by David Remnick
The best-known writer to come from the Ninth Ward is Kalamu ya Salaam. A poet, playwright, and civil-rights activist, Salaam used to go by the name of Val Ferdinand. When I told Salaam what I was hearing in New Iberia and Houston, he laughed, but not dismissively. He said, "The real question is why not?" He recalled that in 1927, in the midst of the worst flooding of the Mississippi River in recorded history, the white city fathers of New Orleans—the men of the Louisiana Club, the Boston Club, and the Pickwick Club—won permission from the federal government to dynamite the Caernarvon levee, downriver from the city, to keep their interests dry. But destroying the levee also insured that the surrounding poorer St. Bernard and Plaquemines Parishes would flood. Thousands of the trappers who lived there lost their homes and their livelihoods. The promise of compensation was never fulfilled. That, plus the persistent rumors of what may or may not have happened during Hurricane Betsy, Salaam said, has had a lingering effect. "So when I heard on TV that there was a breach at the Seventeenth Street levee, I figured they’d done it again," he said. “Or, let's just say, I didn’t automatically assume that it was accidental."
Lolis Eric Elie, an African-American columnist for the New Orleans Times-Picayune, told me he didn't believe that the levees were blown deliberately— "and most black folks with some education or money don't, either"—but he could "easily" understand why so many were suspicious. "Blacks, in a state of essential slavery, built those very levees that were blown up in 1927. When the ships came to rescue people, whites made damn sure not to rescue blacks in Mississippi because of their fear that the blacks wouldn’t return to work the farms. If black life is not valued-and isn’t that what you were seeing for days in New Orleans? – then the specifics of the explanations are irrelevant. You begin to say to yourself, 'How do you aid tsunami victims instantly and only three or four days later get to New Orleans? What explanation other than race can there be?' I believe the real explanation is manifold, but I can understand how people start believing these things."
In Washington, whites dismiss The Plan as part of the "pathology" of poverty. Nevertheless, in D.C. and other cities, legends of conspiracy persisted as the counter-narrative to the conventional view of inexorable progress and the growing black middle class. Many in the population left: behind could believe almost anything: that AIDS had been concocted in government laboratories as part of an anti-black conspiracy, that the government distributed crack in black neighborhoods as a genocidal practice; that the Klan has ownership interests in Church's Chicken, Kool cigarettes, and Tropical Fantasy soft drinks and uses them all to damage the health, and even sterilize, African-Americans; that between 1979 and 1981 the F.B.1. took part in a string of murders of black children in Atlanta. Scholars such as Patricia Turner, at the University of California, the author of "I Heard It Through the Grapevine," have written extensively on the role of rumor and conspiracy theory in the African-American community, especially among the poor (and also on the phenomenon of wild rumors about blacks among whites), and they make a convincing case that these counter-narratives emerge from decades of institutional racism and from particular episodes in American history, such as the use of hundreds of poor African-Americans, between 1932 and 1972, as lab rats in U.S. government trials, known as the Tuskegee experiments, on the effects of syphilis.