Jervey Tervalon reflects on New Orleans’s unique role in African-American history, culture and oppression in the wake of Hurricane Katrina in “The Unlikely City” (Issue 18). Editorial intern Rachel Harvey has a frank discussion with Jervey about race, class and the failures of American public policy.
Now that things have settled down in New Orleans—in terms of rebuilding and having an actual plan in place—do you feel any of your father’s optimism about rebuilding creeping up in you?
Well … I do feel happy that the Café du Monde was reopened today. That’s a good sign. People will be able to get a café au lait. On the other hand … the lower ninth ward that had the worst of the flooding is destroyed and it doesn’t look like it’ll be able to be rebuilt any time soon. So lots of people, 100,000 or 200,000, are going to be displaced for the foreseeable future. So there is some hope for optimism, and there is some sense that things are going to be very different for a very long time.
Yeah, I think there is a very real sentiment that it will never be what it used to be.
I think that it will definitely be changed. … You know New Orleans, it’s always been a tough town, and I think that some people are looking at the city through rose-coloured glasses. … It had a lot of poverty, it has one of the highest murder rates in the United States, some of the highest infant mortality rates, too. It had one of the worst public school systems in the country. There are a lot of things about New Orleans that are unsettling and, as much as I love the city, it’s hard not to acknowledge those things. I think that, when the city comes back, some of those social problems might be addressed.
One would really hope so. You’ve described New Orleans as one of the worst places to be black and poor in America. Did that complicate your ideas and your sentiments about whether or not it should be rebuilt or how it should be rebuilt?
Well, it doesn’t complicate my sentiments that it should be rebuilt. You know, New Orleans is such a historically significant city in the United States and in the world, it would really, really be a tragedy if the city wasn’t rebuilt and didn’t become a place where there could be vibrant life.
I think that probably what’s really sad about what happened in New Orleans is indicative of what’s wrong with the United States. We can’t plan. We can’t implement the infrastructure at all. It seems as though we’re incapable of it. We’ve become a country that’s so short-sighted and so materialistic and so interested in short-term gain. We’ve become so short-sighted that we can’t make the kinds of decisions that you have to make as a country, to invest in itself. It’s all individual. It’s all about what’s in your short-term interest right now and screw the future.
It’s always forward-thinking in an optimistic way. There is no preparation for disaster, for foreseeable problems, which makes New Orleans a tragedy, as well, because it was a problem that could have been prevented and it wasn’t.
Yeah. They even admit now that it was a failure of planning at a federal level. And to some extent—this is just my take on it, a broader take—I think the inability to worry about the future is kind of like backward thinking… Like, since we’re a heterogeneous culture, whatever spending is made … it always benefits the next guy, it doesn’t benefit your class and your people. So public education and infrastructure spending—that’s old fashioned—it benefits the “other” as opposed to all of America benefitting. This idea of social spending, you know, this idea of society trying to be more equitable, is considered kind of effeminate or weak or something.
It’s a relic from the past, or people view it as that, and it’s really something that’s necessary more now than ever with environmental sustainability as a huge problem and world AIDS as a huge problem. The sorts of multigenerational tasks that need to be taken on are actually falling to the side.
Yeah. They actually refer to it as the nanny state, you know: “You can’t worry about the nanny state.” It just happens to be the state we all live in.
Absolutely. Along the same lines, with problems we all acknowledge are here in the present and yet seem to do nothing about, race is a very obvious one of those problems that Hurricane Katrina seems to have illustrated to some people for the first time … I was wondering: how do you think it’s even possible that some reporters were so unprepared for the realities of the race and class issues in New Orleans that Katrina brought to their attention?
It speaks to the notion of willful ignorance. You know, you suspend disbelief; you’re shocked by what is obvious. The thing is, I’m a person of colour and … I’ve been affluent … but I grew up very working-class. What happens is … those of us that come from a different social strata, we’re the ones that have to be flexible. We have to understand exactly how the majority thinks. How the average white person thinks. But the average white person doesn’t have to think about what the Latino, the black person, the Asian person thinks … I don’t know of any person of colour that can afford to be ignorant of what the majority thinks … But it’s true that whites can be totally ignorant of Asians, or Latinos, or how black people think or how their cultures work. And in the last election, blacks, Latinos, Asians, all voted against President Bush. The only ethnic group in the United States that overwhelmingly voted for Bush was white people.
Do you think that that speaks to an inherent feeling that Bush takes care of primarily white needs?
Oddly enough, you know, working-class whites are probably as disenfranchised as working-class black people. They don’t deal with issues of race, but all the other economic conditions. I mean, right now, being American is like being faced with fear … If somebody runs up and hits us in the head with a golf ball or a baseball and let’s say we become learning- or mentally impaired, we’re going to be a tremendous drag on our families … It’s almost like you have to consider euthanasia because all we’re going to do is drain all the financial resources from the family. We don’t have a system in the United States that can address those sorts of things … It’s just so bizarre. New Orleans, Katrina, the people in the Gulf Coast, all those people that had jobs and now they no longer have jobs so now they have no medical care (and right now the president doesn’t think it’s a good idea that they should have medical care). So they’ve been exposed to all kinds of toxic substances in the water, E. coli levels that were extremely high. They were exposed to all that and what can they do but go to an emergency room and try to seek medical help that way?
This is such a complicated problem to even have a normal conversation about that I’m almost not sure what to say. I want to say: Where on earth do you think that kind of thinking comes from?
You know, the worst social benefits in the world in first-world countries are in countries that are heterogeneous. Homogeneous countries—they have the best social services. [In heterogeneous countries], it’s always playing off the other guy. The Native Americans … they’re the ones that benefit from social spending. People that don’t want to work benefit from social spending … they’re the one’s that benefit, and on and on. So now in New York City, something like 40 percent of the children (I think) don’t have medical insurance. Compare, in Paris, 90 percent of people have medical insurance. Aliens and illegal immigrants included. The United States has made decisions that are basically incomprehensible.
When you say in heterogeneous societies people finger point at the other guy, I don’t find you are accusatory in that way—not in the tone of the piece you presented to us or in your other books. You are very factual … no finger-pointing. Can you explain? Is there a philosophy behind this approach? Is there something you’re trying to achieve by just saying: “These are the facts, and you have a conversation about it”?
Part of it is that because you can see how easy it is to manipulate one group against another group. ... You know, Latinos have always been the largest group in California, you know, it once was part of Mexico. There is always talk of pitting blacks against Latino gang members or fighting between gangs. What’s of consequence is that if you’re going to address systemic problems, like poverty and injustice, you’re just trying to create a more equitable society for everybody. And that benefits everybody. That benefits blacks and Latinos and Asians. But when you see a society that doesn’t want to invest in education, that essentially is privatizing the public institutions that create our doctors and our engineers and enable any person to move up the social ladder, it’s bizarre. It’s absurd. … For me it’s not of interest to do the finger pointing because I think we have to persuade the average white American that your interests are not being served by having a society that’s creating such a giant gulf between the haves and have-nots. Eventually you’re going to fall into the category of the have-nots, and it’s becoming ever more clear right now.
We’ve reached, I think, a period in North American politics which people have been characterizing with disillusionment or voter apathy. Where people have just been hit by how shocking certain events occurring in government are—in terms of their irresponsibility or near-sighted focus—and the reaction is just to kind of sit there catatonic for a while. And now that people are starting to digest it, I think there needs to be a lot of vocal activity. Just to help people organize, find groups that they can align themselves with, activities that they can engage in that will help disseminate knowledge or work towards change.
I think you’re right, you either make positive change or you’re going to be changed—you don’t really have a choice.