Post-Katrina progress for black New Orleanians has not been acceptable, former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial says

It was around Christmastime in 2005, and former New Orleans Mayor Marc Morial was at a church in New Orleans East. He was there, he said, to fight for minority residents who wanted to rebuild in that section of the city but were encountering resistance.

Although the New Orleans City Council had passed a resolution stating that residents should be able to rebuild wherever in the city they wanted, some groups had different ideas.

The Urban Land Institute, a national planning group, for instance, said that because the east was one of the areas hardest-hit by Hurricane Katrina flooding, the city should temporarily ban its redevelopment.

As a testament to the residents’ struggle, the electricity was still off in the flood-ravaged, destitute area, months after the storm.

“They had not even turned on the lights,” Morial said Friday, shaking his head. “It’s a sore spot. They came up with a plan, which would have said that certain neighborhoods should be turned into lagoons.”

Largely black and other minority neighborhoods like New Orleans East are still feeling the repercussions of those sentiments, even as the 10th anniversary of Katrina fast approaches, said Morial, now president of the National Urban League.

Speaking Friday at a media briefing held as part of the 21st annual Essence Festival, Morial added that the recovery of those areas was delayed by anywhere from two to four years, in large part because the city had a plan to “red line” certain areas of the city.

Statistics support the notion that 10 years after Katrina, black communities in New Orleans continue to struggle, according to a set of data points released Friday by the Urban League.

For instance, the number of African-American children younger than 18 living in poverty in the city grew by 6.5 percent from 2005 to 2013. Two years ago, the data show, just over half of the more than 54,000 black children younger than 18 — 50.5 percent — were considered to be poor.

African-American adults have suffered, too. The Urban League data show that in 2011, 52 percent of African-American men in New Orleans were considered to be unemployed.

Similarly, the statistics show an 18 percent increase in the gap between the median income of African-American households and white households in the city.

In 2005, the median income for black households was $23,394, while the median for white households was $49,262. By 2013, the median income for black households had grown only slightly, to $25,102. But the median for white households had jumped to $60, 553.

Overall, more than 35 percent of black families in New Orleans now live below the poverty line, according to the Urban League — a factor that officials say exacerbates crime, incarceration levels and lack of educational and business opportunities for black residents.

Morial urged those most affected by these disparities to come up with a plan, or “bucket list,” of how to best help the communities and local residents who are still struggling in 2015.

“Obviously, look, those numbers aren’t acceptable,” he said. “One way to deal with an income disparity gap is to give opportunities. And I know there’s an effort underway.”

Erika McConduit-Diggs, the local Urban League president, agreed that the numbers don’t just show a sad story. She said the data can be used to produce recommendations on how to continue the city’s recovery and development in a more equitable and sustainable way.

To that end, the Urban League, city officials and researchers plan to present those recommendations in a report titled “State of Black New Orleans: 10 Years Post Katrina,” which will be released at a conference Aug. 26, three days before the Katrina anniversary, McConduit-Diggs said.

Conference highlights will include an education town hall, a youth town hall, city tours and other events put on with the goal of helping to eradicate inequities in post-Katrina New Orleans over the next 10 years.

Also, it’s not all bad news, McConduit-Diggs said. The biggest indicator of progress now, she said, can be seen in high school graduation rates in New Orleans public schools.

In the 2013-14 school year, 72.7 percent of seniors graduated, up from just 56 percent in the 2004-05 school year. That’s significant, she said, because the young people who are graduating now will have an impact as they enter the employment sector and affect more “challenging” statistics, such as the unemployment rate, childhood poverty and the number of African-American men in the criminal justice system.

“I think what we have to wait to see is the impact that generation of young people will have,” McConduit-Diggs said. “So some of these things will just be a matter of time before you see them impact other areas.”

More immediately, she called for raising the minimum wage in Louisiana, which she said would have an immediate impact on poverty and crime levels in the city.

Morial said he hoped local officials and neighborhood leaders would learn from the past to create a better, and more well-rounded, future New Orleans.

Going back to the example of New Orleans East, he suggested that residents prioritize the top five things needed to help the African-American community — whether it be more retail development, more office space, better housing or certain kinds of jobs.

By starting small, he said, residents can band together and create a major impact in years to come.

“There needs to be a forward-thinking plan about what a neighborhood can look like five years from now, 20 years from now,” Morial said. “You’ve got to bring everyone together. Because you can’t do it all.”

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