Public Housing: Rooting the Struggle in Past Reconstructions

The
political conflict surrounding the Department of Housing and Urban
Development’s attempt to demolish public housing in New Orleans is part
of a historically grounded struggle in the city over urban space and
social consumption. Several other epochs of “reconstruction” serve to
contextualize the meaning and consequences of the current struggle for
the black working class and the confederacy of forces that oppose them.

The
all black, working class communities that live in and around the major
public housing developments such as BW Cooper and Lafitte are the
immediate heirs of a movement that rebelled against Jim Crow
segregation throughout the 20th Century. Indeed, many of these women
and men are the children of this Movement’s leadership. Some of the
elder residents and former residents of public housing even held
leadership positions in organizations as diverse as the National
Welfare Rights Organization and the Black Panthers. In the face of
white intimidation, violence, and an all white political regime (until
the 1970s) they managed to pry open formerly all white spaces and
create at least the legal precedents for a more egalitarian New
Orleans.

These same New Orleanians, agitated for the creation
of what historian Kent Germany has called the “soft state” – a
combination of federal/local community programs during the 1960s and
70s that attempted to reconstruct New Orleans, to provide educational,
housing and job opportunities for working class blacks. Struggling to
rebuild New Orleans during the tail end of the Civil Rights Movement,
the goal of New Orleans black working class has tended to swing between
an integrationist platform, and a black power platform – the former
involving efforts to desegregate housing, schools, and city space, and
to equalize public spending between blacks and whites, while the latter
philosophy has sought to empower existing black institutions and create
greater autonomy of black spaces in the city.

Stretching back
even further, the struggle for power over community in New Orleans is
rooted in pre-Civil War forms of resistance amongst blacks (many of
them slaves), and later in the brief period of Reconstruction from
1865-1877. Post Civil War Reconstruction was a visionary attempt to
create a more democratic society, abolishing not only racial-apartheid,
but also the crushing class inequalities that crippled poor whites.
This movement, led by the black working class, was violently overthrown
in 1874 by the White League, and finally defeated with the
re-establishment of rule by the racist plantocracy in1877. True
democratic reconstruction was brutally destroyed by a phalanx of white
supremacists who, with the tacit support of the federal government,
would more or less rule New Orleans (and the South) until the second
half of the 20th Century.

During this time, space in the city of
New Orleans was legally segregated, and the laws governing this
prevention of “mixture” were designed to keep blacks not only
physically separate, but materially and politically subjugated. Blacks
were not allowed in certain sections of the town except as laborers.
Housing for blacks was established in the “bottom of the bowl,” or else
in the pocketed patterns required by white Uptowners who employed black
servants. Blacks were relegated to inferior classrooms, the back ends
of street cars, separate train cars, and barred from government office.
Racialized oppression was most powerfully enforced through these
methods of spatial domination. The purpose of spatial control was to
enforce a larger and more profound regime of white supremacy.

The
1930s produced a major break in this racial regime. However, it would
further entrench racial inequalities and literally lay the brick and
mortar foundations for today’s struggle to reopen public housing.

With
the passage of the National Housing Acts of 1934 and 1937 the US
embarked on a massive program of subsidies for homeownership. Backing
up loans and reducing the costs of mortgages well below 10%, the
federal government set the foundations for an enormous expansion of
home ownership (and along with the post-WWII GI Bill virtually created
the US middle class). Concurrently, the federal government built public
housing across the US. All of this, plus the establishment of Social
Security and the recognition of organized labor by the federal
government constituted Roosevelt’s New Deal.

Several of New
Orleans’ public housing developments, such as Lafitte and Iberville
were built during this era. In tune with the times, these developments
were racially segregated, splitting the working class into an all white
Iberville and all black Lafitte, a white Florida and black Desire. All
of the other developments in the city would follow suite. Race was
further embedded in this era of housing redevelopment in the Federal
Housing Administration’s protocols. The FHA, legally allowed for and
facilitated the red-lining of non-white and immigrant neighborhoods and
developed a ranking system for loan-fitness based on a block’s racial
composition. The FHA provided sample restrictive covenants in loan
manuals to enable homeowners to exclude non-whites and other
“undesirables” from ever owning valuable property. The overall effect
of this was to build trillions of dollars of wealth among those who
could take advantage of these programs, and to actually dis-accumulate
wealth from the zones of cities occupied by blacks. The racism of the
New Deal went much further than just these housing programs. The whole
package of legislation was riddled with exclusions, implicit and
explicit, that cut non-whites out of these huge government subsidies
and insurance programs.

From the 1960s through the early 1980s
the Civil Rights Movement managed to force the legal desegregation of
public institutions, including public housing. But what the Movement
could not secure was the power necessary to truly reconstruct US
society, to secure the power that working class black’s needed to
rebuild their communities and stand on equal footing with whites. New
Orleans was no different. The Movement could not secure the political
power necessary to re-invigorate the promise of abolition democracy,
nor to address the centuries of racist dis-accumulation from black
communities. This failure resulted in a shift away from legal
segregation to de facto segregation. Whites fled the newly “integrated”
public institutions, including public housing, education, healthcare,
and many of the public spaces they formerly dominated through law. In
New Orleans this produced the massive suburban expansions of Jefferson,
St. Tammany, and St. Bernard Parrish. Whites who exited public housing
during the 50s, 60s, and 70s found easier housing through FHA programs,
and never encountered the racial steering practiced by realtors, nor
the hostility of neighbors in all white neighborhoods. Blacks found it
much more difficult to get out of public housing. Meanwhile the
condition of this housing stock began to deteriorate. “White flight”
meant more than just moving to the suburbs, it meant the flight of
federal, state, and local capital from the newly “integrated” public
institutions.

The Civil Rights Movement also produced
empowerment for the small but politically significant black middle
class and elites, many of who also fled from “public spaces” “won” by
the Movement, or else moved in to new roles whereby they would
“represent” the black working class, they would serve as intermediaries
between capital, the new white majority exurbs, and the black poor.
Thus, the reconstruction promised by the Movement fell far short of
what working class blacks needed and struggled for. The loss was
immense. Legally, much had been attained. But in fact, without the
achievement of real power, and faced with the hostile and privatizing
response of whites and the tiny black middle class (the former group
having been massively enriched over more than century of federal racist
subsidization, from the Homestead Act to Social Security), the black
working class found themselves trapped in decaying institutions.
Without the financial power to sustain them, and under direct or
indirect political control of majority white and increasing
conservative federal and state governments, the black working class has
come to a new crossroads in their struggle for freedom and dignity.

All
of the rhetoric against public housing from the political Right
contradicts this history, and is impossible to support beyond an
irrational level (unfortunately politics often runs on irrational fears
and desires). All of the rhetoric from the so-called “moderates” and
liberals who support the demolition of public housing in New Orleans
ignore this history, and refuse to contextualize the struggle of the
black working class. Only by placing the conflict over public housing
in its historical context can we begin to imagine just solutions.
However, what is also clear from this history is that the leadership
and vision for truly just reconstructions, after war or storm, has come
from the grassroots. In New Orleans this has historically been the
black working class and their allies, not the City Council, State, or
Federal Government.