A Bush Cabinet officer predicted this week that New Orleans likely will never again be a majority black city, and several black officials are outraged.
Alphonso R. Jackson, secretary of housing and urban development, during a visit with hurricane victims in Houston, said New Orleans would not reach its pre-Katrina population of "500,000 people for a long time," and "it's not going to be as black as it was for a long time, if ever again."
Rep. Danny K. Davis, Illinois Democrat and a member of the Congressional Black Caucus, quickly took issue.
"Anybody who can make that kind of projection with some degree of certainty or accuracy must have a crystal ball that I can't see or maybe they are more prophetic than any of us can imagine," he said.
Other members of the caucus said the comments by Mr. Jackson, who is black, could be misconstrued as a goal, particularly considering his position of responsibility in the administration.
"I would beg and hope that the secretary, if that is what he is saying, would re-evaluate the situation," said Elijah E. Cummings, Maryland Democrat.
Mr. Jackson, whose remarks were reported by the Houston Chronicle, said New Orleans might reach a population of 375,000 people sometime late next year with a black population of about 40 percent at the highest, down from 67 percent before Hurricane Katrina sent a storm surge that overwhelmed New Orleans levees and flooded 80 percent of the city.
The population of New Orleans before Katrina was a little less than 500,000, surrounded by large, predominantly white suburbs. The largely black Ninth Ward and the predominantly white middle-class Lakeview section near Lake Pontchartrain were overwhelmed by floodwaters.
Mr. Jackson, a former developer and longtime government housing official, said the history of urban reconstruction projects shows that most blacks will not return and others who want to might not have the means or opportunity. His agency will play a critical role in the city's redevelopment through various grant programs, including those for damaged or destroyed properties.
In the storm's aftermath, the Rev. Jesse Jackson and Rep. Maxine Waters, California Democrat, charged that relocating evacuees across the country was "racist" and designed to move black people, who overwhelmingly vote Democratic, out of Louisiana. The state elected its first Republican senator, David Vitter, in nearly a century in 2004.
Both the preacher and the congresswoman suggested that the residents be housed at the closed England Air Force Base at Alexandria, La., to keep them closer to home.
Rep. Bobby L. Rush, Illinois Democrat, said Alphonso Jackson's remarks and the prospects of real-estate speculators and developers in New Orleans are "foreboding."
"Gentrification is a demon that is looming on the landscape, and we have to be aware of it and vigilant. ... Right now, I don't know if the resistance to it is strong enough," Mr. Rush said.
He said a history of forced removal of blacks from their homes and property cannot be ignored as the reconstruction moves forward.
Two weeks after Katrina, the Congressional Black Caucus issued an eight-point action plan that calls for residents to get the first right of return to the area, that New Orleans residents get first choice of construction jobs and rebuilding contracts and that voting rights be protected.
Many evacuees from the Ninth Ward will likely never be able to return, Mr. Jackson said. He told Mayor C. Ray Nagin that it would be a mistake to rebuild that part of town, the lowest-lying section and prone to flooding.
Mr. Davis said that despite history, he does not think New Orleans will see black migration similar to black migration from Mississippi after the 1927 flood that inundated hundreds of thousands of acres in Arkansas, Mississippi and Louisiana. Many black farmers and field hands fled to Chicago, Detroit and other cities for a better life in the Midwest.
"New Orleans is not a plantation, not a farm, and I think there will be many efforts to make sure there will be affordable housing and construction job training for residents to rebuild and have the option to return home," he said.