Racial disparities remain in New Orleans 10 years after Katrina

On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans does not have a reason to celebrate, as the black community has not recovered.

Luther Vandross was outed as gay after his death.

On the tenth anniversary of Hurricane Katrina, New Orleans does not have a reason to celebrate, as the black community has not recovered. And the disparities between blacks and whites in that great city have continued, and in some cases, the inequities have worsened.

The National Urban League is joining forces with the Urban League of Greater New Orleans for a conference called RISE Katrina 10, which takes place in New Orleans between August 26 and 28 and will include an education town hall and a youth summit. During the conference, a report, the “State of Black New Orleans 10 Years Post-Katrina” will be released, which will take a look at how African-Americans have fared since the levees broke ten years ago. The Urban League report will examine black quality of life in the city by examining a number of factors such as racial disparities in income, employment, education, youth poverty, access to healthcare and housing.

In an exclusive interview with theGrio, National Urban League president and CEO Marc Morial said the tenth anniversary is a commemoration and not a celebration.

“It is a commemoration because we must remember, lest we repeat the same mistakes today —the 200 people who died, the fumbling and bumbling and stumbling by federal, state and local elected officials,” Morial said. “We’ve got to commemorate and remember that the work of rebuilding is not yet complete. You do not pop the champagne cork at halftime before the football game is over.”

“To commemorate is to recognize and applaud the people who rebuild their institutions, schools, hospitals, while there are still 100,000 people who haven’t returned. There are many neighborhoods being left out. Those challenges remain, and what people have to do on the tenth anniversary is recommit to rebuilding,” Morial added.

A former mayor of New Orleans, Morial noted that the city remains one of the nation’s largest majority-minority cities. Further, the challenges of New Orleans are the challenges of any U.S. city, although some of the challenges facing New Orleans are more severe.

According to the report, the most current rate of black male non-employment in New Orleans — which includes people not in the labor force and not employed — is 52 percent. When it comes to employment, there is a considerable gap separating black and white men. In 2000, 48 percent of black men were non-employed, as opposed to 52 percent in 2011, a factor which he National Urban League believes is the single largest factor contributing to black people’s societal challenges.

There was a small improvement in black unemployment since Katrina, but large disparities remain. In 2005, African-American unemployment in New Orleans was 18.5 percent, as opposed to 4.1 percent for whites. Meanwhile, in 2013, black joblessness was 13.6 percent versus 4.6 percent for whites.

Meanwhile, the income gap between whites and blacks has widened considerably, with an 18 percent increase. In 2005, the year Hurricane Katrina hit the Gulf Coast, the median household income for black families was $23,394, versus $49,262 for white households. In 2013, median incomes for black households was $25,102, as opposed to $60,553 for whites in New Orleans.

“New Orleans lost a substantial portion of its population, and a substantial portion of its black middle class population. There was a mass layoff of 7000 teachers, and hospitals closed,” Morial noted. “The income disparities were exacerbated by how the recovery was conducted in the first year to 18 months, with an emphasis on bringing back some neighborhoods and not others,” he added.

Similarly, poverty among African-American youth under 18 has increased — a large step backwards — from 44 percent in 2005 to 50.5 percent in 2013.

Educational achievement is one area where the National Urban League report can point to a bright spot. In 2005, 75 percent of schools in New Orleans were deemed failing schools by the state of Louisiana, as opposed to only 7 percent today. Further, the high school graduation rate shot up from 54 percent to 73 percent. The report notes that New Orleans is currently investing $1.8 billion in new school buildings and leads the nation in its black male graduation rate. However, black college achievement is a mixed bag. In 2005, 16.6 percent of black men over 25 and 19 percent of black women held at least a college degree. In 2013, the number for black men dropped to 13.7 percent, and the share for black women increased to 21 percent.

“You’ve got to take your hat off to the fact that high school graduation has improved,” Morial said, while noting that the state “has not stepped up to assist in the building of New Orleans.” Under Republican Gov. Bobby Jindal, Louisiana has made large cuts to education.

“I’m a firm believer that you have to invest in things that give them something to do — recreation, jobs, summer jobs,” said Morial. “You have to invest in families, give schools the proper academic instruction, and give people a way to climb out of poverty. Kids are in poverty because their families are in poverty.”

Concerned that black people are being left out of the recovery of New Orleans, Morial insisted there must be economic opportunities for African-Americans and jobs at a living wage. “A recovery does produce jobs,” Morial acknowledged. “It is a way to put people back to work. The challenge, however, is the economic engines of the city, the restaurants, the technology boom. Of the new restaurants, how many are African-American owned? Or the new medical complex? Is there a plan to make sure the new jobs will not bypass black people and brown people? Where is the plan?” he asked.

“We’re talking about working men and women, people who are holding jobs. Some of them work two jobs,” Morial offered, calling the plight of the working poor “one of the greatest challenges of the country,” and challenging the notion among some conservative circles that the black residents of New Orleans are somehow unemployed and lazy.

Ten years after Katrina brought unspeakable destruction and dislocation to New Orleans, the challenges remain, and there is much more work left to be done. If there is to be a recovery in this city, its residents of color must become a part of it.

Follow David A. Love on Twitter at @davidalove