by Lovell Beaulieu
As the city stands poised to hold yet another mayoral election in October 2017, 12 years after Hurricane Katrina, once more it appears Black people, especially the poor, remain stranded on rooftops. No, not in the literal since—but in every figurative way that matters, in almost every category that can be listed, Black New Orleanians have seen little in the way of gains over the last 12 years, especially when compared to their White counterparts in this backdrop of the new New Orleans.
There has been a widening race and class gap in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina.
Here are just a few statistics that remind us of that:
Black median income in New Orleans rose from $23,000 in 2005 to $25,000 eight years later while white median income rose by $11,000 from $49,000 to $60,000 during the same time.
The unemployment rate of working-age Black men in New Orleans is 44 percent
The rate of Blacks living in poverty in New Orleans is double the rate of Whites living in poverty in the city.
We cannot candidly look at these statistics without bluntly declaring that the next mayor and other city leaders must address a myriad of issues from a perspective that explicitly addresses inequitable conditions fueled by systemic racism that have become a part of longtime policies and practices that must be reversed and stopped.
As more than a dozen mayoral hopefuls play to both Black and White voters, they do so with the collective sound bites of political operatives, media manipulators and campaign war chests. They do it in the name of political combat at the very peril of the true victims of all wars . . . the people.
As Black New Orleanians listen to the campaign rhetoric they should also be defining their expectations and making their demands based on the current conditions of their communities.
Crime, Jobs and Poverty—The Real Quality of Life Issues
Crime is an easy target. People feel threatened. They know that in the streets of New Orleans, a fun-filled Mother’s Day second line can turn deadly in seconds. And while New Orleans may not be Chicago, that’s no consolation if it is your relative in the coroner’s body bag.
Still, crime is symptom. Often the red herring of all political discourse, reasonable persons know that crime is not born, it is bred by conditions. And the only effective way to fight it is not by the number of cops on the streets but by the number of jobs.
Crimes, jobs and poverty—there is a reason these three issues are grouped. They are intrinsically related, with the lack of jobs and the pervasiveness of poverty fueling crime.
Criminals are criminals because they choose to be, some may argue. That’s may be true in some cases, but it also true that opportunities for jobs, good schools, healthy neighborhoods and racism are major factors.
Over and over again, experts in criminal justice insist that we are not going to “arrest and incarcerate” ourselves out of the crime problem. They are right. Those who still believe that the only solutions to our public safety and criminal justice problems are more police officers, more squad cars, more firepower and more jails refuse to admit that operation lockup has failed.
It would be ridiculous to suggest that those responsible for heinous violent crimes—murder, armed robberies, aggravated assaults, rape—should not be taken off the street, arrested and prosecuted. But our criminal justice system will work far more efficiently if it is busy focusing on violent felons instead of someone who stole $30 worth of candy from the local dollar store. That is a fact that we must remember in 2018 when New Orleanians will head to the polls to elect a district attorney—the one individual that singularly has the biggest impact on the local criminal justice system.
However, the mayor and members of the city council can have an even greater impact on reducing crime through policy that addresses and alleviates poverty, joblessness and inequity.
Poverty is systemic and entrenched, resulting from the historical lack of economic equity and opportunity and an inadequate education system. And it clearly must be addressed within the framework of a public policy that ignores the trickle down approach. Instead, direct and targeted action to provide equity in resources and opportunity is required to combat poverty. Unless the root causes of poverty are addressed forcefully, New Orleanians will continue to see a city drowning in frivolity and fright, a city preoccupied with having a good time while others seek to make it to tomorrow.
As for jobs, they are out there. The current administration boasts that 20,000 jobs have been created in the last seven years. Yet, unemployment among working-age Black men in New Orleans remains a staggering 44 percent. New Orleans has welcomed roughly 20,000 new jobs in seven years, but who’s getting them? While the Black male unemployment statistic reflects an eight point drop over the last several years, 44 percent is still unacceptable. And before public safety or economic opportunity can be addressed, why Black men in New Orleans appear to be left out of the city’s job market and economic opportunities must be challenged straightforwardly.
Our criminal justice system would also be more efficient if leaders acted in a manner that reflected the realization that it’s the dearth of fair play, justice and opportunity that fuels crime. But giving crime the equivalent of being a “culture” has caused a more deleterious impact on the city’s psyche. For many years now, African-American youth that age or younger have heard the following words with undeniable frequency: “A culture of violence.” “A culture of murder.” In some form or fashion, those words have been bashed against the heads of Black youth who attend white, corporate run charter schools and are never told they hail from a culture of creativity or a culture of capability or one that does not acknowledge the culture of hopelessness and poverty in which many of them exist.
The next mayor of New Orleans must be ready and able to substantively address the root causes of crime by working across the landscape to ensure opportunities, create jobs and foster equity. Training programs and seminars are important, and the next mayor must be ready to make the city a standard bearer in using the arsenal of jobs in the fight against crime.
This task can and must be achieved in three ways. First, the city, itself, could institute job programs that target the most underserved citizens, including and especially those with criminal histories. This has to be an intentional commitment and more than the standard civil service line about “criminal history not automatically disqualifying a potential candidate.” Instead, city leaders and city departments must create and support programs that actively encourage individuals with criminal histories to apply for civil service jobs so long as they have served their sentences and have demonstrated their commitment to making the best of a second chance by completing a re-entry and/or job-training programs. At the very time that this article is being written, the city of New Orleans has posted about a half dozen open entry level jobs for mechanics, carpenters, welders, utility workers, plumber and even a dental assistant that could be filled by a person with either a year or two of work experience in the field or a state license or certificate of training in the area. Some of these jobs have minimum qualifications of a high-school diploma or GED and the ability to obtain a driver’s license so long as the applicant is able to pass a test that assesses their math skills, comprehension, and professionalism. Each of these jobs could lead to promotions and higher pay within the city civil service system after either additional training and certification or years of continued work experience. And these are the just the sort of entry level jobs that individuals trying to get back on their feet after contact with the criminal justice system can use to provide for themselves and their families and minimize the potential for recidivism.
In addition to putting a program in place in the city’s civil service system that speaks specifically and directly to increasing job opportunities for underserved and returning citizens, the next mayor and all elected officials must be willing to reach out to private enterprises throughout the city, especially those that benefit from city contracts and those in the tourism industry, to ensure that they are also taking an active approach to ensuring equity in job opportunity.
Finally, not every New Orleanian can be employed by the city or by a company that does business with the city. That is why it is important for the next mayor and other city leaders to use their political capital to influence the business community to offer better wages and to also push for changes at the state level that would allow the city of New Orleans to raise the minimum wage inside its jurisdiction so that workers in all industries, especially the historically low-wage tourism and hospitality industry can enjoy an increased standard of living and quality of life. In fact, the very businesses that make up the city’s robust tourism industry can do much more than wring their hands in frustration over the city’s public safety and crime challenges by increasing pay for their workers.
Make no mistake, there are cities across the nation that establish labor departments and labor standards. It won’t happen overnight. For New Orleans to do so, the Louisiana State Legislature must to amend or abolish Louisiana’s Preemptive Law Act 667, which prohibits municipalities from establishing labor laws that govern minimum wage and sick leave. There is great doubt that this occur. However, our state legislature was more than happy 12 years ago to change state law to make way for the bulldozing of public education in New Orleans.
Surely, they could consider legislation that would allow Louisiana cities to establish their own minimum wages.
And if the city of New Orleans can get into the business of regulating how private property owners choose to use their own property—whether they can rent it on a short-term basis and for how long, it can certainly decide to put in place the bureaucratic infrastructure needed to establish a living wage for people employed by businesses within its boundaries.
Equity in Economic Development & Growth
Economic development and growth are a part of practically every City Hall narrative but goals are often achieved through the prism of a chamber of commerce, public relations strategy aimed at a few talking points that ignore the larger question: Economic development for whom? What about an economic development strategy for New Orleans East, or the Lower Ninth Ward, or Algiers that doesn’t have the word “Point” in its title? What about an economic development strategy that addresses the core foundational issues of job growth and the people who need them the most?
As the next group of city leaders prepare to assume positions of power in New Orleans, the must ensure that economic growth does not trickle down in New Orleans. That model does not work.
Instead, New Orleans needs leaders that will oversee a Disadvantaged Business Enterprise (DBE) program that not only looks good on paper, but is followed, one in which goals are met without exceptions and one in which DBE businesses are not merely used as pass-through companies.
According to national statistics, Black-owned businesses are the second largest employer of Black people–second only to government jobs. It stands to reason that ensuring that Black-owned businesses have the opportunity to grow and become more sustainable will create much needed jobs in the Black community.
Such opportunities are often made available as a result of DBE programs, which give minority-owned business the chance to increase their capacity by benefiting from lucrative public contracts. New Orleans is not short on such opportunities. Between the redevelopment of the airport and the Word Trade Center along with expected expenditures of billions of dollars on infrastructure projects from drainage to street repairs and more, Black-owned business and workers must be included.
DBE policies speak to an understanding that in order to have a strong, vigorous community, all of its residents must have the opportunity to benefit from the economic engines that move it. They are big picture policies. And they need to be taken seriously. Moreover, candidates in the Oct. 14 race must be committed to these goals.
This term has entered the local political lexicon with a vengeance, thanks to the recent failures of the city’s water and drainage system, primarily the Sewerage & Water Board. Seems like the whole kit and caboodle of the city’s water management structure was thrown under the bus by the administration. But this problem didn’t happen in a vacuum, nor did it surface a few weeks ago. Other floods have shown the need for infrastructure improvements – May 3, 1978, Katrina and a litany of others. That’s nearly 40 years of monsoons and storms.
New Orleans has been compared to a lady in a silk dress, or something seductively similar. But she really is a damsel in distress. This city has been great at building streetcar lines to the delight of the tourism industry. But beneath those miles of rails are the broken bones and cartilage of a worn-out drainage system. Water leaks. Clogged catch basins. Regular rainfalls are now viewed with a pervasive sense of frightening anticipation.
It’s going to cost money to bring the city’s infrastructure up to par.
Those are just for starters. But what does it all mean when it comes to who deserves a citizen’s vote on Election Day?
In a not so subtle way, it is more than merely issues that confront New Orleans. It’s also about ideology. Any candidate falls short if he or she only campaigns on the kind of city “we want to be” without defining who the “we” are and where we all stand.
New Orleans has probably gentrified in the past 10 years than in other period. It has been gentrified more than block by city block. It has gentrified the thought processes of those who’ve seen opportunity at the expense of those who could least afford to lose any position they might have held.
Opposition research will point like a laser beam the vulnerabilities when it comes to those same issues.
This city deserves and should expect a complete discussion of these and other issues. It’s not just a matter of electing a Black mayor or a Black female mayor or even another White mayor. It’s about addressing the very core issues that speak to the quality of life of a community, not the quantity of Air B-n-Bs, or Uber drivers or tourists riding streetcars.
It is about making certain that everyone is welcomed at the table of prosperity, sharing in the cultural, economic and spiritual opportunities this city has always possessed the potential to offer.
Lovell Beaulieu is a journalist.