Q&A with Melissa Harris-Lacewell

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Q&A with Melissa Harris-Lacewell
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Dr. Melissa Harris-Lacewell, Associate Professor of Politics and African-American Studies at Princeton University, emerged as a nationally renowned political commentator in 2004, as a little known Chicago politician named Barack Obama was beginning to take his place on the national stage. She has embraced her public role in ways that demonstrate both her intellect and her keen understanding for how social media plays a role in 21st Century politics. In 2005, after Hurricane Katrina, Dr. Lacewell found herself in a position to be an analyst of and an advocate for New Orleans. She is currenlty spending as much time as possible in the city, both to pursue her research and to assist, for reasons personal as well as political, James Perry's campaign for mayor of New Orleans. Dr. Lacewell took some time to talk with NOLAFugees about the past and future of the city.

NOLAFugees: You were on the ground in New Orleans shortly after Katrina in November of 2005. Can you explain a bit what you were doing?

Melissa Harris-Lacewell: I'd loved New Orleans before the storm. I had a best girlfriend in graduate school who is a native of New Orleans and she introduced the city to me. And so when the storm hit, like everyone in the country I was riveted by it and appalled by it. And I think also like many non-New Orleanians in the rest of the country I wanted to do something, but I'm not a lawyer and I'm not a doctor. I don't have any "usable skills." I'm a teacher and a researcher, so I came to New Orleans to do that. I was here during the same time that the Urban Land Institute was here developing their plan. I had a colleague who was part of the ULI board, so I came and stayed for a couple of weeks. I talked to dozens of survivors who were returning to the city at that point. I spent a lot of time just in the neighborhoods, did a lot of documenting of the destruction, and I also spent a lot of time at the ULI hearings, watching their process, watching how they were thinking about their role as mostly outsiders, and then ultimately watching the community's reaction to the initial ULI plan.

NF: What was their reaction?

MHL: For me, probably the most memorable moment was when a woman in the community stood up and put a root on everyone on the ULI board. It was clear that these, honestly, good spirited people--architects, planners, people who had been engaged in post 9/11 recovery--what they did was they came down and they holed up in the hotel, they took bus tours of the Lower 9th, they looked at the city with an eagle eye, and they made a bureaucrat's plan that didn't take into account the heart that is New Orleans. The community's reaction, at a time when we had still not recovered the bodies of the dead, peoples' family members were still trapped in their homes, to hear that those final resting places should become green space...painful is the only word I can use to describe it. My father was a community organizer and an urban planner. I've been in a lot of urban planning meetings in my lifetime, many of them intense, but this one had the most raw emotion and pain behind it.

NF: Your subsequent report cited a racial gap in perceptions about Katrina. Do you think that gap still exists, not only nationally but in the city itself?

MHL: Sure. I mean, this is the core of my work. Even just this morning, in the confirmation hearings of Judge Sonia Sotomayor, she at one point said something like, "my race and ethnicity will impact the facts that I see." And so many of the Senators were jumping on her and saying, "what do you mean?" I think they were taking it as a normative statement as though she were saying, "I will purposely pick and choose what I see." I think instead what she was really saying was something more empirical. It is empirically true that there is an enormous perceptual divide between blacks and whites. It is not absolute, and in fact there are several social and economic indicators that allow white people to see the world more the way black people do and for black people to see the world more the way white people do. But on average, it's not just a matter of different opinions. We actually perceive the world differently. So is it true in the city of New Orleans? Absolutely. Is it true of the world's perception of the city of New Orleans? Of course. But it doesn't mean that it can't be bridged, and difference is not always bad, because with that kind of gap there's probably some truth in both perceptions. The thing that bridges it is common vocabulary, and that we don't have. I am still enough of an observer in New Orleans to not yet know whether or not New Orleans has a more common vocabulary for bridging it. I know we don't have it at the national level.

NF: This fall there'll be a whole new crop of college kids coming to the city for the first time. Could you give them a reading list to sort of give them an understanding of what they're moving into?

MHL: There are many terrific things to read, many of them directly about New Orleans and some of them about what it might mean to live in New Orleans post-Katrina. One of my favorite New Orleans texts is a little tiny history book called Carnival of Fury by William Ivy Hair. It's about the New Orleans race riot at the turn of the 20th century. It's a fascinating book in part because you'll see elements of contemporary 21st century New Orleans reflected in the early 20th century. And also you can really get a sense of how residential patterns, questions of crime, questions of race, all of those things that you feel in this story at the turn of the 20th century, still exist. There are also some great books on the geography of New Orleans and trying to understand it. Susan Cutter has a series of terrific books. College kids interested in environmental and green issues, which are central here in the city, should be reading [LSU professor Craig] Colten's book about the geography of New Orleans, as well as Robert Bullard's Dumping In Dixie, which is very much about the relationship between the American north and the American south relative to the siteing of locally undesirable land uses. I think it might be important for students who are not from New Orleans to read Mindy Fullilove's Root Shock. Her book is not about the city. It's actually about urban redevelopment in northern cities, Philadelphia and New York, but it's about how the destruction of communities and neighborhoods has a deep psychological impact on people. It's a terrific book to try to think about how a city, even years after the kind of displacement that happened with Katrina, would be coping.
NF: You're in New Orleans now for an extended period of time?

MHL: I am.

NF: I don't think it's a vacation because you emailed me this morning at 6am. What are you here for? What are you working on?

MHL: There are lots of reasons why I'm here. The center of my intellectual work, my advocacy work, and my teaching for the past four years has been the city of New Orleans. I've been here as much as I can be over that time, often bringing big groups of students with me. This time, though, it is both more personal and more political. I am here in large part to be an advocate for James Perry's mayoral campaign. I am also doing research while I'm in the city and I'm doing all of my normal press stuff, but those personal and intellectual endeavors are the second thing I'm doing. The number one thing I'm doing is being an advocate for James' campaign. And James is my beloved, so it is a personal trip in the sense that it's also an opportunity to spend extended time together.

NF: Can you name drop or endorse any places you've been to?

MHL: I go to as many places as I can. Where we are right now, here in Mid-City at CC's, I spend a lot of time when I'm Twittering or blogging. It's a really nice place to write, so this has been a center of action for me. James has a past in New Orleans music so he's definitely been introducing me to lots of music. We literally made ourselves disabled for a short period of time because we went to hear DJ Jazzy Jeff at the House of Blues last week. It was incredible, but it was also very loud, and we spent the next three days screaming at each other and at everyone else.

NF: Back to the mayor's race. How closely did you follow the 2006 mayoral elections?

MHL: Very closely. At that point my Katrina research had started, but also I had the privilege of beginning to develop a public voice by 2006. Part of what I was being called on to do was to have commentary about the mayor's race, particularly about the racial dynamics, and what it meant that national civil rights leaders and organizations had taken a position that the future of black New Orleans rested on the reelection of Mayor Ray Nagin, and what I perceived as a deeply misguided understanding about what race is, that it was about having a black body in the mayor's office, and a black body that would make particular kinds of racial statements on the national stage, that that constituted racial interest.

So what happened was, on the one hand this incredibly important work on the part of civil rights organizations to make sure that dislocated people were not disenfranchised, and to make sure that the people of New Orleans had a right to vote even though they'd been displaced and that they had a say in the future of their city even if they had not yet had the capacity to return. But that basic democratic right got mashed up in a very uncomfortable and inappropriate way with the reelection of Ray Nagin, because although I'm 100% supportive of that enfranchisement, this was a man who didn't even win with the majority of the black vote in his first race and who had never demonstrated a policy agenda interested in either racial or class equality. So it was an appalling and very difficult thing to watch.


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