Hosted by Dillard University, a panel featuring Mayor Mitch Landrieu, Urban League President and CEO Marc Morial and former Ambassador Andrew Young was convened to discuss economic development strategies for New Orleans, which happens to be the city of birth for all three men. While the discussion was billed as one that would use the city of Atlanta, particularly during Young’s tenure there as mayor, as an example to explore various ways to spur economic growth here, the one topic touted by Young was the idea that New Orleans and New Orleanians alike should prepare themselves to take advantage of foreign investments and natural gas reserves right here in our city.
And that is certainly intriguing, though here at The Tribune we are often careful to approach such grand ideas with a measure of caution. Still, if property owners in the city are in fact sitting on top of lucrative reserves of natural gas, the opportunities for economic growth could present themselves in ways that have not been experienced in this southeast Louisiana region since the heyday of the oil industry.
But in the midst of it all, Mr. Young, for whom we at The Tribune hold in the highest regard given his work as a civil rights leader and American statesman, said something that took us aback. Referencing the immediate wake of Hurricane Katrina, Mr. Young said that as he watched the aftermath unfold he cautioned others not to make the situation one of race.
Hold on, sir. Race matters. It mattered then during Hurricane Katrina as tens of thousands of New Orleanians—most of them Black and too poor to evacuate before the storm—were left hopeless and helpless as the levees failed and the city flooded. It mattered when they were dispersed throughout the country even as business elite and the city’s shadow government conspired to derail a successful return for many of them. It mattered when public housing was torn down, public schools were stolen and when some early plans for re-imagining a post-Katrina New Orleans included green space where the homes of mostly Black residents in the Ninth Ward and New Orleans East existed.
It mattered when certain powers tried desperately to shut scattered New Orleanians taking refuge in cities across the nation out of the first post-Katrina election. And it most definitely matters when we are talking about economic development—dollars and cents.
We can’t help but to approach with a fair share of suspicion any panel discussion about economic opportunity for New Orleans during which one of the panelists would suggest that race should not be an issue during events as racially charged as the short and long-term aftermaths of Hurricane Katrina. That’s one of the insurmountable issues we face today. Too many people want to pretend as if race is not a factor when in America in 2005 and in 2013, race still matters.
If there are those who think that it did not matter during Katrina, how can we trust that it will matter during periods of economic growth, how can we trust that African-American business owners, workers, consultants, homeowners and others will benefit equitably from whatever boon New Orleans might experience. We must talk about parity and race at the outset so we can set goals for achieving equity and design clear steps to reach them.