of the French and Spanish empires to an American possession, many Americans have cast a disgusted eye on this outpost of foreignness. I am referring to the time of the Louisiana Purchase in 1803. The port of New Orleans, not all of Louisiana, was really the issue for President Thomas Jefferson. New Orleans was what he sent his envoys, James Monroe and Robert Livingston, to France to procure. Stunningly, Napoleon Bonaparte offered the Americans not just the port city, but the whole of the Louisiana Territory. And in history classes, we learn that Jefferson took the deal, paid $15 million, and doubled the size of the nation in one stroke. At 4 cents an acre, the Louisiana Purchase has gone down as one of the greatest real estate bargains in history.

What we are rarely told, however, is that there was great American resistance to the deal. Northerners worried that their influence in the new nation would be diminished by the addition of so large a western and southern territory. They also worried that slavery might be extended into the new territories. But the worry went beyond that. That was because in Article III of the treaty, Napoleon insisted that the inhabitants of New Orleans—the French, the Spanish, the free Blacks and part-Blacks and part Indians—must all become citizens of the United States. To many Americans, this was like giving the keys of their new acquisition to half-civilized people, to "savages and adventurers." New Orleans, to them, was "a place inhabited by a Mixture of Americans, English, Spanish and French, and crowded every year….with two or three thousand boatmen from the back country…" Others found the denizens of New Orleans and the whole West beneath even that. Josiah Quncy, who would become president of Harvard College, predicted that "thick skinned beasts will crowd Congress Hall, Buffaloes from the head of the Missouri and Alligators from the Red River."

In the end, Jefferson prevailed, and the Louisiana Purchase Treaty was ratified. And with it, came New Orleans and all its people. Clearly, however, what has been happening there since, and especially since Katrina, demonstrates that many Americans, in particular our conservative brethren of the heartland, have never quite accepted New Orleans as a place fit to be included in the lily-white, squeaky-clean America of their dreams. It’s too colorful, in every sense of that word, by far.

And so the bleach job goes on.

And most Americans watch it happen, maintaining all the while their dominant cover story: that America is indeed the land of the free and the home of the equally color-blind—except, of course, where property values are concerned.

Lawrence DiStasi

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