[xmca] a bit of history on race issues in New orleans

From: David Preiss (davidpreiss@puc.cl)
Date: Tue Sep 20 2005 - 11:08:05 PDT

by Nicholas Lemann
Nicholas Lemann on the use of federal power in the South.
Issue of 2005-09-26
Posted 2005-09-19

As it becomes more possible to play what President Bush calls “the blame
game” about the unnecessarily disastrous effect of Hurricane Katrina on New
Orleans, it also becomes clear that the game divides fairly neatly into two
parts: before and after. Before involves storm defenses not enhanced despite
clear warnings of their inadequacy, wetlands not protected, evacuation buses
not engaged, and Federal Emergency Management Agency units not deployed to
the Gulf Coast in advance. After is about the week that began with the
hurricane hitting and ended with the Superdome and the Convention Center
emptied, National Guard troops on the street, supplies available, and the
levee breaches repaired, and that included day after endless day of
inexcusable, televised misery in between.

Most of what is likely to be known about before is already on the public
record. After is a more shadowy matter, and the scraps of detail about it
that have emerged so far make up a puzzling and incomplete picture. The Bush
Administration realized after the storm what it should have realized before
it: that the state and local authorities in Louisiana were not going to be
able to handle the hurricane’s aftermath effectively. Apparently, the
Administration tried to persuade the governor of Louisiana, Kathleen Blanco,
to issue an official request that the federal government take control of the
Louisiana National Guard and the New Orleans police, but she refused, out of
pride or mistrust or a desire to maintain some degree of control. Then the
Administration considered sending active-duty federal troops to New Orleans
to do what the National Guard and the police could not—make the streets and
the evacuation centers safe and decent—and decided not to. Whatever its
failings before the hurricane hit, the federal government could have greatly
lessened the disaster if it had acted immediately afterward as a direct
enforcer of the law. People suffered and died because it did not.

All this backing and forthing about the powers of federal, state, and local
governments has a long, redolent history that explains a lot not only about
the aftermath of the hurricane but about the underlying conditions in New
Orleans that so shocked auslander television viewers. Article I of the
United States Constitution gives the federal government the power to
“suppress insurrections.” This has always been a touchy subject—especially
in the South, and most especially during the Reconstruction period, after
the biggest insurrection in American history had been successfully
suppressed. The Insurrection Act of 1807 outlines the script that the
Administration evidently wanted Governor Blanco to follow: a governor asks
the President to federalize local law enforcement in order to suppress an
insurrection; the President issues a proclamation ordering the “insurgents
to disperse”; they don’t; the cavalry rides to the rescue.

But the President has the option of sending in troops without being asked
when the law isn’t being enforced or the rights of a class of people are
being denied—which was clearly the case in New Orleans, not just because
crime was rampant but because so many people were trapped in hellish
conditions. In 1992, President George H. W. Bush, who liked to build
alliances before invading, sent federal troops to quell the Los Angeles
riots after the governor requested him to. In 1957 and 1963, however,
Presidents Eisenhower and Kennedy sent troops to the South to enforce the
civil rights of African-Americans without gubernatorial invitations. It’s no
accident that all three invocations of the Insurrection Act had to do with
the American dilemma: throughout our history, the moments of greatest
contention about federal power have involved race.

The Reconstruction period ended with a protracted and bloody conflict over
the question of deploying federal troops in the South. In the Southern
states with the largest black populations, organized terrorist groups arose
that would do whatever it took, including murder, to insure election
victories by the Democratic Party, which was dominated by unrepentant former
Confederates. The best means of suppressing the terrorists and insuring free
elections was to send in the Army. Congress made the use of troops easier or
harder depending on who was in power in Washington. Laws passed in 1870 and
1871, the heyday both of the Ku Klux Klan and of Radical Republicanism, made
it easier to use troops in the South; the post-Reconstruction Posse
Comitatus Act of 1878—an attempt to eviscerate the Insurrection Act by
requiring an act of Congress before federal troops could be used—made it
more difficult. The issue of federal intervention and the issue of whether
freed slaves and their descendants would fully be citizens were essentially
the same. Reconstruction ended with the withdrawal of federal troops in
1877. They were withdrawn, supposedly, to restore normal governance in the
former Confederate states, but the consequence was that those states, once
there was nobody on hand to force them to obey the Constitution, took full
citizenship away from African-Americans.

No state saw more conflict over federal power than Louisiana. A massacre of
politically active blacks in New Orleans in the summer of 1866 helped set in
motion the passage of constitutional amendments that made it illegal to deny
civil rights and the right to vote to anyone on the basis of race. President
Grant sent federal troops to the Red River Valley after notorious massacres
there in 1873 and 1874; in 1874, federal troops were ordered to New Orleans
after a Democratic white militia tried to overthrow the Republican state
government; in 1875, federal troops marched onto the floor of the state
legislature to restore the Republicans to power after another coup d’état by
the Democrats. This last intervention was a pivotal event—not because it
enforced order once and for all but because it horrified the nation, which
in those days was not at all sure that it was in favor of Negro rights.
Before long, federal intervention in the South in the name of civil rights
became a taboo so absolute that no President violated it for more than
three-quarters of a century.

This is not ancient history. The New Orleans ghettos that America got an
oblique look at after the hurricane grew up during the time when the South,
having successfully resisted the federal government, imposed a secondary
status on blacks. In the nineteen-sixties, the two major political parties
reversed their Reconstruction-era roles: the Democrats embraced civil
rights, and the South became Republican. Whoever in the Bush Administration
hesitated to invoke the Insurrection Act was partaking of a reflexive
anti-governmentalism that pervades the Administration. (This Bush
Administration isn’t hung up on building alliances, but its high-spirited
willingness to use force wilts, evidently, inside domestic borders.) If
there was also a political calculation that many Republicans, especially
Southerners, would not react happily to the sight of troops entering
Louisiana over the objections of local officials, this was hardly the moment
for it, and the calculation turns out to have been wrong, anyway.

Is it too much to hope for that the disaster might reëstablish in the
national mind the link between race and governance? The shock that non-New
Orleanians experienced at what they saw was genuine, but memories have faded
to the point that people no longer make what was once an obvious connection
between a disabled federal government and bad outcomes for
African-Americans. Seeing the two together after Katrina ought to make us
understand how literally deadly are the effects of a reluctance to use
government. Perhaps even the Bush Administration will reconsider.

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