The Making of Chopper City: Black Life In New-Orleans (Hood Series)

In the public eye, New Orleans is a wonderful place to retreat for Mardi Gras parades; the eager tourists anticipate collecting beads and “Who Dat” souvenirs. Or they come to the Crescent City in anticipation of the annual Jazz-fest, topping their evening off by treating themselves to beignets in the French Quarters. At the heart of Bourbon Street, there are many clubs and bars providing much entertainment to sightseers. This is the New Orleans that attracts tourists far and wide! Yet, beyond these affluent attractions there exists another world that tourists do not dare journey into, and it is colloquially referred to as Chopper City.

The etymological origins of Chopper City are due to one fundamental reality: an AK-47 is needed for survival in these war zones. In Chopper City, there are excruciatingly high levels of poverty, the drug economy is dominant, and black on black violence is omnipresence. City planners do not devote nearly as much time to the well-being of Chopper City  as they do tourist attractions; while driving through streets riddled with potholes, choppers can be heard blasting. The Magnolia rapper Souljah Slim describing the consequences of this dire social neglect in Chopper City proclaims, “M’mma pray for her baby ‘cause I stayed in war.” Black youth are indeed at war, not only with one another, but with outside forces as well.

The declaration of Magnolia artist Lil Wayne which is ”a young nigga screaming f*ck the world,” is often perceived as anti-social; such messages are often why Hip-Hop artists are lambasted throughout the conservative media. Rappers are condemned for conveying negative social messages and embodying every flawed element of urban city culture: ignorant, rowdy, and violent. Yet, this s assertion of Lil Wayne is much deeper that one may suppose, as it demonstrates a fundamental fact about black existence in America: Lil Wayne has no choice but to put his middle finger up to the world; the world that he lives in is anti-black.

Following the Civil War, the black forefathers of the New Orleans artist endured a variety of repressive black code laws which intended to neworleansfreedomandindsolidify a white over black hierarchy. Within this post-plantation slavery period, the police of New Orleans were active Klansman who would terrorize the black community through lynching and even sexual assaults of black women.   Despite the fact that there was no source of employment for blacks, vagrancy laws were passed to prosecute unemployed blacks. These laws built the newly formed convict leasing system by ensuring that blacks would be used as slaves even after the passing of the Emancipation Proclamation. This oppression ensured that whites would continue to benefit from the enslavement of blacks, and continue to amass vast wealth from black suffering.

In 1937, a racial caste system would be enforced by the New Orleans Housing Authority who explicitly established segregated housing for neworlean4blacks, intentionally putting them in areas most susceptible to flooding. Blacks were continuously segregated and their lives were treated as though they were worthless; in the sixties, chemical plants were constructed near black neighborhoods. This would work to ensure that toxic pollution contaminated the air that blacks had no choice but to breathe in. Through lyrics, Lil Wayne states, “Stuck in the hood like they put cement on us,” which is a reality: the planning of New Orleans was structured firmly upon a racist ideology that intended to segregate blacks into impoverished social neighborhoods.

“The presidential double R, call that Ronald Reagan.” Though Lil Wayne is able to enjoy cruising in a Rolls Royce due to the hip hop industry, Reagonomics trickled down and devastated the black community at large. Social services were drastically cut, and the tax code was constructed to favor the wealthy. In the eighties, due to Reagan, the dreaded figure of the “black criminal” emerged within political advertisements. White politicians would chastise black youth as criminals, drug dealers, and rapists and call for ‘law and order’ in order to protect the good, white citizenry. Within New Orleans, whites began settling in Slidell and other suburbs, the local black population would still be in segregated public housing. The wealth never actually did trickle down; instead, as jobs moved out of the inner-city, New Orleans began cutting back on social services. There would be little opportunity for social mobility for black Americans. Describing these hectic times, C- Murder describes his teenage years saying, ”I breaks bread with these baseheads,” indicating he had to sell coke to make ends meet.

poli43The dominant mode of life for black New Orleans residents consisted of selling drugs, evading the police, and going in and out of prison. Eventually, the New Orleans Police Department declared a ‘War on Drugs’ against black youth. C-Murder, growing up in these repressive times, describes ”on the spot money bustin’ out my socks, boy its hot and now these cops on my jock, boy.” Though the drug economy is quite profitable, black youth must successfully evade the police to survive. As Mayor Sidney Barthemely lost control of the Police Department, their increasingly corrupt practices would classify them as nothing more than another gang.

benardhousingPolice would routinely rob drug dealers for quick cash, and even plant drugs on innocent blacks and bring them up on false charges. Police brutality became the norm; black mothers living in housing projects feared their small children would be brutalized by police, thus, even when there was genuine problems in their housing projects, they were hesitant to call the police. The police corruption within the city was so notorious that African-American Marc H. Morial became mayor by campaigning on the platform that he would overhaul the entire department. But, even as a black mayor, the city planning, institutions, and all other facets of New Orleans had been set up to discriminate and oppress African-Americans. This institutionalized racism would not be something that his administration could overcome. The years of discriminatory public housing, years of disenfranchisement, and police repression would concentrate both anti-social behavior and poverty in the black community, and this would be showcased during Hurricane Katrina with helpless blacks drowning in water or stranded on top of roofs begging for help.

In the next article, we will demonstrate how the impact of Hurricane Katrina more severely impacted blacks due to the racist urban planning. We will also take a look at institutionalized racism in the post-Katrina era.

References

Black Rage in New Orleans: Police Brutality and african american activism from World War II to Hurricane Katrina by Leonard N Moore

How Do Hurricane Katrina’s Winds Blow?: Racism in 21st-century New Orleans  By Liza Lugo

Chiraq: Has There Been Progress?

                                                     Has there been improvement?


In The Street Scriptures, we took a look at the literary and poetic works of Nasir Jones and Tupac Shakur to challenge the erroneous and dangerous notion that the post Civil Rights era led to a major structural improvement in the lives of African-Americans

When one reads the history of the civil rights movement, it is often told as a tale of victory and triumph of oppression. Dr. Martin Luther King’s speeches are played and people reflect on how racist the situation in America “used to be.” During black history month, society generally prides itself on how much progress has been made in society in getting rid of the racism that used to be there. With the election of a black president in Barack Obama, many people are convinced of the fundamental premise that America is becoming more equal and its black population is progressing more and more.  But with the end of legal discrimination, has the material condition of African-Americans actually improved in the post Civil Rights era?  No one can deny the rise of racial tolerance, interracial relationships, and ascendency of more African-Americans to political power, but, again, has the material condition of the masses of African-Americans really improved?

In his iconic and often played speech, “I Have a Dream,” Dr. Martin Luther King says:

“One hundred years later, the Negro lives on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity. One hundred years later, the Negro is still languished in the corners of American society and finds himself an exile in his own land. And so we’ve come here today to dramatize a shameful condition.”

Has this actually changed? Do the masses of black people still not languish in the corner of society? Liberals, while generally acknowledging the unequal conditions facing black people, would generally  like to believe the myth of “steady progress,” and that things are steadily getting better for black people and that – eventually – they will reach an equal status with white people. Conservatives generally go as far as to deny any role of institutional racism in impeding that social mobility of African-Americans, often blaming “thugs,” “gangsters,” or “black criminals” for the hardship faced by blacks that the system has forced them into. Both positions are egregiously wrong, and the reality is that the end of legal discrimination did not lead to an end of dejure discrimination, and it did not put an end to defacto discrimination, nor did it really affect or get rid of the common traditions and norms which excluded blacks; rather, it simply led to the end of formal, legal discrimination.

In reality, black people still “live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity.” Black and latino youth live in isolated impoverished ghettos, lacking access to basic health care, jobs, and decent schooling. The amount of youth graduating high school is low, and the amount of youth who are incarcerated or killed is disgustingly high. These ghettoes are great sources of violence and despair. Street gangs viciously fight over territory in an effort to dominate an illegal economy. Stray bullets rarely find their intended target, instead choking the life out of the innocent. Parents who are unable to provide food for their children watch as they yearn for nourishment. Children grow up paranoid as they walk the streets, hoping they are not caught in between gang crossfire.

The organic Intellectual Tupac remarks, ”There’s never a good day, cause in my hood theyblet they AK’s pump strays where the kids play And every Halloween, check out the murder scene, Can’t help but duplicate the violence seen on the screen. My homies  dyin’ fore they get to see they birthdays, These is the worst days.”

In Chicago, just one of the numerous inner-cities where blacks still ”live on a lonely island of poverty in the midst of a vast ocean of material prosperity,” display staggering statistics:

In Chicago, black men between the ages of 17-25 with a prior arrest history are the most likely group to be murder victims or to be accused of murder.

In 1960, the median income for African-Americans families was $4,800 and for white families it was $7,700. In 2010, the average income for African-American households was $29,371, but for white families it was $58,752. This is not progress or steady improvement.In 1960, 69% of African-Americans lived in community areas that were 94% black. In 2011, 63% of African-Americans lived in community areas that were 95% black. This is not progress or steady improvement. In 1960, the poverty rate for African-Americans was 29.7% and for whites was 7.4%. In 2011, the poverty rate for African-Americans was 34.1% and for whites 10.9%. This is not progress or steady improvement.The unemployment rate for African-Americans in 1968 was 7.6% and for whites it was 2.3%. In 2012, the unemployment rate for African Americans was 19.5%; for whites only 8.1%. This is not progress. [1]

Tupac elucidates on the damaging result of unemployment in the black community and articulates the impact it has on black youth, ”God help me, cause I’m starving, can’t get a job
So I resort to violent robberies, my life is hard
Can’t sleep cause all the dirt make my heart hurt
Put in work and shed tears for my dead peers”

In these ghettoes with no real employment opportunities, youth often turn to the drug economy or crime as the only way to have basic necessities of life.  Indeed, in Chicago’s ghettoes, it’s not afterschool programs, Ford, or McDonalds that holds the spot as the number one source of employment. Rather, it is the drug economy.

There is a myth in the famous “I Have a Dream” speech which must be exposed; Dr. Martin Luther King stated:

“When the architects of our republic wrote the magnificent words of the Constitution and the Declaration of Independence, they were signing a promissory note to which every American was to fall heir. This note was the promise that all men, yes, black men as well as white men, would be guaranteed the unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness.”

The reality is, this nation’s founder explicitly  intended it to be one which exclusively benefited white men with blacks, Native Americans, and women excluded. There is no evidence that it was a “promissory” note which eventually wanted to include non-whites and give them access to the privileges and benefits handed to whites.  The constitution was written by white supremacists for the purposes of white supremacy. It was not an otherwise benevolent document that was simply interpreted  incorrectly, it is the deviation from the mainstream interpretation of the constitution that has allowed for some legal progress from the otherwise racist document which  explicitly labeled blacks as 3/5th of a human.

What are unalienable, constitutional rights to  black youth growing up in ghettoes in which the reality is that they may be hit by a stray bullet at any time?

What is the unalienable right to liberty when the social structure of America  has established it as such that blacks will be lured into a life of crime out of economic necessity and be a subsequent victim of the prison industrial complex legalized by the 13th amendment?

“Neither slavery nor involuntary servitude, except as a punishment for crime whereof the party shall have been duly convicted, shall exist within the United States, or any place subject to their jurisdiction.”

What is the unalienable, constitutional right to the pursuit of happiness to black youth who – through no fault of their own – are born into ghettoes, lacking the basic necessities of life and living in a white supremacist social structure which guarantees their desperation.

The constitution from its inception was never intended to benefit black people, so it was not a “promissory note” as was mentioned in Martin Luther King’s speech. Rather, it is doing exactly what it was intended to do: guaranteeing white men the right to life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness at the expense of black people who are victims of the prison industrial complex and at the expense of Native Americans who live largely impoverished on reservations while whites have access to the benefits of their land.
The passage of civil rights did not end the state-sanctioned oppression of black people, not even close, instead, black people would be exploited and subjugated in new, slyer ways.

The civil rights amendments were passed not because the rulers of America had a change of heart, but because America was in competition to become the world’s global hegemon with the Soviet Union; it was difficult for America to brand itself as the exemplar of freedom and equality with legal discrimination and events such as Emmitt Till’s death and the dogs ordered to attack black youth – such events became an obstacle to America in its competition with the  Soviet Union—so legal discrimination ended, but the white supremacist structure remained in tact. Tupac Shakur states:

Cause lady liberty is a hypocrite she lied to me
Promised me freedom, education, equality
Never gave me nothing but slavery
And now look at how dangerous you made me

The ‘America’ that many people would like to believe in simply doesn’t exist in reality. America brands itself like other corporations, and America claims to be the home of freedom, progress, and equality. In reality, America was built from the wholesale slaughter of Native Americans and the enslavement of blacks. These two events are intrinsic to America’s national building project and has come to define it’s existance as a fundamental anti-black state, despite its promulgation of freedom and justice. America never had a promissory note for black people to cash-in; rather, the framers of the constitution were explicit in considering black people to be outside of humanity and, fundamentally, black people still live outside of mainstream American life.

When Dr. Martin Luther King came to Chicago, it was to protest segregation and the poverty affecting black youth.

The only thing which has changed is that there are no longer ’“NO niggers” signs, but the same conditions still exist in Chicago which caused him to come to the city in the first place.

The black ghettoes are in shambles. Parents are bitter because they are struggling to keep up with the rent; they are struggling to keep food in the refrigerator, they are struggling to keep up with the light and water bill.

With the deaths of Hadiya Pendlenton, Joseph Coleman, Derrion Albert and countless other youth, it is time we realize the severity of the situation black people are in and reject the myth that blacks are making “steady progress.” We are oppressed – severely oppressed.

[1] http://www.chicagoreader.com/chicago/african-american-percentage-poverty-unemployment-schools-segregation/Content?oid=10703562