Friday, September 11, 2009

Oprah Winfrey and President Obama pulled into battle over Discriminatory Housing Laws in New Orleans area

By Jordan Flaherty

Rebuilding efforts in St. Bernard Parish, a small community just outside New Orleans, have recently gotten a major boost. One nonprofit focused on rebuilding in the area has received the endorsement of CNN, Alice Walker, the touring production of the play The Color Purple, and even President Obama. But an alliance of Gulf Coast and national organizations are now raising questions about the cause these high profile names are supporting.

The dispute focuses on the responsibility of relief organizations to speak out against injustice in the communities in which they work. Since September of 2006, St. Bernard Parish has been aggressive in passing racially discriminatory laws and ordinances. Although these laws have faced condemnation in Federal court and in the media, rebuilding organizations active in the parish have so far refused to take a public position.

Racial discrimination has a long history in St. Bernard politics. Judge Leander Perez, a fiery leader who dominated the parish for almost 50 years, was known nationally as a spokesman for racial segregation. The main road through the Parish was named after Perez, and his legacy still has a hold on the political scene there. Lynn Dean, a member of the St Bernard parish council told reporter Lizzy Ratner, "They don't want the blacks back… What they'd like to do now with Katrina is say, we'll wipe out all of them. They're not gonna say that out in the open, but how do you say? Actions speak louder than words. There's their action."

The action Lynn was referencing is a “blood relative” ordinance the council passed in 2006. The law made it illegal for Parish homeowners to rent to anyone not directly related to the renter. In St Bernard, which was 85% white before Katrina hit, this effectively kept African Americans, many of whom were still displaced from New Orleans and looking for nearby housing, from moving in. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center sued the Parish, saying the ordinance violated the 1968 Fair Housing Act. A judge agreed, saying it was racially discriminatory in intent and impact.

The story doesn’t end there. St. Bernard’s government agreed to a settlement, but the illegal ordinance was followed by another, blocking multi-family construction in the Parish. Last month, U.S. District Judge Ginger Berrigan found the Parish to be in contempt of court, saying, “The Parish Council's intent…is and was racially discriminatory." An editorial in the New Orleans Times-Picayune agreed, saying, “This ruling strips off the camouflage and reveals St. Bernard's actions for what they really are: an effort to keep lower-income people and African-Americans from moving into the mostly white parish.”

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