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Gary Younge
Out of sight, out of mind

As African Americans remained stranded in plain sight following the flooding of New Orleans last year, Mayor Milton Tutwiler of Winstonville, Mississippi told the New York Times: "No one would have checked on a lot of the black people in these parishes while the sun shined. So am I surprised that no one has come to help us now? No."

Now the sun is out and the cameras are away again. For a brief moment last September the US rediscovered the potent effects of race and class on life chances in a similar manner to the way teenagers discover sex. Unaware that some people may have fathomed this long ago they treated it as a revelation, couldn't get enough of it, and then on learning that only their understanding of the world had changed rather than the world itself, all but a few gradually went back to business as normal.

But while the rest of the country is moving on, the Crescent City is being recast in the image of a corporate American dream with the help of tax payers dollars. Schools are being taken out of local democratic control; Hispanic labourers are being ruthlessly exploited; and the black and the poor are being dissuaded from returning to the city.

In other words those who were vulnerable before the storm remain so. A survey by the New York Times on Wednesday revealed that blacks were more likely to have had their savings depleted during the storm, and less likely to have kept their jobs, found similar or better employment or to have returned home. As Columbia history professor Manning Marable wrote:

The terrible destruction of thousands of homes and businesses, and relocation of over one million New Orleans and Gulf area residents, was perceived as a golden opportunity by corporate and conservative political elites who had long desired to "remake" the historic city. Even before the corpses of black victims had been cleared from New Orleans's flooded streets, corporations closely associated with George W. Bush's administration eagerly secured non- competitive, multi-billion dollar reconstruction contracts.

But, as Marable pointed out in his address to the Left Forum in New York earlier this month, the rebuilding of New Orleans in this manner is not aberrant but consistent with the way in which many American cities are now being shaped. From Harlem to Atlanta the regeneration of most downtown areas in the US and the now waning real estate boom has forced the poor and dark out of American cities. Retained is just a sufficient suggestion of their cultural contributions to maintain the mirage of a lively, active area.

Already, New Orleans is experiencing an unprecedented real estate boom, as the price for housing in areas undamaged by the flood has skyrocketed. Developers are planning a "New New Orleans" with a population of only 275,000, with the vast majority of native African Americans permanently removed from the city. Race, not class, is central to this racist strategy of gentrification. The elimination of hundreds of thousands of African American voters potentially could shift Louisiana's politics ever further to the right.

America's compassion for the tsunami vicims seems to have endured longer and been more heartfelt than the brief orgy of concern that burned so brightly and so quickly last year - possibly because to deal with the issues that Katrina raised would involved dealing with so much more.

"I don't think anybody cares, really," Robert Rodrigue told the New York Times. "New Orleans is kind of like at the bottom of the country and they just forget about us."

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