Katrina Is What Happens When You Segregate People by Race and Class

Just as the terror of Sept. 11 awakened Americans to our vulnerability to outside threats, the horror of Hurricane Katrina revealed how vulnerable we are to problems of our own making.

With reconstruction in New Orleans barely under way, there is much that needs attention: engineering solutions to wetland and levee failures; insurance reform for the many unprotected property owners; evacuation logistics and comprehensive economic development; and, of course, housing and basic infrastructure planning and construction. These are sizable local undertakings for which New Orleans needs and deserves federal assistance.

The destruction of New Orleans revealed fundamental flaws in the way our social contract excludes protection for large segments of the country's cities -- especially black and poor citizens -- and the city's reconstruction holds national significance.

The stages of catastrophic damage to predominantly black areas of New Orleans proceeded from the unexpected to the unthinkable to the unacceptable. First, there was the breaching of the storm walls and rapid flooding; next, the fatal effects of incompetent evacuation planning, followed by the pure misery of the criminally negligent rescue delays and the wrenching and often random dispersal of displaced human beings to 44 different states.

In the collective memory of many black Americans, the images and the experience elicited flashbacks to slavery. For all Americans, the government's incompetent rescue and recovery was a generation's single most profound spectacle of cumulative black disadvantage. For those trapped in the city's poverty, the storm was a metaphor come true: Unable to escape, the waters destroyed their bodies and homes. Shocked, we promised to launch an overdue national discussion on race and class. Yet for so many, silence, and the state of limbo, continues.

The opportunity need not be lost. First, we must recommit ourselves to an understanding of how urban poverty became the nightmare cousin of the American dream.

Katrina is what happens when you segregate people by race and class, discriminate against them for a long time in job and credit markets, deprive their schools of adequate resources, and criminalize them in myriad other ways for a couple of generations. Middle-class Americans were rightly outraged by their sudden visibility, but the exclusion of the urban poor has been a foundation of middle-class life for almost a century.

Like their counterparts across America, New Orleans' low-wage workers saw opportunities shrink over several decades as a result of the growth of minimum-wage service-sector jobs, white flight, the suburbanization of employment, and the sitting of public housing in isolated areas with poor public services.

With so few resources and so many constraints, the inundated neighborhoods were often difficult places to raise families, find steady work or build wealth in. Before Katrina, 44 percent of all black men in New Orleans were jobless. A third of the flood victims had no access to cars. Half were renters with no current voice in the rebuilding. Fifty thousand of them were children.

Second, as we did with homeland security, this nation must commit to a serious reordering of our social contract and a more inclusive definition of citizenship. It is morally and politically inexcusable for such a wealthy nation to withhold from so many the social and economic resources necessary for household and neighborhood stability.

A failure to nurture individual self-sufficiency contributed to the sudden death of whole communities in New Orleans. A failure to nurture a broader idea of community contributes to continued ghettoization across America.

Yet a more inclusive social contract is possible in the United States. Cities such as Houston and Atlanta have proved willing and able to absorb desperate and displaced thousands and to integrate them into the fabric of local life. Countless advocacy groups and nonprofits have reached across the Katrina diaspora to support families abandoned by their government.

Now the local, state and federal governments must assume their obligations to engage in meaningful planning for a truly public purpose rather than deferring to real estate developers, campaign donors and self-interested elites.

Third, the restoration of our best social contract ideals will rely on aggressive, imaginative urban planning. This appears to be a critical failure in New Orleans, where public officials have been slow and cautious in their duty to rebuild a city of mixed incomes and shared resources.

Yet that city, rich with unparalleled history and cultural depth, could be a model for America if it followed a radical premise: That what is good for its poor will be good for its middle class, too.

David Dante Troutt is a professor of law at Rutgers Law School-Newark, and editor of " After the Storm: Black Intellectuals Explore the Meaning of Hurricane Katrina" (The New Press, 2006).