[Editor’s Note: This column first appeared in The Lens.]
Two cheers for New Orleans. We’ve taken down four monuments to white supremacy. They have disfigured the city for nearly a century and a half, and they have offended me every day of my life.
But let’s not pretend the struggle is over. It’s important — indeed, imperative — that we recognize the statues as no more than scabs plucked off a deeper municipal wound: the neo-Confederate values that rot the New Orleans body politic to this day.
The very ugly squabbling over the monuments has laid bare subconscious enmity, coded bigotry and blatant racism. There’s no reason to think its toxic effect on the lives and hopes of African-American families has been mothballed along with the statuary.
How else to explain the vast and shameful racial disparities — in wages, wealth, health, education, enterprise, incarceration? Why such disparities a century and a half after the Confederacy fell?
What’s new about the “new New Orleans,” as the post-Katrina city has been calling itself, when more than half of our fellow citizens have been left behind. The ragtag forces who mustered themselves to oppose removal of the monuments offer a glimpse of the reason: the wide and continuing embrace of the Cult of the Lost Cause and the values it represents.
I appreciate Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s steadfast commitment to ridding the city of these abominable symbols of hate. While he failed to credit the leaders and legions who have long advocated the removal of all public monuments to white supremacy in New Orleans, Landrieu punctuated Lee’s removal May 19 with remarks of poetic eloquence.*
But let’s be real: His administration’s priorities and policies over the past seven years have only widened the disparities — by prioritizing, for example, downtown development over human development, tourism over training for good-paying jobs, and legalization of Airbnb over affordable housing.
For irrefutable evidence, look to the empirical analyses provided in the recent Brookings Index of Economic Inclusion or the 2015 Urban League State of Black New Orleans, to cite only two of many studies that document the economic losses and reduced quality of life the African-American families of New Orleans have suffered in recent years:
• Between 2010 and 2015, New Orleans ranked dead last among the country’s 100 largest cities in terms of economic prosperity. Worker productivity, average standard-of-living, and average wages all declined. (Brookings)
• The unemployment rate for African-Americans in New Orleans is nearly twice the rate for whites, and nearly half of all black men in New Orleans are unemployed, according to a 2015 report by the Louisiana Workforce Commission.
• The median income for African-Americans in New Orleans is less than half the median income for whites. (Urban League)
• While African-Americans make up 53 percent of the workforce, only 27 percent of management and professional jobs are held by blacks, compared to 60 percent held by whites. (Urban League)
• After a post-Katrina dip as recovery money poured into New Orleans, the city’s rate of childhood poverty has risen to pre-Katrina levels. More than a third of New Orleans children live in poverty.
• One in five African-Americans in New Orleans lacks a high school diploma, more than five times the rate among whites.
• New Orleans homicides in 2016 climbed to their highest level since 2012 — making for a per-capita rate more than 50 percent higher than Chicago’s.
If, as we approach our city’s Tricentennial, we are going to be honest about the Civil War, Reconstruction and Jim Crow, we need to be just as honest about the last several years. We need to face up to how the “new New Orleans,” so celebrated by the Mayor and the self-anointed civic elite, in fact amounts to a hostile assault on African-American families and the working poor.
The self-congratulation at City Hall conceals a deficit of real leadership. That deficit has denied us the opportunity to engage in the mutually respectful, community-wide discourse about race so urgently needed in New Orleans.
Before we can have real reconciliation, we must have a reckoning with bias and inequity based on truth and fact. And only in a climate of reconciliation once achieved can we begin to live the values we claim this troubled city aspires to. That should be our collective goal for New Orleans’ Tricentennial.
Removing the Confederate monuments was a step in the right direction, but the headwinds are gaining force. Dealing boldly and frankly with race is likely to prove uncomfortable for a term-limited mayor with a ticking clock on his legacy. And even if Landrieu were to embrace that goal more than rhetorically, he is unlikely to draw much support from the civic and business leadership of a city more captive to tourism — an industry that thrives on low wage, no-benefit jobs and tax subsidies — than at any time in my adult life.
I think Beverly McKenna got it right two years ago in her front page editorial in the New Orleans Tribune: “We Got 99 Problems and Lee Circle Ain’t One.”
I hope the coming elections inspire some real discussion about all of this, but without a popular uprising, I don’t have much faith that they will. The forces that most decisively shape popular opinion — major media, politicians, the business elite — are far too invested in papering over our troubles and truths.
They see a personal bonanza in the coming Tricentennial — while failing to realize that a city still split along racial fault lines after 300 years is nothing to celebrate.
Nevertheless, the struggle continues.
Jacques Morial is a public policy strategist and community organizer. He is the son of Dutch Morial, New Orleans’ first African-American mayor, and the brother of its third, Marc Morial.