The successful completion of another Mardi Gras is cause for celebration. Each year, revelers don costumes and converge on our streets. Most go home with injuries no worse than a self-imposed hangover or a bruise from a neighboring bead-catcher. Our innate ability to party together in a spirit of mutual tolerance continues to amaze visitors, especially in light of the failure of other cities to recreate the event. One only has to reflect on the violent melee that marred Mardi Gras in Seattle in 2001 to confirm that we have a special blend of humor and acceptance. For our multi-cultural, multi-ethnic city, Mardi Gras offers us a chance to put our best face forward.
We cherish that aspect of our city, but we also note that another local event has been making headlines around the country. The New Year's Eve death of Levon Jones outside of Razzoo Bar and Patio garnered national attention, prompting Associated Press reports that were picked up in papers from Los Angeles to Chicago to Orlando, Fla. On Jan. 19, National Public Radio's All Things Considered broadcast a report on Jones' death and a possible boycott of the city by African-American visitors.
We should all resist the rush to judgment in the Razzoo tragedy, except to say that we expect a complete investigation and a just verdict if the matter goes to trial. Meanwhile, the city has already suffered for the incident. To the reading and listening public, the rough outlines of the story will linger: a black man was killed after he tried to enter a Bourbon Street bar. Few people remember the avowals of tolerance by the citizens of Jasper, Texas, in 1999 after the brutal murder of a local black man. What most people remember about Jasper is that James Byrd was dragged to his death by a trio of murderers who were white.
In this context, we welcome Mayor Ray Nagin's announcement that the city's Human Relations Commission will investigate incidents of discrimination in French Quarter businesses. The effort will include a hearing beginning at 6 p.m. Thursday, Feb. 24, in the City Council Chamber. Citizens wishing to speak at the hearing do not have to make arrangements in advance, according to the mayor's office. Each speaker will receive an allotted amount of time to share his or her experiences. The U.S. Department of Justice will monitor the hearings.
Those who can't attend the public hearing or who don't want to wait until late February to speak can also speak out by visiting the mayor's office Web site at www.mayorofno.com. The mayor's office says that a link inviting citizen allegations of discrimination by local businesses will be posted on the city's home page this week. (At present, visitors have to scroll down to the "human relations commission" link on the home page, then click on the generic "feedback" button on the left side of the screen.)
As part of its investigation, the mayor's office will send "mystery shoppers" to test area businesses for discrimination. Even if the killing at Razzoo had not occurred, the testing of local businesses is a good idea. We pride ourselves on our tolerance during Mardi Gras, yet the work of a local fair housing action group shows that New Orleans suffers from extensive -- and systemic -- racial discrimination. ("Property Rights," Feb. 8). In a 1996 survey, testers for the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center encountered racial discrimination in 77 percent of the rental situations tested. Those results shocked locals, who insisted that racial discrimination didn't exist in the local housing market. When a new fair housing group conducted a similar test on the Gulf Coast last year, it turned up nearly identical results.
The Fair Housing Action Center has offered to assist the mayor and the Human Relations Commission in conducting the next round of tests. "We're offering the mayor our services in testing discrimination in the downtown bars," says new Fair Housing executive director James Perry, whose organization has a proven track record in conducting these kinds of sensitive investigations. As of press time, neither office had responded to the offer. That's too bad. We encourage the city to welcome such help in the ongoing effort to detect racial discrimination wherever it may occur. The success of the Essence Festival and other events targeted to African-American tourists has helped make New Orleans a premier destination for black tourists, according to reports by the Travel Industry Association of America. In its annual report, the state Department of Culture, Recreation and Tourism confirmed "Louisiana's status as the No. 1 destination for African-American tourists." If we hope to build on past successes, the city must prove that it takes charges of racial discrimination seriously. More importantly, all New Orleanians must be willing to evaluate potentially uncomfortable information about our city. The results of the housing surveys here make lots of folks uncomfortable. But discomfort can be a great reason for action -- and action is far better than denial.