I grew up in Illinois and spent several years in Mississippi and Florida before I finally made it to New Orleans for good. In a few months it’ll be 10 years since I moved to New Orleans. But Louisiana? That’s what I can’t quite believe. The Louisiana drivers license isn’t a good match. It’s not me. I’m not sure I belong.
Prior to moving here I always made it a point to get to know the region where I lived. Not systematically, mind you, but I did a lot of driving around in high school and college–(upstate and downstate) Illinois, (southern) Mississippi, and (northern) Florida. Wandering. Looking. Seeing, I like to think. Parenthood has certainly eaten into that, and the fact that we’re a bi-racial family has surely played a role as well. When I wander I like to wander where I have no business going, and doing that with a family, particularly a bi-racial (black/white) family in the South, is something I can’t help but feel uneasy about, at least outside Orleans Parish. It’s not just me I have to be concerned about; it’s the people I love more than me. There’s a certain irrationality involved, probably like most of my fears related to my family, but not enough that I can entirely discount this specific fear. One might be tempted to suggest it’s my northern roots that have me feeling this way. I’m very familiar with the northerner who comes South and sees racism everywhere, except of course back up North. I don’t think I’m guilty of that. I know very well what Martin Luther King was talking about when he called Chicago the most racist city in America.
Am I calling all white Louisianans racist? Hardly. Some of my best friends are native white Louisianans. (Take heart, that’s officially a joke.) Given the higher proportion of blacks to whites in southern states than elsewhere in the country, many southern whites “get” race better than northern whites simply by virtue of greater contact with blacks. It sort of parallels the dynamic one can see in how Americans feel about illegal immigration—the farther one lives from the Mexico-U.S. border, often the more one fears it.
I get all that intellectually. But I close my eyes and it’s Easy Rider. A pick-up truck and a shotgun. I open my eyes and I can see that the likelihood of us being the victims of a hate crime(s) is, what, as likely as being in a plane crash? Less likely? That seems to make sense. But I mention that to my wife and she says, “For you, yeah.” She’s right, of course. And that’s the rub. The odds aren’t the same for all of us. It’s also true that if you fear flying, one remedy is to avoid airplanes.
But let me put it this way: far more white southerners are at ease voting for a political candidate like David Duke than white northerners, right? Am I being unfair? Okay, let me put it another way then: remember the Jena 6? At the time, Republican gubernatorial candidate Bobby Jindal, while campaigning in northern Louisiana, complained, “We certainly don’t need outside agitators to cause problems.” (For the uninitiated, in the 1960s civil rights workers in the South were often described by racist state and local officials as “outside agitators.”) Note that Jindal said this in northern Louisiana, not New Orleans. That comment would be outlandish up North (that’s north North, not north Louisiana), but here the other gubernatorial candidates didn’t jump on the gaffe for fear of alienating white voters. You probably didn’t hear it reported in the news, either. What’s with that? [For more about race in New Orleans, check out the story of one of Michelle Obama’s roommates at Princeton]
So why on earth would my family move here if I harbor such conflicted feelings about Louisiana? Two words: New Orleans. My wife is from here and I fell in love with the city after going to Jazz Fest with her–to be specific, Economy Hall tent, 1993, a set by the Young Tuxedo Brass Band during a wild rain storm, ankle deep in mud, that’s when I fell in love with New Orleans. So there’s that. As a family, people are easy with us here. We’re not a crude curiosity, nor is the subject of our biracial status awkward in conversation. We just are. It recedes from the front of my mind.
On the street in New Orleans, it’s easy to misread a person’s racial composition, and if you are certain, you’re either just plain wrong or getting only part of the story, missing the brothers and aunts and cousins, all of the honorary relatives and friendships and even the simple acquaintances that all serve to undermine the relevance of racial categories, or at the least make the categories seem not so distinct and distancing. (Given the many paradoxes of race in America, however, it’s not surprising what a central role it plays in local politics**). Even today out on the street, despite the violence and ugliness of the seeming endless Katrina related “debris,” the people here do it their own way. Just the other day I was riding my bike home from work down Dryades Street in Central City. I passed gutted and forgotten houses, an angular metal house constructed by Tulane architecture students, underneath power lines decorated with hanging gym shoes signifying drug turf, and I also passed a dark skinned man with a thick beard in a dainty flower print dress, purse dangling from his shoulder. Nobody messes with him–or her, if you will. I see him regularly, in fact. S/he belongs. That’s aside from race, I know, but it speaks to something beyond simple polite tolerance (the kind you see on TV). It’s acceptance, it’s live and let live, and it says a lot about the charm of living here.
I concede that New Orleans is hardly immune to racism. It’s well documented. The Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center (GNOFHAC) conducted a study prior to the Federal Flood that found French Quarter nightclubs subjected 57 % more black patrons to greater scrutiny, higher prices, and more hassles than similar white patrons. A 2006-07 GNOFHAC study found a nearly 60 % discrimination rate in rental housing transactions in metro New Orleans. (The audit used “a method of housing mystery shopping called testing and is based on tests of approximately 40 rental properties.” See here for .pdf). Look at the public schools. It’s not hyperbole to say most public schools in New Orleans are 100 % black. Private schools may not be 100 % white, but aside from a few former magnet schools (now charter schools), white children are generally spared a public education in New Orleans. To call public schools in New Orleans “integrated” is to focus on the edges and miss the whole.
I guess it comes down to New Orleans being the sort of place where I’m willing to make my stand. These are my people, all of them. It’s a place I can’t help but believe is capable of greatness, despite all that was screwed up before Katrina and still is today.
But Louisiana…I’ll spare you the Googled statistics. We–I use that loosely, very loosely–are at the bottom of all the lists. Alabama, Arkansas, Louisiana, Mississippi. Or: Arkansas, Alabama, Mississippi, Louisiana. You know the drill. It’s all bad news and Bobby Jindal isn’t the answer.
Back in the day when we were all returning to New Orleans from exile there used to be a lot of fun talk of seceding from the Union, getting bought out by the French or starting our own Freak Republic.
How about just seceding from the state of Louisiana? We could auction ourselves off to the other states, maybe strike a deal with California, or stick with our Mississippi River brethren and offer ourselves up to Illinois or Minnesota?
If you have family and friends dispersed across Louisiana, rest assured I’m not interested in closing any borders. We should honor and celebrate our Louisiana roots, but going forward, let’s keep our options open. As a wise New Orleanian liked to say, Sinn Fein, baby.
** During the last election cycle, Jalilia Jefferson-Bullock’s campaign for state senate canvassed my house one day (she’s the daughter of indicted U.S. Rep. William “Dollar Bill” Jefferson). I answered the door. The two campaign workers asked to speak to my mother-in-law (displaced by Katrina, black voter, registered Democrat). Not home. Then they asked to speak to my wife (black voter, registered Independent). Not home. I could see that my name was not on their list (white voter, registered Independent). Nor were they interested in speaking to me.