It’s easy to miss.
Drive too fast along the bridge connecting the greater New Orleans area to the city’s predominantly black Lower Ninth Ward -- over a large, muddy body of water and across sparse land -- and you’ll likely pass the words plastered across a tall industrial building: “City Of Second Chances.”
The words reflect the resilient attitude of a city that has spent the last decade battling the challenges Hurricane Katrina left behind. Many of these challenges are the same as they were in 2005 and disproportionately affect New Orleans’ largely black population, which currently records 100,000 fewer African Americans than there were a decade ago.
'These Challenges Didn't Just Pop Up'
The issues many black residents face -- specifically those directly dealing with wide income, employment and health gaps -- are the same systemic ones that plagued the city prior to Katrina.
“These challenges didn’t just pop up in the last ten years,” Erika McConduit-Diggs, the President and CEO of the New Orleans Urban League Chapter, told me during my visit to the city in July. She and her team at the Urban League have addressed these ongoing struggles and growing disparities in their State of Black New Orleans report, which was released Wednesday.
“All of these things connect right? When you don’t have a job or even for those who do have a job it's still in one of these areas where you’re actually not earning a livable wage so it effects the kids who are still living in poverty,” she said.
Data shows black families face widening wealth gaps when compared to their white counterparts. Couple that with the high unemployment rates of blacks, poor wages and concerning health disparities, and it can be difficult to break the cycle of disadvantage and despair.
“Race is an important significant element in the civic and political life of New Orleans,” Marc Morial, former New Orleans mayor and current National President Of the Urban league, told the Huffington Post. “It’s a southern city, it’s also a city that was a part of the legally segregated south.”
“To confront racism, you have to confront that reality,” he added.
Racial Disparities Persist
Many black residents don’t believe they have been treated fairly since the storm hit. A new study conducted by the Public Policy Research Lab at Louisiana State University shows that half of white New Orleans residents say their quality of life in their local community is better, while nearly half of blacks say it is worse since 2005. Meanwhile, black women, in particular, have endured the most difficulty in returning to their homes after the hurricane.
Some of these differences in perception can be explained by the city's uneven recovery. Recovery dollars prioritized upper-class white neighborhoods and tourist locations over low-lying lands that were occupied by predominantly black communities. Many black survivors say race relations are the same as they were pre-Katrina, which were far from anything worth praising.
The Birth Of A Movement
Just as we’ve seen countless times since Hurricane Katrina -- recently in cities like Ferguson, Charleston, Baltimore and elsewhere -- black feelings of inequality are ever-growing.
“Katrina [showed] people in poverty and suffering on live television. It wasn’t a report, it wasn’t a testimony, it was live video and it had an effect in the same fashion that video coverage of Eric Garner’s death, Tamir Rice’s death and so many others did and leaves no doubt about what happened,” Morial said.
“That has an affect on the activism because when the facts are clear and they point to injustice, there’s no debate,” he added.
The growing feeling of injustice helped birth the Black Lives Matter Movement, which, according to the movement's founders, officially launched after the death of 18-year-old Trayvon Martin in 2012.
For others, though, the Black Lives Matter movement began ten years ago promptly after Katrina. This is the sentiment MSNBC host Melissa Harris-Perry and her husband, James Perry, shared in their most recent column in The Nation:
As we consider the standing of vulnerable communities in the decade since Katrina and the year since Ferguson, a few things are clear. Progress for vulnerable communities is challenging, slow, and elusive. Movements on behalf of these communities are afforded no respite. The moment we stop reminding the world that black lives matter, black lives will no longer matter.
Where To Go From Here
The city’s slow repairs did not convince many black New Orleans residents to return, nor did the discriminatory practices that played out in the way federal housing dollars were allocated to poor black neighborhoods.
But McConduitt-Diggs has faith that things will get better for New Orleans’ black residents over time. “Many people predicted a twenty year recovery from something so devastating as Katrina -- we’re at the halfway point,” she said.
Many of the black native New Orleans residents who have returned -- as well as those who never left -- remain hopeful that the next ten years will bring about speedy and significant widespread changes. For some of them, New Orleans is and always will be a “city of second chances.”
When I told McConduit about the message behind the words I saw painted on the building located by the same levy that burst and flooded New Orleans’ Ninth Ward ten years ago, she agreed.
“It’s that what makes New Orleans so unique,” she explained. “We are a strong, driven, historic, cultural community. We are resilient and we want to come back.”
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