Will There Ever Be Real Talk (and Walk)
to Combat Racism in New Orleans?
by Anitra D. Brown
Mayor Mitch Landrieu recently touted a multi-year, million-plus dollar initiative designed to foster open dialogue about race and spur racial reconciliation in New Orleans. The undertaking—met with mixed reaction among New Orleanians—includes a partnership with the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation as well as the Urban League of Greater New Orleans. The entire effort, called The Welcome Table New Orleans, is powered by a $1.26 million grant from the W. K. Kellogg Foundation, which according to the Foundation’s website, is designed to “reduce youth violence and subsequent health disparities among young males of color by promoting changes in behavioral norms, employment and mentoring, civic engagement and neighborhood renewal.”
The effort promises candid discussions about race among a cross-section of New Orleanians, with local organizations invited to apply for a share of the $1.26 million to facilitate projects to meet the objectives.
In a press release announcing the grant and the initiative, Mayor Landrieu had this to say: “The goal of The Welcome Table New Orleans is to bring diverse citizens from across the city together to meet, share experiences and work together to improve neighborhoods and communities. As I said four years ago, race is a topic that you can’t go over, or under or around – you have to go through it. I believe our city’s diversity is strength, not a weakness, and that the people of New Orleans are ready to look closely at the ways in which race and reconciliation can have a positive impact instead of a negative impact.”
What the city’s press release never mentions is the word “racism”. And it is the absence of an admission that New Orleans has troubles specifically related to systematic and institutional racism that has some in the Black community looking at The Welcome Table with skepticism.
“The words race or racial are used two or three times,” says community activist Parnell Herbert. “But we don’t have a problem with race. Race is not a problem. It is a reality. Racism is the problem, and (this administration) is strategically avoiding it.”
Herbert says he sees the entire program as another step toward gentrifying the city.
“(Mayor Landrieu) doesn’t need to welcome the natives of New Orleans,” he says. “We’re already here. And quite frankly, if I want to deal with race, racial (reconciliation) or racism in New Orleans, I’m not going to White people from Mississippi.”
Herbert also expressed unease because the NAACP is not a partner in the initiative.
But it should hardly come as a surprise that the local chapter of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People is not a named partner of The Welcome Table New Orleans since the rapport between the local organization’s president Danatus King and the mayor has been tenuous almost from the start of Landrieu’s first term, when King resigned in 2010 from the mayor’s citizens panel picked to help name a new police superintendent and then publicly slammed the search effort as tainted and not transparent. Since that time, a hostile relationship between the two has played out on the public stage. And Mayor Landrieu has not been at all shy about publicly marginalizing and ostracizing King, who is also a local attorney. If the Landrieu administration was really concerned about reconciliation, one might think that at some point in the last four years he would have done more to rebuild his administration’s ties with the local chapter of the nation’s oldest civil rights organization.
Still, The Welcome Table New Orleans has begun. Information sessions were held at the end of April—one at New Hope Baptist Church in Central City and another at St. Roch Community Church for those interested in learning more. The meeting at St. Roch attracted about 150 participants. Among them was Donald Chopin, a community activist who questioned why the city partnered with the Mississippi-based William Winter Institute when the People’s Institute for Survival and Beyond, a 34-year-old organization with a national and international reputation as an anti-racism training/organizing institute, is located right on Carrollton Avenue. Could it be because the People’s Institute makes no bones about its mission to attack and dismantle “racism” as opposed to just using the words “race” and “racial”? Could the critics who contend that this effort is not at all about challenging racism and its effects be right?
Another attendee Rev. Raymond Brown, who works with the local chapter of the National Action Network, made no apologies when he stood and stated that any talk about race and racial reconciliation means nothing without a plan to address the flagrant economic inequality that scars the city and disproportionately hurts Black New Orleans.
Aside from Chopin’s and Brown’s concerns and a few similar statements, that St. Roch meeting amounted to little more than mindless chatter.
From facilitators, there has come the admonition to not be “blameful” – a disingenuous directive if the goal is really to inspire truthful talk that leads to healing. It’s a bit like going to a doctor who doesn’t want to do an examination, doesn’t want to know where it hurts or about your symptoms, but is all ready to offer up a hasty diagnosis and treatment using nothing more than a first-aid kit. One would think this is exactly the forum for criticism, even reproof and reproach, the perfect time and place to address problems—no matter how ugly or bad. If open heart surgery is needed, surely one expects to see blood in the operating room.
So with no mention of the word “racism” and no room for “blameful” talk, there are many New Orleanians who are concerned that this effort will offer little more than empty, rhetorical discussions where emotions are stirred, opinions clash and little changes despite the ballyhoo surrounding the city’s announcement. To be sure, just talking about race in New Orleans falls woefully short of attacking racism and even shorter of addressing its systemic impact.
The bottom line—a lot of folks are having a hard time understanding how community meetings and a few special programs here and there will address the disparate conditions that are the result of organized and institutional racism in New Orleans, the state and the nation. And here in New Orleans, those disparate conditions are felt in every arena from education to economics to the criminal justice system.
Perhaps before The Welcome Table New Orleans gets into full swing, an honest examination would surely reveal that a little more than a million dollars and a few kum ba yah moments are not nearly enough to tackle the real problems that result from the policies and practices that perpetuate and exacerbate racism.
The Economic Disparities Table
Come on people, does New Orleans really need a racial reconciliation effort to address economic disparities? Or do we already know what needs to be done to bring equity and fairness to the local economic landscape? Isn’t leveling the playing field so that economic vitality can be experienced and shared the reason that government agencies create DBE policies? Now, if more local agencies in New Orleans simply followed their own rules with regard to the allocation of lucrative contracts for public projects, it could lead the way for economic growth in the Black community and increased employment opportunities for more Black New Orleanians, especially Black men, for whom the unemployment rate in New Orleans is above 50 percent.
However, Black New Orleanians continue to be locked out of job opportunities even as construction jobs tied to post-Katrina rebuilding in New Orleans continue to abound. Most recently, the battle over contracting and hiring at school construction sites in New Orleans continues to grow, with members of the Pentecost Baptist Church along with Justice and Beyond recently holding a pray-in demonstration at the construction site of the new McDonogh 35 School at 1200 Senate St. near Columbia Parc, on the site of the former St. Bernard Housing Development.
Their concern is that Citadel Builders, the Metairie-based commercial contractor that won the more than $50 million contract to build the new school is cavalierly ignoring its promise to subcontract 22 percent (a smaller amount than the 35 percent required by the school board’s own ordinance) of the work to disadvantaged business enterprises. Organizers of the protest are also worried that the few Black workers employed at the job are being harassed and dismissed without cause. Concerned that they cannot count on elected officials to do what is right, the groups promise to continue to demonstrate at the site until their grievances are addressed.
Of course, this would not mark the first time a public contract has been awarded to a company that either does not make good on the DBE component of its contract or manages to win the contract without a DBE component at all. The New Orleans City Council awarded a contract to Gatehouse Capitol for the redevelopment of the World Trade Center site at the foot of Canal Street without a commitment to 35 percent DBE participation last year. City leaders have said that the project would not move forward without that component being satisfied. However, based on the city’s own revamped DBE ordinance, it should not have been awarded in the first place.
And for any who question the importance of DBE policies in creating a level playing field for minority-owned businesses who in turn spur the economic vitality of minority communities through the provision of jobs and other resources, a look at startling statistics related to race and economics in this city and state are in order. Black residents comprise about 28 percent of the state’s population. Yet, they make up more than 40 percent of all low-wage workers. And while this is a statewide statistic, the figure is likely mimicked, if not amplified here in New Orleans, where Black residents comprise well over 60 percent of the city’s population and where the tourism industry, the city’s main economic engine, is filled with low-wage jobs at restaurants, hotels and the like. In fact, African-American households in the metro New Orleans area earn about 50 percent less than White households.
Other numbers that speak to economic unevenness in New Orleans are just as disconcerting. For instance, the rate of Blacks living in poverty in NOLA is nearly double the rate of Whites in poverty rate: 34 percent compared to 14 percent. Also, the unemployment rate for working age African-American men in NOLA is 50 percent. And while addressing unemployment, specifically among young Black men, is defined as one of the goals of the Kellogg Foundation grant, there appears to be no clear plan on tackling the issue from a standpoint that deals with the way in which racism causes and continues the problem.
In fact, many who have studied the challenges in this area agree that chronic unemployment among Black men cannot be adequately addressed without dealing with educational disparities as well as the disproportionate way the criminal justice system often deals with African-American and Latino men. In October 2013, the Center for Economic Policy and Research released a report that stated early intervention that ensures equity and success in education outcomes for Black boys is paramount to decreasing disparities in employment and wage earning for Black men.
The Education Table
Unfortunately if education is the key, then Black children in New Orleans are still in severe danger as their needs and their public schools have been all but sold to corporate profiteers masquerading as so-called education reform advocates. The changes in public education have and continue to hurt Black students who make up the bulk of the public school population in Orleans. Any talk about race in New Orleans that does not take on the misguided direction of education in this city and its impact on students of color is just that—talk.
When the 2014-2015 school year starts in just a few months, New Orleans will be home to the nation’s first-ever all-charter school system in operation, with the Recovery School District, which continues to oversee the vast majority of public schools in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina made way for the wholesale takeover of public education in the city, decision to close or turn over its remaining traditional schools to charter operators.
Only a couple of weeks after The Welcome Table was announced, some not-so startling statistics about public education and the uneven impact of so-called education reforms, which have been lauded by the current administration, were spelled out in a complaint filed with the U.S. Department of Education and the U.S. Department of Justice.
The statistics underscore disturbing realities of the negative impact the education reforms are having on African American students. For instance, the five remaining schools being closed by the RSD or turned over to a charter operator at the start of the 2014-2015 school year are Benjamin Banneker Elementary, AP Tureaud Elementary, George Washington Carver High School, Walter Cohen High School and Sarah T. Reed High School. The changes at these schools are impacting about 1,000 African-American students, but only five White students, according to the complaint.
Also according to the official complaint, while White students make up roughly 10 percent of the public school student population in New Orleans, they comprise 40 percent of population at high-performing schools. Meanwhile, African-American students are over 82 percent of the student population in New Orleans, but only around 30 to 47 percent of the student population at high-performing schools.
Karran Harper-Royal, a local education advocate with Coalition for Community Schools, an organization that is one of the local complainants in the federal grievance, says one of the driving forces behind the phenomenon lies with the fact that high-performing schools located in areas largely populated by White residents exercise policies that reserve a certain percentage of seats for students who live near the schools. High-performing schools located in largely Black communities do not exercise such policies, however.
A lack of oversight by the state, through both the Board of Elementary and Secondary Education as well as the state Department of Education of the dozens of charter school operators running campuses in Orleans Parish is a significant factor contributing to the negative impact on the largely African-American student populations, Harper-Royal contends.
“There is not sufficient oversight to ensure equity,” she says. “Worst yet, the thing that is supposed to level the playing field, these charter operators—because of their myopic focus on proliferating and because of the lack of control by the state—has put us back in a separate, but unequal situation.”
Without benefit of The Welcome Table New Orleans, the complaint still manages to provide a series of remedies to address the educational inequities, specifically those created by the RSD’s existence and the lack of management by the state. It provides specific steps it hopes the DOJ and DOE will force the state to take in an effort to remedy the unequal impact school takeovers, closures and the proliferation of charter schools have had on Black students. Among the recommendations: put a halt to the closures and charter school takeovers and require the state to fully-fund all local public schools to ensure academic success and equity in education.
And, it is doubtful that $1.26 million was needed to come up with these straightforward solutions.
Meanwhile, it becomes difficult to believe that officials in a community who apparently see nothing wrong with the fact that just about every White student enrolled in public school in the city attends one of the best schools, while Black students, who comprise more than 80 percent of the student population, do not even make up even half the popluation in the so-called high-performing schools, could be at all serious about real talk about about race,
The Criminal Justice Table
In fact, it seems that for many poor Black children in New Orleans, the public education system has been skillfully designed as an intentional pipeline to the penitentiary, especially in a system where charter schools operate with little oversight from the state and exact what some have deemed as harsh disciplinary and expulsion policies.
Meanwhile, high-profile instances of police officers murdering innocent civilians as displayed in the Danzinger Bridge and Henry Glover cases and the way that some of the former and current police officers involved in those killings have been able to work the system to not only get verdicts overturned and new trials, but to get charges dropped altogether along with their old jobs and back pay speak directly to deep-seeded issues of racism and distrust related to the local criminal justice system.
Wonder if that will be a topic dished out at The Welcome Table?
No doubt, vigorous implementation of the federal consent decree over New Orleans Police Department would go a long way in addressing issues of racism as it relates to the local criminal justice system; but just last summer the mayor was instead asking a federal judge to vacate the decree, which was highly critical of NOPD in a number of areas, including racial profiling.
In fact, a March 2011 Department of Justice Report on the New Orleans Police Department stated that there were “troubling disparities in [the] treatment of the City’s African-American community,” and concluded that the “NOPD has failed to take sufficient steps to detect, prevent, or address bias-based profiling and other forms of discriminatory policing on the basis of race.”
With a federal judge’s decision last fall against the request to vacate the decree, the city has little choice but to move forward with putting the consent decree into practice. However, little progress has been made on just how New Orleans will pay for the estimated $11 million annual cost of implementing the NOPD consent decree in addition to the cost of implementing another federal consent decree over the Orleans Parish Prison. Perhaps, the time of the city and its citizens would be better spent trying to figure out how the implementation of the consent decrees will be funded.
New Orleanians would surely welcome that.