Filed Under:  OpEd, Opinion

The art of the hookup

7th October 2013   ·   0 Comments

By Edmund W. Lewis
Editor

Apparently, membership in or affiliation with the ruling class has its privileges.

An article on Tulane University’s scholarship program underscores that sobering reality.

The Advocate reported last week that many of the state’s lawmakers are awarding Tulane scholarships to the children of people they know or work with rather than students from hard-working families in their districts. While that’s not altogether surprising, it is insulting and infuriating.

It’s not enough that certain members of the community get the plum city contracts that businesspeople of color can only dream of, they also think they deserve to send their kids to Tulane University on a four-year, $40,000 annual scholarship worth an estimated $172,000. And that their kids who most likely attended the finest private schools across Louisiana deserve these scholarships more than high-achieving Tulane applicants from low-income families and communities.

Oftentimes, when Black elected officials are caught in federal probes for hiding money in a freezer, caressing some low-level employee’s “mammalian glands” or stuffing wads of cash into their pockets, the larger society shakes its collective head as if an unrelenting compulsion to take advantage of every opportunity to get over on the system is a genetic trait of Black folks.

Well, beloved, here is a little more proof that members of the larger society, particularly those who have no excuse for trying to get something for nothing, are every bit as likely to squeeze every benefit out of the system as their darker brethren.

Greed knows no color but green.

Apparently, getting over is a way of life for many of our elected officials and their families. They wouldn’t dream of spending their own money on certain things when they could throw around their family name to get a little lagniappe.

Such was the case years ago with a certain congressman whose wife walked into an eyewear store in the New Orleans Centre where one of my frat brothers and I were visiting his lady friend. Without blinking an eye or even pausing to clear her throat, this bold sister strode up to the three of us and interrupted our conversation to say, “I’m Congressman So-and-so’s wife — what kind of discount do I get?”

Apparently, there was some kind of eyewear sale intended to coincide with the Essence Fest.

Like many residents, I was also appalled by the news that there were judges in New Orleans who were enjoying gourmet lunches prepared at the courthouse by a chef and judges who worked the system to obtain supplemental insurance for themselves and figured it was okay because others had been doing it for as long as anyone could remember.

WWL-TV reminded viewers Wednesday night that the current mishandling of these Tulane scholarships is hardly new. It showed a segment from a story that aired 18 years ago that talked about how Sidney Barthelemy was criticized for choosing the son of a friend to be the recipient of his Tulane scholarship.

The issue came up about a year ago when an opponent accused state lawmaker Austin Badon of giving his scholarship to a kid who lives on the other side of Lake Pontchartrain, far beyond Orleans Parish.

On Wednesday, a similar criticism was lodged at State Harold Rep. Harold Ritchie who reportedly awarded his Tulane scholarship to the son of St. Tammany Parish and Washington Parish District Attorney Walter Reed.

For those who didn’t see the WWL story or haven’t read The Advocate article, Reed reportedly earns more than $300,000 annually. For him to even accept a scholarship that could have transformed the life of a less-advantaged college freshman is obscene. That’s an old-fashioned hookup, plain and simple.

The scholarship could have and should have been awarded to a promising student at Bogalusa High School, which, sadly, wasn’t even aware that the annual scholarship exists, even though it has been around for more than a century.

It’s a story that plays out annually in every corner of the state where lawmakers apparently see nothing wrong or unethical about awarding these scholarships to the children of their friends relatives, colleagues and supporters.

State legislator Helena Moreno was also questioned in the article for awarding her scholarship to the child of a political consultant and friend.

But she said the young student she gave the scholarship to was impressive.

The thing is, there are a lot of impressive young people who never get an opportunity to go to Tulane because their mother or father didn’t know someone in the legislature who could hook them up.

With wealthy white families already benefiting from “old money,” their considerable political influence, control of the local economy and the control of the city’s public contracts, legislators’ misuse of Tulane University scholarships only serves to widen the income gap and strengthen the three-tiered class system in the Crescent City of haves, have-littles and have-nothings.

It is this kind of practice that continues to expand the divide between the 1% of the nation’s wealthiest residents and the other 99%. It is also yet another example of the myriad of practices in the City of New Orleans that contribute to the ever-growing income, education and health disparities between Blacks and whites.

There is not a single aspect of Black life in New Orleans that is not owned, controlled or regulated by the powers that be. The Essence Fest, like Essence Magazine, is no longer Black-owned. Since the Bayou Classic traditionally has waited until November to hold its press conference and had one last month in New Orleans that had at least as many white faces in the room as Black ones, it’s safe to say that Black folks no longer control the Bayou Classic. Many saw the writing on the wall when State Farm pulled out — or was “convinced” to pull out — by some unknown entity. With no title sponsor and the white business community recognizing the Bayou Classic’s allure and money-making potential, the annual Southern-Grambling football game in the Superdome was ripe for the picking.

We can’t decide for ourselves whether the Claiborne Ave. overpass should be torn down in Tremé, one of the nation’s oldest Black communities, or whether the city’s housing developments should have been demolished or renovated. For the record, tearing down the city’s housing projects was not inherently a bad thing but giving Black residents who live there no decision-making power in the process was crossing the line.

Look at the public school situation in New Orleans. Carpetbaggers and profiteers have flooded the city to use the city’s anemic school system as a laboratory for testing unproven educational theories and as a way to line their pockets. John McDonogh High School administrators were neither informed or asked whether it was okay before these over steppers decided to place an alternative school within the crumbling confines of the school, which has tens of millions of dollars earmarked for its renovation but has seen nothing that looks like progress more than eight years after Katrina. McDonogh 35, the city’s first Black public college preparatory school, is being rebuilt across the street from the city’s juvenile justice complex. RSD officials ignored parents, administrators, teachers, students and residents’ pleas and protests to merge O. Perry Walker and L.B. Landry High Schools because somebody among its top brass thought it was a good idea. RSD officials are plotting and scheming to find a way to merge Booker T. Washington and Walter L. Cohen Senior High Schools.

Private white schools get immaculate campuses, corporate sponsorships and a pipeline to all of those free Tulane scholarships. Black public schools get alternative schools set up within their facilities without their knowledge, relocated across the street from a correctional center for troubled youth and clandestine efforts to merge two more schools and build a shiny new school for those students on toxic, contaminated land.

We can’t even seek protection or relief from the repressive regime that controls every aspect of Black life in New Orleans from the federal courts or the U.S. Dept. of Justice. When the courts awarded John Thompson a $14 million settlement after being framed for murder by the New Orleans criminal justice system, D.A. Leon Cannizarro made it all go away by telling the U.S. Supreme Court that the City of New Orleans can’t afford to pay it. When a federally mandated NOPD consent decree was handed down by the DOJ, the mayor decided that he would do everything in his power to make it not happen, even though the consent decree was recommended after several high=-profile post-Katrina murders involving the NOPD. Every time the Feds step in to help Blacks in New Orleans, the local powers that be spring into action and undo whatever progress has been made.

Inconspicuously absent from the conversation about total white domination of New Orleans has been a strong voice among Black elected officials.

Their position in New Orleans is hauntingly similar to that of free people of color in St. Domingue who aligned themselves with the French rather than their enslaved African brothers and sisters before the Haitian Revolution.

Elected officials and the powers that be have been exploiting, disrespecting, controlling and abusing the Black residents of this city for so long that they no longer even realize that they are doing anything wrong. To them, it’s simply the way things have always been done.

What many people don’t see or don’t appreciate is the damage this system of privilege does to low-income residents and communities of color. Poor and working-class families pay taxes regularly while Tulane gives away scholarships rather than having to pay property taxes. Essentially, the taxes paid by the rest of the city are giving a free ride to Tulane, which used money earned from slavery and enslaved Africans themselves to build its campus.

In this city, which knows better than most that the past is always with us, the grandsons of slaveowners are being raised to carry on the legacy of their forebears while the grandsons of enslaved Africans are being shackled and subjugated as a permanent underclass to be exploited by the tourism industry and the ever-growing prison-industrial complex.

None of this is by accident.

If safeguards can’t be put in place to ensure that these scholarships go to students who actually need them rather than those who come from families that would rather not blow $40K a year on college, the Tulane scholarship program should simply be scrapped and Tulane University should be forced to pay property taxes like the rest of us. During these times of talk about budget crises and elected officials threatening to cut city services to pay for a federally mandated NOPD consent decree, the idea of Tulane pulling its weight resonates with a lot of people.

This article originally published in the October 7, 2013 print edition of The Louisiana Weekly newspaper.

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