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Mayor’s initial race initiative met with curiosity, skepticism

5th May 2014   ·   0 Comments

Community residents and members of the Landrieu administration gathered twice last week to talk about The Welcome Table New Orleans, a new initiative launched by the City of New Orleans to foster racial reconciliation.

The three-year initiative, modeled after a similar program launched by the University of Mississippi’s William Winter Institute for Racial Reconciliation, has been funded with a $1.2 million grant from the W.K. Kellogg Foundation.

“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,” New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu said in an April 21 press release. “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 a 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.”

The initiative will take place in four different neighborhoods—Central City, St. Roch, Little Woods and Algiers. The initiative hopes to bring together residents to tackle problems plaguing various communities using grants from the allotted funds.

At Monday’s meeting at New Hope Baptist Church in Central City, members of the Landrieu administration were met with skepticism and curiosity by many of the 100-plus people who turned out to learn more about the program.

The first speaker, a young Black man, criticized the mayor and the church for hosting a meeting in its sanctuary in an effort to give the mayor credibility and make it appear as though the initiative has the support and backing of the Black community.

The young father questioned the mayor’s motives for launching the program and said its goals and objectives are suspect.

“We don’t have to explain racism to white people,” he said. “They know what they did to us.”

An unidentified woman who is a member of New Hope Baptist Church said that the logic of racial reconciliation in New Orleans is faulty and misleading since there has never been racial understanding or racial justice in the city. “

“I’ve always thought to reconcile a relationship is to bring it back to what it once was. How can you reconcile what was never there?” she said.

Speaker after speaker criticized the Landrieu administration and school officials for the way charter schools are run, unconstitutional policing by the NOPD, the city’s racially exploitative and ineffective criminal justice system and an economic system that keeps many of the city’s Black residents mired in dead-end, service-industry jobs.

Recent stories in The Louisiana Weekly have looked at widespread complaints lodged by Black parents against the charter group running George Washington Carver High School and its treatment of Black students who allege that they are being treated like criminals and prison inmates by teachers and administrators.

Another series of stories in The Weekly have highlighted a lawsuit by the Walter L. Cohen Senior High School Alumni Association against the Recovery School District which is attempting to merge Booker T. Washington and Cohen senior high schools and build a new school on the old BTW site, which used to be a toxic landfill called the Silver City Dump and contains at least nine toxic metals including mercury and lead.

The mayor was not in attendance at Monday’s meeting. Among those who did attend were Deputy Mayor Judy Reese Morse, New Orleans Councilwoman LaToya Cantrell, community activist and radio talk-show host Dyan French Cole and community activist the Rev. Joe Recasner.

Ramessu Merriamen Aha, a New Orleans businessman and former congressional candidate, said Tuesday that he noticed a stream of white participants leaving the meeting as some people at the meeting questioned the purpose of the initiative and the administration’s motives.

“It was obvious that a number of white people who attended the meeting were getting frustrated with the questions posed by Black residents, and you could see a number of them shaking their heads,” he said.

One of the white participants who addressed the crowd was Barbara McPhee, founder of the New Orleans Charter Science & Math High School, who acknowledged that “the deck was stacked” in whites’ favor but added that she thought Blacks at the meeting were being very pessimistic.

Still, McPhee said, the need to find a way to bridge the racial divide in New Orleans is too important an undertaking for her to walk away from. “We’ve got to be able to do this,” McPhee said. “I’ll be back. I’ll keep coming back. You can beat up on me as a white person. I’ll keep coming back.”

“We talk too much, and not enough action comes out,” said the Rev. Joe Recasner said Monday night .

“African Americans who are vested in this city, came back after Katrina, can’t get no job, can’t speak with the mayor, can’t get nothing done in this city… You bring us to this house of worship to have a discussion on racism in this city, we ought to be on our knees praying to God that you hear us.”

“Instead of this ‘Welcome Table,’ the mayor and his deputy mayors need to find a way to offer Black people a real share of decision-making power, a seat at the bargaining table for NOPD reforms, criminal justice reform, economic freedom, community oversight of local schools and political autonomy,” the Rev. Raymond Brown, a community activist and president of National Action Now, told The Louisiana Weekly Thursday. “Until he learns how to listen to the Black community and consider anyone’s concerns and issues that don’t match his, there’s nothing to talk about.”

A second meeting was held Tuesday evening at St. Rich Community Church.

This article originally published in the May 5, 2014 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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