The Continuous Racial and Economic Divide in New Orleans

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Corrections & clarifications: An earlier version of this story misidentified the total number of homes and apartments located onsite at the Faubourg Lafitte housing community. Also, the onsite Head Start facility was misclassified. It’s an early childhood and child development program, and the correct title of employee Dominee Matthews is Program Lead at the Sojourner Truth Neighborhood Center.

NEW ORLEANS — Given the stage in one of the most important moments in this city’s history, former president Bill Clinton could have talked about the new schools or improved flood protection or the other advances seen here since Hurricane Katrina and the levee failures a decade ago.

And he did. But he also urged New Orleanians to focus on something else: erasing the racial and economic disparities that continue to plague the city.

“We need a new unity in New Orleans,” Clinton said in a speech Saturday night.

That struck a chord with me, and it should strike a chord with anyone paying attention to New Orleans.

There has been enormous progress here since Katrina hit 10 years ago and the levee breaches pushed 80% of the city underwater. But economic divisions among race and class, here way before the floods, still pulse through the city and are growing wider under its recovery.

Despite a rising economy, the share of residents in the greater New Orleans area living in families struggling to make ends meet grew from 35% in 2006 to 41% by 2013, according to a recent Brookings Institution report. Only a quarter of the region’s good jobs — those that offer stable incomes and upward mobility — are held by black workers, while 68% are held by white workers, the report said.

I was reminded of these sobering statistics as I drove from one neighborhood to the next, covering the Katrina anniversary. The rebuilt homes in Lakeview. The empty lots dotting the Lower Ninth Ward. The buzz of entrepreneurial spirit in the Central Business District. The crippling joblessness in the Sixth Ward.

The widespread perception is that recovery has benefited the haves at the expense of the have-nots.

“Am I upset that white families have prospered? No,” Tracie Washington, head of the New Orleans-based Louisiana Justice Institute, told me. “I’m upset that black families haven’t prospered.”

Amy Liu, co-author of the Brookings report and a longtime observer of New Orleans’ recovery, says city leaders need to shift their focus from rebuilding infrastructure to diversifying the economy and job training.

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Source: USA Today |  Rick Jervis

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