so much, yet so little

So I’ve been back from New Orleans for about two weeks now, and I’m now beginning to look over my field notes and process my thoughts about the summer. The summer in the field was remarkable in that I learned so much, yet so little.

My data collection strategy was twofold: My first objective was to conduct semi-structured interviews with people in New Orleans who were navigating the public school system. I wanted to engage individuals across all levels of the system – administrators, teachers, parents, and former students. Through networking with my roommates in New Orleans, and leaning on advice from dissertation advisor, I was able to build a chain-referral sample that eventually reached people interacting with the public school system across all of these social/bureaucratic scales. I also conducted participant observation at local school board meetings and community events organized around stopping the criminalization and incarceration of Black youth in the city.

My second objective was to collect GPS data on where schools are located in New Orleans, and then map them out using ArcGIS. After Hurricane Katrina, over 90% of the public schools were damaged, so there are massive construction projects ongoing, to reorganize and rebuild the city’s educational infrastructure. Initially, my goal was to locate and plot all of the schools that are no longer in use, and then plot where schools are currently being built. However, I did not have enough time to collect all of that data (long time field work objective!), but I was able to plot the locations of the schools that are currently in use, and then use census data to explore the racial demographics of neighborhoods that schools are being built in.

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I’m still trying to analyze all of the data I collected this summer, and work through them analytically to construct an argument about what I have found. Ultimately, in my interviews with parents, teachers, administrators, and students, I was stunned by how racial and class inequality become patterned topographically, vis-a-vis elevation in New Orleans. Just looking at the map, the areas where there are majority black populations are the areas that are most vulnerable to flooding: New Orleans East, and the Lower Ninth Ward. The areas where majority of white New Orleanians live corresponds with the “Sliver By the River,” a natural levee built up from millenia of flooding in the region. And even beyond class, Gentilly (a neighborhood that is more diverse in terms of racial and class composition but is still majority black) experienced the collapse of the London Avenue Canal Floodwall, and was decimated in 2005. One parent I interviewed explained to me at length about the ways that the Hurricane wiped out the black middle class in New Orleans, leaving many people with no friends or family to turn to for help, because everyone was suffering. Medical anthropologist Vincanne Adams’ recent book, Markets of Sorrow, Labors of Faith: New Orleans in the Wake of Katrina, provides vignettes of the lives of working/middle class African Americans of Gentilly who were wiped out by Katrina. Triangulating these geographically explicit inequalities that reach across class with the politics of urban planning and charter school construction, a profound argument beings to crystallize. The majority of the Orleans Parish Public Schools, which are managed by the locally elected school board and not the Louisiana State Legislature, are in majority white neighborhoods. These are also traditionally the highest performing schools, and despite being “open enrollment,” have some of the most stringent policies for student admission (one school requires 20 hours of volunteer service a month from parents in order to keep their children enrolled).

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At the same time the Hurricane wiped out the material base of the black working and middle classes, the Louisiana State legislature was working to gut the political influence of the black working and middle classes by firing every teacher and administrator in the New Orleans Public School system. As explained to me across many of my interviews, these are career paths that have traditionally bolstered the black middle class in New Orleans. All Americans have been affected by the retrenchment of the state and the cutting of civil servant jobs, but working and middle class Black people have been disproportionately affected by these cuts.

Between the interview and participant observation data, and the mapping that I did, I realize that at the core, my dissertation will be devoted to exploring the fundamentally antagonistic relationship between black people and the state. The Trayvon Martin situation, spending time at the Florida Capitol with the Dream Defenders and learning about the legislative rationales for racial profiling and the school to prison pipeline, seeing the movie Fruitvale Station, hearing the story about a 15 year old Black kid being denied a heart transplant because of his academic and disciplinary history, and talking to parents and even teachers who remarked that black students “change the culture” of high performing schools AND seeing the state move to protect high performing schools’ ability to ferret out poor and working class black children in an “open enrollment” system, makes it clear that there is a fundamental inability for many people in this country to see African Americans (particularly poor and working class ones) as human beings. With this humanity constantly being in question, there are no citizenship protections for poor and working class Black people in this country. In putting into conversation the work of Frantz Fanon and Frank Wilderson into my own work, I must recognize that this is our (black people’s) relation to the state – permanent, irreconcilable antagonism.

So as an anthropologist, I question many of the precepts of my discipline, as well as its ability to solve or address the question of antiblack racism. If anthropology moves in concert with a philosophy of a common “humanity” without coming to terms with the fact that at its core, this notion of “humanity” was designed specifically to exclude Black people, how can it ever address or analyze the material, symbolic, and structural realities of antiblack racism? Antiblack racism is encoded not only into the constitution of this country, but into the epistemology of the idea of “humanity” itself. Any study of institutional or cultural racism must recognize and accept this fact, I no longer see the utility of any analysis of “white privilege” or progressivist interventions that call for the state to “do more,” as if antiblack racism is merely socially constructed and can change by awareness campaigns. It is foundational to the state and reinforced culturally, politically, economically, and legally. The state is antiblack, and doing fieldwork in American public education crystallizes this reality for me. In seeing the geographies of injustice and antiblack racism in New Orleans, my goal is to move forward with my long-term fieldwork with a more targeted aim at exploring these questions, as well as the ways that school privatization schemes serve as an apparatus for the American penal regime.

First Impressions: Doing an anthropology of infrastructure in a city with no infrastructure

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To say that New Orleans has no infrastructure would be an exaggeration. There is definitely infrastructure present, but its ubiquity varies, depending on the neighborhood you’re in at the time. Because I am interested largely in how different people use public space in New Orleans, I have been making sure to pay attention to how people are living and moving in my neighborhood, how they choose to navigate the city’s infrastructure. Whats so cool about N.O. is that there is a different, more relaxed set of housing and residential codes in this city (this is a mental note to myself: go research the building codes of this city.) Businesses, cafes, stores and shops are littered in between residential spaces, sometimes popping up between two shotgun row houses. Almost everybody here sits on their porches/stoops for at least a few hours a day, people watching and socializing with their families and neighbors.Image
New Orleans is one of my favorite cities on planet Earth, largely because I think this city makes the geographies of exclusion clear in a way that many other American cities go to great lengths to try to hide. I am living in a home in the Bywater area of New Orleans. The neighborhood is clearly being gentrified, but I have never seen such a dizzying juxtaposition of the realities of this clash of economic resources, race, and culture. On the main thoroughfare by my home, St. Claude Ave, one can find check cashing place, next to a hipster record store, next to a fried seafood fast food takeout, next to a old blues dive bar, next to a yoga/pilates studio, next to an H&R block office, etc etc. Seeing poor and working class black folks bumping elbows with presumably middle class young white adults on their bikes and in foreign cars, navigating the same streets, while occupying separate and distinct social spheres in the same exact physical location. This part of the city appears to be at a mid-stage level of gentrification, so I am interested to see what the local politics are, in addition to talking to people to gauge their perceptions of crime, safety, and danger in this area. I’m gonna try to join the neighborhood listserv (if there is one) to keep tabs on the gentrifier pulse.
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I have also been driving around, and intentionally getting lost. I want to see all of the local HBCUs here, so far I have only seen Dillard University, and I walked around the Gentilly neighborhood. I’m still trying to wrap my mind around what I’m seeing, so I have been taking good fieldnotes and jotting down my impressions. I saw this sign while in Gentilly, which is at the location of the London Avenue Canal breach. Note the “offering” of crawfish shells at the base of the memorial. I wonder what an archaeologist would say about that 200+ years from now.
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I peeped over the floodwall to see the waterflow. To me, the most disconcerting and scary part about New Orleans is the overwhelming presence of water. Maybe its just me, but being surrounded by this much water and faulty infrastructure is unsettling. I wonder how people who actually have property around these areas feel about living in these zones (another mental note: Ask them!)

I stop whenever I see a school building, and take pictures. Most of the public schools that I have seen are shuttered and closed up, presumably since the storm. I want to figure out who are the major players in school rebuilding, as well as school marketing, in New Orleans. This photo below shows construction workers building a new KIPP Charter School on St. Claude Ave, about half a mile from my home. What role do these new schools play in neighborhood gentrification? Do they buffet it, conform to it, or are they irrelevant to it?

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I also stopped every time I saw schools being advertised. I have never seen such targeted marketing to black folks in my life, lol. In my rapidly gentrifiying neighborhood, I have yet to see 1 white child walking around, playing, frolicking, but I’ve seen several white adults. But when the neighborhood turns around, surely people will begin raising families here? Or are these purely investment properties for people to live in for a certain season, after which they will retreat to suburban family life? Just a few questions I have.

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This summer enrichment program is sponsored by the National Society of Black Engineers.
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I’m trying to figure out who the major players are here in terms of educational infrastructure. Thus far, I have seen KIPP, Capital One, and other financial institutions as being major players, but there are many more.

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This is a boarded up/shuttered school, you can still see the advertisements of the registration day, August 17, 2005, and advertising the student return on August 18, 2005. Hurricane Katrina made landfall on August 29, 2005.

Headed to New Orleans, Louisiana

I heard the singing of the Mississippi when Abe Lincoln went down to New Orleans, and I’ve seen its muddy bosom turn all golden in the sunset. I’ve known rivers: Ancient, dusky rivers. My soul has grown deep like the rivers.
—Langston Hughes, The Negro Speaks of Rivers
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This summer, I will be blogging as I conduct my preliminary dissertation research in New Orleans, Louisiana. I am extremely excited about the chance to collect some ethnographic data in one of my favorite cities in the world. New Orleans is a city of extreme contradictions and jarring juxtapositions, and has been since its founding by the French Mississipi Company in 1718. The city where “les bon temps rouler” is also a city marked by incredible inequality, poverty, and much human suffering, as shown after Hurricane Katrina and in the recent shooting of 19 people during a second line Mother’s Day parade. This is what draws me to the city — the good, the bad, and the ugly.

I remember the first time I visited N.O, it was November 2010. I was in town for a conference, and I searched for the New Orleans city bus schedule online on my last morning there. After finding the nearest route, I walked from the Superdome Holiday Inn to a bus stop three blocks away, to catch the city bus #88 to get to an area that seemed close enough to the Lower 9th, a New Orleans suburb called Arabi. During my bus ride, I could get a sense of the topography of New Orleans, a truly remarkable city by any urban planning measures. Its remarkable that people have attempted to live on such flood prone areas for hundreds of years, forging intimate, daily connections to water, particularly in the lower lying littoral zones where may of the urban poor of New Orleans lived. In Where Rivers Meet the Sea: The Political Ecology of Water, Stephanie Kane argues that the infrastructure of coastal cities (like New Orleans, the largest port in the United States based on total cargo volume), are places where the power of the state is made manifest through its confrontation with nature. This is where lines are drawn to demarcate those who are to be excluded and forgotten (Kane 2005). I got off the bus in Arabi, and I walked a few blocks northwest to reach my final destination. I noticed that the closer I got to the Lower 9th, the less noise I heard. The chirping of birds began to disappear, the sounds of cars and buses became more distant, there was no wind to cause a rustling of leaves, or flapping of shutters. The only sounds were my footsteps. As I reached the top of the road and looked out onto a panoramic view of the Lower 9th, I saw the absolute, unmitigated destruction. Leveled houses, homes that were leaning as if their foundations had been bent, dead, fallen trees, upturned cars, spray paint across the front doors, faded pictures on the ground. I expected to see cranes, tractors, some vestige of infrastructure, but there was nothing but chaos, like Katrina had happened last week. There were no birds, no children playing, no doors slamming, no wind, no cars, no life at all, except myself. For the first time in my life, I understood what deafening silence was.

My own research is interested in urban planning and education policy in New Orleans. You may not know this, but shortly after Hurricane Katrina, the majority of public schools in the city were transformed into charter schools. My own research agenda is to understand out how this charter school system plays out in a city marked by such segregation and inequality. This summer, I will be conducting interviews with some school administrators, local parents, and collecting some spatial data at school construction sites. I’m still formulating my research questions and hypotheses, so I hope that the feedback from this blog will assist me in that process, and maybe help my colleagues with similar questions and issues in their summer research projects.

References

Kane, Stephanie C. 2012 Where Rivers Meet the Sea: the Political Ecology of Water. Philadelphia: Temple University Press.