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A Dialogue on Race

Frank discussion is needed -- but if mishandled, it could do more harm than good.

I've got to get some things off my chest,' Mayor Ray Nagin told a majority-white audience on April 7 at a meeting of the Bureau of Governmental Research (BGR). 'We are a city stuck back in the '50s and '60s. I am talking about race relations and the need for us to come together in different ways.'

The city's fourth consecutive black mayor says racial divisions in New Orleans are evident in black and white attitudes toward education, the economy and criminal justice. Nagin says a 'serious dialogue' is needed if New Orleans is ever going to become a 'world-class city.' He complained that whites have ignored a failing public school system that is 95 percent African-American. He scorned the absence of major joint ventures between black- and white-owned businesses, and decried racial divisions for keeping 70 percent of the citizenry at or near the federal poverty line. And he pointed to a number of controversial incidents that have brought race to the forefront: the Bourbon Street death of a black college student at the hands of white bouncers, the federal jury verdict that found District Attorney Eddie Jordan guilty of racial discrimination, and alleged police misconduct in black communities.

We agree that frank discussion is needed. Yet we are concerned that if the discussion is mishandled, it could do more harm than good. We have several concerns -- and a few recommendations on how to proceed:

• Timing. The mayor's call for racial dialogue has conspicuously drowned out rising criticisms over a series of patronage-laden contracts awarded by his administration. Cleaning up the city's contracting process and bringing good jobs to town are the defining promises of Nagin's first term (Politics, 'Great Expectations,' April 9, 2002). Racial progress also can be a hallmark of Nagin's tenure -- but first he must convince voters that he's not launching a dialogue to obscure alleged misdeeds.

Focus. A recent city report found that 57 percent of tested Bourbon Street nightclubs subjected black patrons to greater scrutiny and higher prices than white patrons. That's an outrage. Nagin has rightly promised to name any establishment that is again caught practicing discrimination. But what's next? Nagin's proposal for racial dialogue still lacks focus. One place to start might be an examination of 'The State of Black America 2005,' the National Urban League's study of racial and economic inequities in the United States, which includes a clear, inclusive agenda for change. (See

Local Help. Nagin should issue bids for a major joint venture to build a constructive framework for a citywide dialogue. Fortunately, the mayor can tap four locally based, nationally recognized organizations with expertise in racial dialogue: ERACE, The People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University, and the Southern Institute at Tulane University. 'There are many ways to do this,' says Ted Quant, director of the Twomey Center. 'Dialogue is different than debate. Dialogue says, 'I am going to listen to someone who doesn't believe as I do.'' If a dialogue becomes a mere forum for venting frustrations, then the effort will likely be counter-productive. Yet participants must be allowed to express their feelings without fear of recrimination. 'Dialogue can be a clash of values,' Quant cautions. 'This dialogue is not going to be a simple thing of venting or singing 'Kumbaya.'' Nagin's role in the process must be equally clear. 'If the mayor is going to launch it, he has got to stay engaged with it,' Quant says. 'He has to commit the resources and staff.'

Lance Hill, director of the Southern Institute, agrees that Nagin's role is key. 'My first suggestion (to the mayor) is to think long and hard about who will design (the program) and who will own it,' Hill says. 'It makes a difference when the disparate groups you are trying to unite are vested in the process and the outcome.' Hill favors a racial dialogue that doesn't attempt to achieve consensus. 'A dialogue process is not designed to eliminate conflict and differences of opinion, but to learn to live with conflict and differences and to listen to each other,' he says. Discussions should identify a set of key problems and encourage participants to develop a range of possible solutions. Participants must be assured they will be able to present their ideas to authorities and be informed of which proposals will be enacted. Finally, dialogue should not be seen as a panacea. Policy decisions play a crucial role in exacerbating or cooling racial friction. Last year, Nagin opted to ignore a city task force recommendation -- endorsed by NOPD Chief Eddie Compass -- to hire an independent monitor of NOPD. If a monitor had built more trust in NOPD, it might have helped in the aftermath of police shootings and other controversial incidents that have occurred on Nagin's watch. It might have even prevented the incidents in the first place. We welcome the opportunity for a citywide self-examination, but the mayor should begin by examining his own policies.

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