Tuesday, January 17, 2006

Our strength is our racial and cultural diversity

I'm finished with Ray Nagin. I don't accept his apology. For the good of the city, to ensure harmony among New Orleans' diverse population, and to re-establish credibility with Washington and the rest of the nation, he should resign. I'm serious. I don't think we can just write this one off.

Recall what happened to the once-future Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott when he flippantly suggested that the United States could have avoided "all these problems" if then-racist Strom Thurmond were elected president in 1948. Clancy Dubos and others are saying that Nagin's chocolate city speech may cost New Orleans hundreds of millions of dollars in recovery assistance.

No, Nagin's apology wasn't even close to what is required to make up for the damage done -- so what -- he quietly invited a bunch of press people into his office on Tuesday? Big friggin' deal. He should have made a public apology, minimally, and delivered a speech of common purpose.

I and others have been hard on Nagin -- and I think it's important to speak out against Nagin's divisive remarks so the rest of the nation understands that we mean business. This city is being forced between a rock and a hard place to re-create itself, salvaging the best of what it can, and getting rid of the worst.

If the story could get out to the rest of the nation, a remarkable spirit far different from what Nagin displayed has overcome a vast majority of New Orleans citizens of all races. An incredible optimism has replaced what, pre-Katrina, was a lethal defeatism. That's not to say that we aren't dumbfounded and angry by the complete abdication of responsibility by George W. Bush and Congress -- by the total failure to adequately respond to the worst natural man-made disaster in United States history.

We remain defiant in our commitment to beat the odds, despite the negligence and incompetence by local, state, and federal leaders that we are struggling against. Notwithstanding the obstacles placed before us by people in Washington, we remain focused on our reinvigorated love for the city, and the rediscovery of things we cherish. At the top of that list of qualities that we value is the diverse racial and cultural character that was forged over centuries. No other American city can boast the same rich cultural heritage.

A tribute to the great and generous spirit of New Orleans is the fact that almost anyone you ask on the street speaks more eloquently than Nagin about the need to unite all New Orleanians into a stronger alloy. We have our problems, but what culture of such striking contrasts of race and inequality in such a small town wouldn't have problems. I actually believe that, notwithstanding the stratification of race and income, New Orleanians get along extraordinarily well. It's one of the first things I noticed about the city.

Some of you know I'm a Yankee by birth. I've lived in New Orleans for a number of years now. Within the first few weeks here, my love-hate sentiments for the city kicked in, but what kept me going I think, was the incredible mystery of New Orleans. And much of that mystery was locked up in the amazing quality of relations between blacks and whites. Okay -- so, admittedly, it's not always a good story, and I could tell a few bad ones. But I could also tell far, far more stories of profoundly positive relationships I've had with black New Orleanians of every level of income and education -- so much so, that to even mention race is to cheapen the quality of those relationships.

It's important for me to say this, as a white New Orleanian, that some of the most beautiful people in the world, inside and out, are my fellow black New Orleanians. In that first few weeks that I lived in New Orleans, in a city that is over 60 percent African-American, I suddenly had more interaction with blacks than I ever did before, coming from a town with a black population of about 17 percent -- and those interactions surprised me for their openness and cordiality -- something that rarely happened where I'm from.

Why?

Another Yankee transplant who had lived in New Orleans for a couple of years prior to my arrival explained that in the North, people talk a good game about fighting racism, but they don't live their day-to-day lives practicing what they preach. By contrast, in New Orleans, people are forced to get to know one another while waiting for the streetcar, or making groceries, or doing any of the normal day-to-day activities that build a sense of community.

Is there room for us to learn to get along better? Sure -- no doubt about it, but I think the more important message to convey to the country is not that our mayor said that God wants New Orleans to be chocolate, but that we, New Orleanians, appreciate that the city is a mix of black and white, it always has been, it's the source of our culture, and we'll do whatever we can to keep it that way, because our strength is found in that diversity. If we can't hold on to that living diversity, the city will no longer have the vibrancy it needs to remain alive as anything more than a museum exhibit.

A better mayor wouldn't have even had to think about it to come up with a similar message of reconciliation and hope.

7 Comments:

At 1/17/2006 10:34:00 PM, Anonymous ashley said...

I dunno. I think that he was just trying to do his best "I am a tithe-paying member of the AME church, and I can preach it, boyyyyyzzzzz" imitation.

Unlike most politicians, Ray has no handlers. No Karl Rove (in charge of the recovery!) to tell him what to do. Nobody whispering into a hidden earpiece. Therefore, he says what he thinks will work at the time.

I'm giving him this one mulligan. Just this one.

 
At 1/18/2006 04:12:00 AM, Blogger Steve said...

I have to agree with you Schroeder; I supported Nagin too, tried to explain to friends,family and co-workers how the guy wasn't all to blame for the problem, that everyone on every level had to take some responsibility for the ultimate failure, and now he comes out looking like some crass racist yay-hoo.

I noticed on a North Carolina deer Hunting talk forum I frequent (a bastion of friendliness for the liberal mind if ever there was one) that the mood has gone from helping get things worked out to straight out anger and insult. I dont think it's only going to be the redneck deer hunting republican set of North cack-a-lackee we hear from either. I wrote a letter and sent it to Nagins office, Blancos office, The Advocate and the Times Picayune that summed it all up for me;

An open letter to Mayor Nagin
Your Honor,
When Katrinas rage was televised across the nation, my family watched in disbelief. We cried, we prayed and then we went to work. We gave money any chance we had, without hesitation. We cheerfully gave time to Red Cross relief and work efforts, and again, we cried, mourned and prayed. Even our 3 year old son interrupted his usual bedtime prayers and said "No No Daddy, God bless the little boys and girls in the water".

It did not-and does not- matter to us who,how,why or where the blame is put, only that others are in need of our help.Your remarks on what should be an enlightening and redeeming day are not only a great disservice and insult to the noble people of New Orleans, they are a slap in the face to all those across our country who have so selflessly given of themselves in Louisianas darkest hour.

"And thats all I've got to say about that...."

 
At 1/18/2006 05:56:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Ashley,

I feel like I've already allowed Nagin plenty of mulligans. And since when did a politician require a handler -- what about just using your thinking cap before you open your mouth? Like Steve, I feel like I was an idiot for all of the times I defended Nagin.

Steve, you're concern and generosity represent the very essence of what is great about humanity -- what we Americans pride ourselves on, despite the assault of commercial values. I've said before that New Orleans is like living in a Norman Rockwell painting (he could be a social critic as well as a romantic). The neighborhoods, the sense of community and communal celebration, have been replaced by a culture of suburban strip malls, big box stores, and shopping centers in much of the rest of the country.

Thanks for the insight into the deer hunting forum -- those places are viral incubators of ignorance, hatred and divisiveness. I'm not opposed to deerhunters, but I am opposed to the redneck attitude that is more prevalent there. There are liberal counterparts that freely serve up the same divisiveness, and fuel the redneck attitude -- that's one of the reasons why I'm so infuriated by Nagin's remarks.

The letter you wrote was powerful. I got choked up on your son's prayer. Thanks for sharing.

 
At 1/18/2006 08:09:00 AM, Blogger E.M. said...

Ok, Schroeder, but if not Ray, then who? I know, I know. The comments, the storm. I know. But if Ray were to be recalled, let's say for argument, then what vulture steps in? Another Marc Morial? Who else do we have?

 
At 1/18/2006 09:51:00 AM, Blogger Schroeder said...

Mitch Landrieu would be my vote.

 
At 1/19/2006 10:25:00 AM, Anonymous Lenny Zimmermann said...

Let me add, as a New Orleans native who has done a lot of moving around over the years, but always comes back home, that Black-and-White doesn't even come close to expressing race in New Orleans. We have a French Quarter, with predominantly Spanish architecture and every race and creed living there. We have an "Irish Bayou" that nobody today could even tell you where this neighborhood is supposed to have started or ended, only around where it was, and even when it was full of Irish longshoremen was well known to have commonplace occurences of some German lady yelling across the street to her Italian friend and neighbor.

We have no "Little Italy". We have no "Chinatown". We've always been a major port city and, though it seems to rarely get mentioned, a major point of entry for immigration into this country. Yet we really don't have a specific place centered around a particular culture. Even our poorest neighborhoods are often mish-mashed into some of our richest. The variety of skin color alone leaves little credence to any really meaningful connotation of black or white. Even historically New Orleans was one of the most racially liberal cities on the continent, and it is one of the major reasons we have the Napoleonic Code for the basis of law in Louisiana today. (Common Law would not have stood up well enough to handle the liberal "Black Code" allowing for the varying levels of freedoms permitted to those of African descent in a nation that otherwise could barely see a black man as anything other than a slave.)

Even the bigotry that rears its ugly head from time to time that claims to have a color bias, is often less color based and more based on the misunderstanding of that inexplicable "other". Some of the most loudly bigoted "white" folks I know (many of whom are of far varying races that most fo the rest of the nation would never consider "white") have as their closest friends folks they would normally consider "black" if they didn't know them. It is only in the knowing that somehow the inexplicable "other" becomes known and somehow no longer is a part of that "other" in the culture of souther Louisianans. It's a strange form of bigotry that only looks like racism on the surface.

Most importantly, though, is that New Orleans simply is not white, or black, or vietnamese, or creole or french or anything other than New Orleans. It is probably the most culturally and racially mixed city I have ever been to, and I've been to quite a few.

It is the divisive comments of folks like Willy Nagin, however, that will forever cement in the eyes of the world that we are somehow the epitome of racial inequality in America, when in my experience nothing could be further from the truth.

 
At 1/19/2006 07:32:00 PM, Blogger Schroeder said...

lenny -- excellent point!

I think that socioeconomic factors enter into the issue of race in New Orleans -- and generally. Blacks who feel discriminated against and disenfranchised are almost always poor. That's where the distinction can be made of the multi-colored spectrum of race.

 

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