Title: Oral History Interview with James Perry, May 25, 2006. Interview U-0251.
Interviewer: Horowitz, Andy
Interviewee: Perry, James
Abstract: James Perry describes how his work experience and his passion for civil rights fueled his interest in housing rights for low-income people. Born to educator parents in New Orleans East, he learned to be appreciative of how the civil rights movements benefited African Americans. After receiving his bachelor's degree from the University of New Orleans in the late 1990s, Perry discovered there were few job opportunities outside of the service and tourism sectors in New Orleans. Intent on remaining in his hometown, Perry found a job working at the Preservation Resource Center, an organization responsible for renovating vacant historic houses. His early interest in civil rights and his work experience in the housing market informed his later career as the executive director of the New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center, which helps provide low-cost fair housing for low-income residents and which investigates housing discrimination. Perry concludes that discrimination is often obscured through civility and courteousness. While his work focuses on legal strategies to buttress housing equity provisions, Perry acknowledges the practical difficulty of moving beyond the region's negative racial past. The trend of replacing segregated public housing with mixed-income housing was complicated by Hurricane Katrina. The storm merely illuminated a history of class and racial segregation, and federal and local government housing agencies perpetuated it by privileging middle-class interests over those of poorer residents, says Perry. He argues that low-income residents who had hoped to return to the newly constructed buildings were frequently prevented from doing so. Perry also discusses the role the media played in post-Katrina New Orleans. They projected the image of Mayor Ray Nagin as helpful to evacuees' cause as he berated FEMA for its inefficiency, he says; however, Perry argues that Nagin's rejection of additional trailers actually prevented evacuees' return to New Orleans. Perry notes that a flurry of civil rights activity swept Katrina-like through New Orleans with intense energy, but the storm's aftermath left the ground fallow, and civil rights organizers were unable to maintain activists' fervor to protest social injustices. He discusses the new jobs and industries that cropped up following the devastation inflicted by Katrina—jobs that are vital to attracting a vibrant middle class back to New Orleans. Perhaps more important to Perry is the national scrutiny that forced the nation and native Louisianans to address racial and economic disparities in New Orleans.