Tuesday, October 31, 2006

Prevailing rage

One would think that after completely botching every aspect of the tragic events that unfolded in the Gulf Coast prior to and immediately after the Hurricane Katrina made landfall, government officals at all levels would make a special effort to do right by the citizens of New Orleans during cleanup and recovery operations. Right?

Guess again.

Advancement Project is a democracy and justice action group that works with communities seeking to build a fair and just multi-racial democracy in America. Using law, public policy and strategic communications. It acts in partnership with local communities to advance universal opportunity, equity and access for those left behind in America. Advancement Project recently released "And Injustice For All", a report on the policies and practices impacting Hurricane Katrina survivors and reconstruction workers in New Orleans.

It is not a pretty (or acceptable) picture. Hurricane Katrina's devastation of New Orleans was a pivotal event in the history of race relations in the United States. Its aftershocks continue to be felt by the displaced poor in the form of reprehensible injustices that elected officials have apparently chosen to turn a blind eye to -- or even worse -- endorse. (GW)

And Injustice For All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans

In the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina, several hundred thousand workers, mostly African American, lost their jobs. Since the storm, these workers have faced tremendous structural barriers to returning home and to finding the employment necessary to rebuild their lives. Without housing, they cannot work; without work, they cannot afford housing. As these pre-Katrina New Orleanians fight to return, the city has experienced a huge influx of migrant workers—citizen and noncitizen—who have been wooed to the area with promises of steady, good paying jobs.

Yet, these workers, like their local counterparts, are finding barriers to safe employment, fair pay, and affordable housing that are driving them further into poverty. In fact, many workers are finding themselves exploited, homeless, and harassed by law enforcement. These workers and former residents, mostly people of color, recognize that New Orleans is being rebuilt by them, but not for them.

The stories of workers across New Orleans after Katrina are not simply tales of personal plight. They are also stories about institutional responsibility. Powerful institutional actors shaped the post-Katrina landscape and placed workers in situations of disadvantage and inequity. In the days following the Hurricane, the federal government came under fierce criticism for being slow to act in the wake of Katrina. Yet, in actuality, the federal government sprang into action quite quickly with a range of policy initiatives that were breathtaking in their scope and impact on workers.

And Injustice For All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans raises the voices of New Orleanians struggling to return and reconstruction workers, all of whom are attempting to survive in the face of inequitable and unjust policies and practices of public and private institutions. It is through the stories of the workers in this report that particular policies and practices are identified that are putting these workers of color on a race to the bottom. The report is intended to provide a road map for organizers, advocates, policymakers, and funders—providing data and direction with regard to some of the most pressing needs of Hurricane Katrina survivors and reconstruction workers in New Orleans.

And Injustice For All: Workers’ Lives in the Reconstruction of New Orleans focuses on structural racism, which is far more pervasive and profoundly damaging than individual racism because it is systemic. Structural racism occurs across institutions and throughout society. It occurs because a number of institutions create policies and practices that routinely disadvantage people of color and benefit primarily wealthy whites. This racism may not be intentional but does have an adverse impact on people of color. Our report makes three key contributions to the existing body of work focused on workers’ conditions in post-Katrina New Orleans.

First, it lifts up workers’ voices. In order to understand the complexity of the issues faced by workers and the dire conditions in which they work, it is essential to listen to the workers themselves. This report is the result of the most comprehensive worker conditions documentation project to date since Katrina. Through the historic role of student volunteers, more than 700 workers were interviewed between January and April 2006.

Second, through the voices of the workers, this report illuminates how the actions of government and private institutions have locked some workers out of work and others into situations of abject exploitation. While the workers tell deeply personal stories, they reflect the impact of broader policies and practices by both state and private actors.

Third, the report identifies the patterns of disadvantage and inequity that emerge from the workers’ stories, and reveals the structure of racism that fuel the inequities. By illuminating racism at the systemic level, this report proposes interventions that could proactively advance racial justice.

Ultimately, the voices of workers in post-Katrina New Orleans demonstrate that the actions and inactions of federal, state, and local governments and the actions of the private reconstruction industry have created deplorable working and living conditions for people of color striving to rebuild and return to the city. Because these workers are migrant, undocumented, and displaced they have little chance to hold officials and private industry accountable (e.g., many cannot vote, while displaced New Orleanians continue to experience barriers to voting) except through organized, collective action.

Workers of color, regardless of status (immigrant, citizen, or pre-Katrina resident) are facing similar struggles; yet, they have been pitted against each other in a so-called competition for jobs. The media and political officials have promoted racial conflict. While some workers interviewed believe this competition exists, others fully understand that other racial groups are not to blame for the situation in New Orleans but instead the government is the perpetrator. Through multiracial, cross-industry collective action, workers will gain a greater awareness of these dynamics and their shared struggles in order to exert power to change the paradigm of exploitation and marginalization that currently plagues New Orleans.


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