How One White Mayor Wants to Heal America’s Racial Divide

Inside former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s new non-profit aimed at addressing the roots of inequality.

In 2005, Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast as one of the worst storms in U.S. history. The Category Three hurricane killed 1,833 Americans across five states and caused an estimated $108 billion in property damage. It also laid bare the deep impacts of decades of segregation and institutionalized racism in the South.

The brunt of the devastation fell on the region’s low-income and minority residents, many of whom remain displaced to this day. In New Orleans, for instance, heavily African-American neighborhoods, such as the flood-prone Lower Ninth Ward, were wiped out while affluent white neighborhoods further inland were spared.

Many progressives hoped that the gross inequities exposed by Katrina would spur broad national action on racial equity, but progress has been disappointingly slow. An April 2019 poll by the Pew Research Center, for instance, found that 76 percent of black Americans say they’ve experienced discrimination or unfair treatment. And a stunning 58 percent of Americans think race relations are “generally bad”—with 69 percent think things are getting worse.

For former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the lessons of Katrina remain unfinished business that the nation needs to tackle.

As Louisiana’s lieutenant governor from 2004 to 2010, Landrieu led its disaster recovery efforts. He then served two terms as New Orleans’ mayor, from 2010 to 2018. During his tenure, he came to a deep understanding of the structural and institutional barriers facing both his constituents and his state.

Last month, he launched a new non-profit, E Pluribus Unum, aimed at healing America’s racial divide. The organization recently released its first report—called Divided By Design—dissecting the wide gaps in perceptions among whites and blacks about the extent of racism and its impacts in the South. Among other things, the report found widely diverging views on the legacy of slavery, Jim Crow and segregation, and even what “racism” means today. (For more on the survey’s results, click here.)

Landrieu recently spoke with the Monthly about his new group, and how he thinks he can help America recover from the crippling effects of longstanding racial inequality.

The interview has been edited and condensed for length and clarity.

AK: After so many years in public office with a broad portfolio, why launch a nonprofit focused on race?

ML: One of the things I came to understand was that almost every issue we talk about at some point is related to race. It’s been pretty clear to me for a very long time that our inability to deal frankly with the issue of race and the sequelae from institutional racism was stopping us from really becoming the country we all profess to want to be.

We started this organization with an intent to bring people together across race and class and ask ourselves honest questions about what it is that we’re trying to do as a country and whether or not we can get past [the issue of race]. You can’t get past it unless you go through it. And you can’t go through it unless you acknowledge it exists.

We spent 11 months traveling across the South and talked to everybody who was willing to talk to us. We came up with 15 or 20 truths that we thought were pretty representative of what the people told us and wrote Divided by Design.

AK: How surprised were you by what you found?

ML: There are some really disheartening things that we learned about the progress that we thought we had made and there are some very heartening things that make me think there’s a pathway to a better time and a better place if we choose to go in that direction.

One thing that didn’t surprise me, but made me sad, is that white folks did not have a strong grasp of what institutional racism was.

AK: Why do you think that is?

ML: I think the answer is clear. They weren’t taught that way.

The way we teach our history and the way we teach our civics don’t tell the whole story. We tell it from a very narrow perspective. You kind of get stuck in this notion that racism is only an individual act of vengeance against another person who happens to be another color because you’re afraid of them. Of course that’s true, but then you’re not clear about redlining or voter suppression or the way educational districts are drawn so that some kids have opportunities and not others. You’re not very knowledgeable about the way formulas are put together to fund schools or how teachers are certified. All of the things that produce negative outcomes and make generational wealth less available to African-Americans is something that you were never taught.

The other thing too is that white people have very little appreciation of how close the consequences of slavery, black codes, voter suppression, lynching and redlining are to today. We think that is history and faraway history. To the African American community, not only is it not history, it is happening today.

AK: What were the heartening things that you found?

ML: The one thing that was really heartening down on the ground was that there was a lot of interaction and communion between rural and urban areas. The younger the people are, the better sense they have of what a just future looks like.

Almost everybody we talked to, white and African American, believed in the concept of equal opportunity and equal responsibility. Almost universally, people thought that diversity was a strength, not a weakness.  This made me happy and it surprised me, not because I doubted it would be true, but because I thought the noise in Washington, D.C., reflects the exact opposite, where we seem to be challenging the notion that diversity is a strength, not a weakness. That negativity has not gotten all the way down to the ground.

African-Americans and white people all want their kids to do better than them and everybody wants to work hard. Nobody believes they ought to be working three jobs just to keep their head afloat. Almost universally, African-Americans and whites believe it’s not a great situation we have in our country right now. There’s common ground across race and class that although our economy is better than it has been, it’s not really working. It’s only working for a narrow band of people. That was almost a universal feeling across race.

AK: So, on the one hand, you’re saying we have to do a lot more education on the long-term impacts of structural racism. On the other, it sounds like you’re arguing for a race-neutral message on the economy.

ML: No, that’s not accurate.  What I’m saying is that if white people come to realize that institutional barriers are hurting not only African Americans but their own opportunity as well, we can get to a place where both blacks and whites can share equal opportunity and equal responsibility. That’s not the same thing as, “Let’s be race neutral.”

The term “white privilege” is a trigger term, but what [African Americans are] trying to communicate is that some people get the benefit of the doubt because of the color of their skin. When you explain what that really means to white people, they say, “Oh, I didn’t know that’s what ‘white privilege’ meant.” We need to use the right words to describe the right things, or at least explain what we mean.

The same goes with the issue of reparations. Every white person we talked to about reparations said, “No way, I’m not paying a dollar,” because reparations means to them that you have to give a dollar to somebody who might be your neighbor. They say, “I didn’t have anything to do with slavery and I shouldn’t have to pay the debt back.”

I guess that’s one way to define reparations, but if you have a deeper conversation with white people of conscience and goodwill and say, “Listen, if I can demonstrate to you that institutions were designed in a way that hurt African Americans and didn’t hurt white people and we have to redesign them,” wouldn’t you be open to thinking about that?

The African-Americans who participated in our survey say that what they want and need is at least an acknowledgement by America that something very wrong happened that had serious consequences that last until today

AK: So strategically, going forward, what comes first—changing perceptions to drive policy change, or driving policy change to fix the bad outcomes people are experiencing?

ML: You have to do it all at the same time. This is a lifestyle change, not a diet. We think there are three ways that we can begin. One is to use the things that bring people together—sports, entertainment and culture and music—and have the purveyors and creators tell the story the correct way. We need to change the narrative: What was the real story? What was the whole story? What happened with the Confederate monuments is one of them. That’s a very narrow story about a very narrow window in our history.

Nobody told the story about lynchings until recently. Many people didn’t know how many people were lynched or why it happened. That’s the first thing: changing the narrative and teaching people the real history of what occurred.

The second thing is training leaders to understand what the problems are and to help them understand how they can use the power of their offices to convene community leaders, church leaders, and business leaders to talk about how they’re going to [bring about change] on a community-wide level and in their institutions.

The third thing is the policy and research to support the leadership and the narrative change.

AK: How long this is going to take?

ML: Well, it’s taken 300 years so far. There is no beginning and no end to this. This is an attempt to create a new way of being. We don’t really have a timetable. This is a lifelong endeavor for the country. But we’re still a very young country, and that’s why it’s important we get it done sooner rather than later.

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Anne Kim

Anne Kim is a writer based in northern Virginia and the author of Abandoned: America’s Lost Youth and the Crisis of Disconnection, forthcoming in 2020. She was special projects editor at the Washington Monthly in 2013 and senior writer from 2015 to 2018.