In the weeks, months and years after Hurricane Katrina, the world looked at what was happening in New Orleans right after the storm and declared that the city's undertow of race and class divisions had finally been unmasked. It was not a pretty sight.
Last week, a new local organization called One Community Initiative released a survey of racial attitudes in greater New Orleans that offered a slightly different analysis of area race relations. "Though the state of race relations in the local community is considered a problem by a majority of respondents, it takes a clear back seat to what are perceived as more pressing problems, such as crime, the economy, education and political corruption," wrote Dr. Robert Sims of the UNO Survey Research Center. Sims directed the survey for One Community Initiative, a collaborative of several dozen local media organizations including Gambit Weekly.
That is not to say that race relations are where we need them to be or that racism has been eradicated. Quite the contrary. Sims said that most survey respondents "are unwilling to brand other racial or ethnic groups as in some way 'inferior' based on their race or ethnicity," but he noted that "symbolic" negative attitudes "are more readily expressed than traditional racist beliefs and attitudes, and results suggest that such attitudes are fairly widespread."
In other words, a lot of folks are getting better at what the late Mayor Dutch Morial used to call "keeping the sheets in the closet."
The survey culminated more than a year of work spearheaded by Randy Feldman, president and general manager of WYES-TV, and the station's board. "The issue of race in our community was brought to the fore by the national media during the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina," Feldman says. "It is only natural that the local media should want to work toward ways of improving the situation. The first step is to find out where we are. This survey starts that process."
One Community Initiative plans future events, including a public forum on race relations, diversity and inclusion, and follow-up surveys in future years. The first survey, taken in October, consisted of 525 telephone interviews in metro New Orleans and in Terrebonne and Lafourche parishes. Sims said the survey has a margin of error of plus or minus 4 percent.
Here are some of the significant findings of the survey:
• African Americans are a little more likely than other racial/ethnic groups to say that race relations comprise "a great deal" or "somewhat" of the area's main problems. Slightly more than 60 percent of black respondents used those terms to describe local race relations, compared to 57 percent of white respondents and less than half of Hispanic and Asian respondents.
• At the same time, nearly 63 percent of black respondents and more than 60 percent of white respondents described relations between African Americans and whites as "excellent" or "good."
• Nearly 88 percent of black respondents and almost 84 percent of white respondents said local race relations were better or at least as good as those elsewhere in America.
• The number of "traditional racists" within each ethnic group is relatively small, but still significant. For example, nearly 22 percent of whites expressed "high" or "moderate" levels of traditional racism in their interviews, compared to 18.3 percent of African Americans and Asians, and 15.5 percent of Hispanics. Sims quantified "traditional racism" as a willingness to attribute "inherent race-based deficiencies" toward — or to oppose interracial marriage with — persons of a particular race or ethnicity.
• "Symbolic racism" toward African Americans was significantly higher among Asians than Hispanics and whites, with more than 42 percent of Asians scoring "high" on the symbolic racism scale, compared to 33 percent among whites and Hispanics. Sims defined symbolic racism toward blacks as the tendency to "see any failures to advance as being self-created, rather than the result of past discrimination or prejudice."
As Feldman noted, this survey is a benchmark against which future changes in racial attitudes, if any, can be measured. One hopes it also will start a serious discussion of race and racism in our community — and community-wide efforts to improve race relations.
For more on the survey, go to www.onecommunityinitiative.org and click on "Survey Report."