It ain’t all ‘Super’
28th January 2013 · 0 Comments
By Edmund W. Lewis
Welcome to Antebellum Disney, aka The City That Care Forgot, The Big Easy, The Crescent City. Home of filé gumbo, red beans and rice, the wobble and the irrepressible two-way pocky way. Our fair city is also the birthplace of jazz, one of the world’s major Black cultural meccas and a place where complete strangers have been known to treat visitors like family.
This is a magical, mystical land where visitors can travel back in time to a period in American history when sugar cane plantations were plentiful, folks traveled through the French Quarter on foot or by horse and buggy, the Anglo-Saxons lived in stately mansions in uptown New Orleans and people of color and women knew their place
Like all cities, New Orleans has an underbelly. As a visitor to this city, you should take a few moments to learn about the city’s history and the challenges it faces.
Despite its billing as the City That Care Forgot and its nickname The Big Easy, most of the people who call New Orleans home might describe living and working here as anything but easy. When you consider the bitter racial divisions, class warfare and the city’s treatment of the homeless and others it perceives as powerless, it is easy to understand why some have dubbed this town The Big Uneasy.
Remarkably, New Orleans has mostly avoided the kind of explosions of violence that rocked other cities like Los Angeles, Chicago, Detroit and Washington, D.C.
While there have been few outward explosions in the city, there have been many implosions by Black people whose families have lived here for centuries and know all too well that New Orleans is a city where it’s all about who you know and what you own. It’s a rugged climb out of poverty and hopelessness for the city’s low-income and working-class residents.
While Blacks in South Central Los Angeles burned down much of their community after the cops that were caught on tape beating Rodney King were acquitted in 1992, in New Orleans the riots in response to the racial climate and limited life chances have often taken the form of crime, drug addiction, Black-on-Black violence and other forms of self-destructive behavior.
New Orleans is a city where parents often have to decide between sending their children to privately run schools that offer very little in the way of African-centered education or even basic Black history and indoctrinate these young people with “mental whiteness” and underfunded, overcrowded public schools that mostly prepare students for dead-end jobs in the tourism or service industry or life in America’s penal system.
New Orleans is a city where struggling students are often pushed out of schools rather than encouraged to keep trying to improve their academic performance, a city where Blacks are routinely subjected to taxation without representation and where wealthy and politically connected residents can get away with not paying property taxes while hard-working people struggling to make ends meet are treated by City Hall like hardened criminals.
New Orleans is a city where the “ruling minority class” completely controls the city and its resources and in which Black elected and appointed officials routinely do the bidding of the powers that be.
New Orleans is a city where one longtime member of the City Council once passed an ordinance that placed dividers on the benches in the French Quarter so that homeless people couldn’t lie down on the benches to sleep at night and where the mayor and his staff have been herding the homeless and placing fencing under bridges in the Central Business District to prevent people with no place to call home from sleeping there.
New Orleans is a city where who you know and where you live will largely determine your life chances, where the New Orleans Police Department has gotten away with brazenly murdering innocent Black civilians before, during and after Katrina and calls those cops who gun down unarmed Black people “heroes.”
New Orleans is a city whose public officials (Black as well as white) can barely conceal their disdain for Black people and the poor. While this message is driven home in many different ways, it is most evident in the way the city’s housing projects were torn down without an effective plan for finding housing for the poor residents who once lived there; in the way the city hasn’t lifted a finger to address the needs of those who have been unable to return home to New Orleans more than seven years after Hurricane Katrina; it is evident in the way the U.S. Attorney’s Office, Orleans Parish District Attorney’s Office and the U.S. Department of Justice has continually allowed the New Orleans Police Department to get away with murdering innocent civilians and defiantly violating the constitutional rights of residents; in the way much of eastern New Orleans and the Lower Ninth Ward still look like a wasteland after seven years of “post-Katrina recovery” while city officials continue to pat themselves on the back for opening dog parks, bike paths, new festival grounds, and additional streetcar lines; in the way Black homeowners were routinely shortchanged by the formula used by the Road Home program to help residents to rebuild after the Great Flood of 2005; in the way the city pretends to care about the plight of young Black males while doing very little to provide more recreational or economic opportunities. New Orleans is the epicenter of white privilege and power, a town where undereducated, miseducated, underemployed and unemployed Black people are being systematically harvested by a severely underfunded and overcrowded public school system and draconian criminal justice system that prepares them for lives as restaurant cooks, oyster shuckers and as captives in the ever-growing prison industrial complex.
This problem didn’t start with the current administration nor will it end without a dramatic upheaval of the way things have been done here for centuries. In a 2003 study titled “A Haunted City The Social and Economic Status of African Americans and Whites in New Orleans,” Xavier University professor and pollster Dr. Silas Lee compared Census data from 1983 and 2003.
Lee reported that census figures showed that in 2000 nine percent of the city’s Black residents had dropped out of school before completing 9th grade, compared to five percent of whites. That same year, 23 percent of Blacks dropped out of high school sometime between the 9th and 12th grades, compared to six percent of white residents. It should come as no surprise to anyone that in 2000 26 percent of white New Orleans residents had earned college bachelor’s degrees compared with a meager nine percent of Blacks in a city that was more than 70 percent Black.
According to the study, the median income for Black New Orleans residents was $21,481, compared to $40,049. That’s criminal, especially in a city whose tourism industry leans so heavily on African-inspired traditions like jazz funerals, second lines, Mardi Gras Indians and gumbo.
“Only 11 percent of the white population in the workforce has an income below the poverty level, compared to 35 percent of the Black population,” Lee wrote. “Furthermore, this inequitable distribution in income also impacts civic leadership. Rather than achieving a broader distribution of income in the population, a small controlling oligarchy emerges to position themselves and benefit from the economic and social opportunities intended for a more diverse constituency.”
Keep in mind that this was 10 years ago and there has been little evidence that suggests that economic conditions have improved for Black New Orleans residents. This report was written before Hurricane Katrina and several levee breaches flooded 80 percent of New Orleans, the meticulously orchestrated displacement of tens of thousands of residents who cannot afford to move back to New Orleans, the demolition of all but one of the city’s housing projects, the full-blown gentrification of Faubourg Tremé, the shortchanging of thousands of Black homeowners by Road Home officials, the raiding of public school funds by charter-school profiteers and proponents of school vouchers, the use of recovery funds to pay for three waves of renovations to the Louisiana Superdome over the past seven years and the illegal mass firings of thousands of public school teachers, administrators and other employees. Public funds that could have been used to pay for improved streets, better lighting, additional police officers and maintenance of blighted properties were instead used to make the CBD and French Quarter look more like something out of a fairy tale.
A report released last year by the American Constitution Society for Law and Policy said New Orleans grew considerably more unequal after Hurricane Katrina. The report says it has become increasingly difficult for Blacks to find jobs in New Orleans after Katrina, Imagine that.
Don’t be fooled by all the sweet treats like New Orleans pralines, king cakes and beignets or the buttery words and charm flowing from elected officials and tourism leaders. This is not a utopian paradise for the average New Orleans resident.
It’s all one big illusion.
This article was originally published in the January 28, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper