Let’s Celebrate the Tri-centennial with Equity
by Shawn Barney
A couple of years ago, I was in Istanbul, a thousands-year-old city. The question most often put to me when residents learned I was from New Orleans was, how are you New Orleans? The people of this ancient city wanted to know that New Orleans was doing well. It’s easy to lose sight that New Orleans is a relative baby. We will be 300 years old in 2018, our Tricentennial. The build toward the Tri-centennial will attract great fanfare, as we no doubt prepare to throw ourselves another great party.
When some questioned nationally whether to bring New Orleans back after Katrina, many of us knew that a city founded before the birth of our nation and that had survived war, plague and previous destructive floods would indeed come back. New Orleans, unarguably America’s most unique city, rivals any other in capturing hearts and imaginations. Our cultural distinction sewn by tradition and a tapestry of African, European, and Native American influences is unparalleled domestically.
Since Katrina, the New Orleans brand has flourished. It is now a hub of entrepreneurialism and has become a laboratory for K-12 education reform. The arts community has introduced new traditions, such as Luna Fete and Prospect. Mayor Mitch Landrieu has restored confidence in the city’s ability to credibly govern itself. New Orleans remains a great city among old and new. However, according to Bloomberg and other sources, New Orleans ranks third among the most unequal cities in America. According to The New Orleans Index at Ten report, authored by the Data Center, the disparity in incomes between Black and White households was 54 percent, compared to 40 percent nationally. The poverty rate in New Orleans has risen to pre-Katrina rates, just above 27 percent, compared to a national rate of 13.5 percent in 2015 (a decline from 14.8 percent in 2014). Furthermore, the report indicates employment for White males in metro New Orleans is on par with “aspirational” metros at 77 percent, while Black male employment, at 57 percent is on par with “weak city” metros and has not increased since 2000.
A default explanation tends to be class but multiple studies by such vaunted firms as McKinsey & Co., indicate that controlling for socio-economic status does not eliminate the effect of race. The statistics above illustrate gaps in income and employment but go system-by-system — healthcare, criminal justice, education, economic development – and the disproportionality and disparities are similar, Blacks are below Whites in outcomes. In fact, institutions and systems contribute significantly to these disparities.
As we contemplate our 300th anniversary, it is important to acknowledge that New Orleans in the almost 300 years of our existence hasn’t always been kind to all its citizens. New Orleans, once a hub of the slave trade and home to free people of color has been and remains a paradox. Post-civil war reconstruction could have represented opportunity for newly freed Blacks, but instead those hopes were systematically erased by the viciousness of Jim Crow, which was eventually replaced by a status quo of inequity. It is painful to contemplate that the cumulative legacy of system disparities and subsequent discriminatory policies produced epidemics in New Orleans minority community, such as teenage pregnancy, mass incarceration and chronic unemployment. It is easy to forget that rich traditions, such as Mardi Gras Day at Orleans and Claiborne, were born of segregation. These are roots of our 300-year history, which have birthed problems that plague us today.
To realize Blacks were taxed for services never received or facilities they couldn’t use is a harsh reality that some don’t want to face and others rationalize by saying that was then, this is now, as if there is no compounded history between the end of slavery and today. That dash between slavery and now represents a time when businesses (construction companies, law firms, oil and gas entities, hospitality businesses, banks, etc.) were built and grew, capital was amassed, college educations were attained and inequity exploded. For the most part, people of color were excluded from these gains. Conversely urban renewal gutted Black neighborhoods, redlining eroded equity, and policies, such as the GI Bill and FHA loans, almost solely benefited Whites.
In short Black and White fortunes in New Orleans have been inextricably linked with White outcomes superior to Black outcomes. The Asian proverb, “he who will not reflect is a ruined man” is apt for a city as special as New Orleans, especially looking over the horizon to our next 100 years. Racial inequity looks the same across organizations and systems in our city. Put another way, you cannot talk about economic inequity without talking about racial inequity. Certainly we have made progress in terms of eliminating racial and ethnic disparities and producing more equitable outcomes. But just as a Saints team going from 0-16 to 4-12 can be defined as progress, it is by no means a winning record; that is how many of us view racial inequity in New Orleans — as a losing record limiting our city.
There is no reason to celebrate, if the next 100 years is represented by staggering unemployment among Black males; a pall of murder and random violence gripping our streets; a persistent haze of hopelessness and despair among a material number of citizens; gentrifying neighborhoods that value buildings over people; and the perpetuation of systems that impact systematically the lives, institutions and livelihood of a class of people over another. Far from a victory lap, the Tri-centennial represents an opportunity for sober reflection. Is the city all we want for the majority of its citizens? If the answer is “no,” is this the time to demand a plan to correct it? We live in an integrated city but separate worlds. White communities get the “resources,” while the Black communities end up with “services.’ In terms of law enforcement White communities get “protect and serve” while Black communities get “law and order.” We know about Black-on-Black crime, and that the disproportionate share of the city’s murder victims are Black males. We also know that it is hard to disentangle this violence from hyper-segregated neighborhoods (perpetuated by short-sighted policies, such as concentrated affordable housing, reinforcing segregated neighborhoods), chronic poverty, and lack of economic opportunities that characterize much of our Black community. Inequity, injustice and unemployment are a powder keg in minority communities in this city. These represent a malicious, malignant blight on the city of New Orleans. The Tri-centennial should be an opportunity to shift this frame for New Orleans. We should use this as an opportunity to choose transformation over incremental-ism, to choose to plan our collective future rather than commemorating a bifurcated past.
In no sector of our local economy is this more evident than in the hospitality industry. Tourism is the lifeblood of our city. The challenge to tourism and other leaders promoting 2018 Tri-centennial is to spend as much time planning a strategy for the city to be more equitable. The next 100 years should reflect a convention center that embraces a policy of inclusivity. The restaurant and lodging industries should plan to mirror less, apartheid South Africa, with one group represented as labor and another as equity. The industry should address the accumulating weakness that is a racially homogeneous ownership stratum in the face of a rapidly browning country and majority minority city. To serve the market, the city will need to reflect the market. We must bring to bear the full fabric of our community’s diversity.
Black folks do the valeting, housekeeping, cooking, waiting, bussing, cleaning — providing the labor, which buoyed an industry in antebellum New Orleans much as it does today. Certainly in the next 100 years, African-American people can own businesses as well. Some have the privilege of seeing the circumstance as “how far we have come” while some of us have the obligation to question, “how far we have to go.” I won’t say a year of tri-centennial celebrations is a distraction, but I can assert that if we do not recognize what the past 300 years of history has wrought on much of our populace and use it as context for planning to make the next century an equitable one in the city, yet another opportunity (similar to post-Reconstruction) will have eclipsed us.
New Orleans, one of the transactional hubs of the slave trade has nary an acknowledgment or narrative of its pivotal role in this stain on humanity. Hiding from that history doesn’t make it go away, just as not confronting contemporaneous inequity will not bring us any closer to solving for it. There has been no reflection, no contemplation, no calculation of the infringement; no redress for rectifying the cumulative advantage accrued to one group over another. Our community would be well served if more energy and resources were directed at making New Orleans America’s most equitable city rather than planning one more marketing campaign that uplifts the economic advantage of some, to the detriment of many.