Portrait of Diversity

ormed by artists, a new racial unity group steps forward -- the first since Hurricane Katrina. Artists/co-founders of ColorBlind: Jackie Bishop, Ron Bechet, Dawn Dedeaux and Willie Birch.



COLORBLIND" -- the sign represented both a title and a promise.

Read from the street, the handwritten message on the screen door of the shotgun home announced the inaugural meeting of the first racial diversity group in New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina struck almost two years ago.

Before the storm, New Orleans could boast five homegrown entities with nationally recognized experience in dealing with racial conflicts and diversity issues. In addition to the Mayor's Human Relations Commission, four nonprofits offered various strategies for combating racism and building unity -- ERACE, People's Institute for Survival and Beyond, the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University, and the Twomey Center for Peace Through Justice at Loyola University.

After Katrina, however, four local visual artists (two of them black, two white) saw both a need and niche for a new approach to racial dialogue.

"We didn't see enough happening within the neighborhoods specifically," says ColorBlind co-founder Dawn Dedeaux, a multimedia artist, who says the group welcomes non-artists. "Art can contribute to healing, where politics cannot. It's a medium that can transcend any other barriers."

At the group's first public meeting, written proposals ranged from the familiar to the intriguing -- establishing "community gardens," block parties, a publicity campaign and sending biracial teams of artists to local schools to promote unity.

Sculptor Lin Emery suggested videotaping interviews with neighborhood children, then projecting their images on nearby buildings or on "an itinerant video truck." Artist Cynthia Scott recommended a public Art-In at a local park where artists with supplies and tables could show adults and children how to tap into their own creative talents "with [an] emphasis on racial harmony."

The group hopes to collect more pro-unity ideas in the coming weeks, organizers say.

The obstacles to racial dialogue in New Orleans since the storm are many and daunting, sociologists and other observers note. As Dan Baum of The New Yorker recently wrote, "Everything is viewed through a racial lens in New Orleans."

A recent study detailed the depth of the divide. After a door-to-door survey late last year, the Kaiser Family Foundation reported deteriorating financial conditions among 52 percent of the residents in Orleans, Jefferson, St. Bernard and Plaquemines parishes. However, in majority-black Orleans, 66 percent reported more desperate financial straits post-Katrina, and 46 percent of blacks reported they had inadequate wages or no jobs, compared to 17 percent of whites, the Foundation reported. More than three times as many blacks as whites lacked access to health care.

"There were also striking differences in the ways that blacks and whites in Orleans Parish view the recovery efforts," the study says. Fifty-five percent of blacks said they faced worse treatment and fewer opportunities than whites as the city rebuilds. However, only 19 percent of white Orleans residents said blacks were being treated worse.

ColorBlind organizers say repeated media images of widespread looting after the storm reinforced the worst stereotypes of young black men as criminals and of New Orleans police as corrupt.

Alarmed about what they saw as escalating racial tensions post-Katrina, Dedeaux and fellow artisans Ron Bechet, Willie Birch and Jackie Bishop co-founded ColorBlind. After months of reading and participating in occasionally heated discussions, they crafted a plan for a year of "ongoing multi-disciplinary programs to stimulate healing and unity."

The artists then decided it was time to take their proposal public. But, when it comes to racial dialogue, the power of words and the problems of terminology quickly become evident, as it did at ColorBlind's first meeting.

Thirty-two people showed up for the citywide debut of the grassroots group on June 27. One by one, African Americans and whites alike walked past the "ColorBlind" sign into the shotgun house near the Fair Grounds racetrack in Gentilly.

The audience was decidedly left-to-liberal and middle-aged. Roughly three-quarters were white, the rest were African American. Many were artists, intellectuals and activists, sculptors, painters, writers and photographers. Several were college professors.

Everyone entered a large, gutted room that doubled as dining area and artist's studio. The exposed latticework of the walls gave the room a clean, post-Katrina feel. There was a large, rusting pipe mounted on one wall; an orange light beamed through its rusting holes. Ceiling fans stirred the warm air. A radio played. There was a long wooden table in the center of the room and guests sat in straight-back chairs.

Most folks seemed to be meeting each other for the first time. There was beer and wine and food to break the ice. "Help yourself to fried chicken in the kitchen," someone said.

Most held a two-page questionnaire, distributed at the front door. "Can I take this home?" a woman's voice asked. "I like to be deliberate."

Others nodded in agreement. A man with long dreadlocks folded the questionnaire and fanned himself. A dog jumped in the lap of a surprised reporter seated on a couch. The meeting began.

Willie Birch stood up, pushing his chair back from the table. He wore a straw hat and a dashiki. Born in the Magnolia housing project, Birch is an accomplished artist and sculptor whose works will be exhibited this fall at the Contemporary Arts Center. Of ColorBlind's four founders, Birch and Dedeaux are native New Orleanians.

"I believe New Orleans is hurting and we have a real opportunity to recreate the city," Birch said.

After the storm, he said, he and fellow black artist Ron Bechet, the fourth cofounder of the group, attended a public meeting. Birch said a white person there called him a racist. Stung, Birch said he then steeped himself in books about race. The best, he says, was Making Whiteness: The Culture of Segregation in the South 1890-1940 by Grace Elizabeth Hale. After a survey of other literature, Birch told the audience that ColorBlind was videotaping the first-ever meeting. As he spoke, Bechet swept the audience with a small Camcorder. No one voiced objections.

Dedeaux asked how many in the crowd noticed a difference in race relations post-Katrina. Fewer than half raised their hands. As the meeting wore on, however, some guests alluded to vaguely defined incidents involving race since the storm. More common were suggestions for group action, such as planting community gardens in neighborhoods citywide.

Someone saluted Women of the Storm, Levees.Com and other activist groups that have emerged since Katrina. "God bless them," a woman said.

This early rapport on race soon hit its first snag. Writer Orissa Arend, who authored a monograph on a 1970s confrontation between the Black Panthers and the NOPD, objected to the group's name: ColorBlind. Arend, who wears a black patch over one eye, told the meeting crowd: "As you can see, I'm already half-blind. And I don't want to be blind to anything." She said she would join the group if another name were chosen.

A hush fell over the room.

Another woman broke the silence. She noted that sociologists have concluded that society is not color blind. (Derald Sue, a professor of psychology and education at Columbia University Teachers College who specializes in multicultural counseling, attacked the concept during a 2004 roundtable at Tulane University: "The myth of the color blindness is really not just denial of color and denial of differences; it is the denial of power differentials. If you start talking about race, you have to start talking about the advantages and disadvantages.")

"I just want to change things while I'm alive," shrugged Birch.

"What were the other names?" Orend asked.

There were four runner-ups, she was told: Side by Side; NOLA One Race; Freedom Equals Tolerance and Re-Generation.

Dedeaux noted that ColorBlind is only a working title. The naming of the group was thus tabled for further deliberation.

Birch then noted several shortcomings of the group's first meeting. The city's reconstruction has attracted a vigorous migrant population of Mexican-American workers. However, none were at the meeting. "They are not even at the table," Birch lamented.

The tiny but tenacious Vietnamese community in eastern New Orleans was also underrepresented. "The Vietnamese are doing incredible things, but they are not here at the table," Birch said, gesturing again.

Others nodded in agreement. "We don't claim to have the answers, but we need to talk," cofounder Jacquelyn Bishop said.

The pace of the meeting picked up. Everyone who wanted to speak raised a hand and waited for recognition.

"Bringing people together is very important," said Gary Craddock, the man with the dreadlocks, who lives across the street from the meeting place. "And bringing people to different neighborhoods is constructive."

A native of Delaware, who was raised near a racetrack and worked as a racehorse groom at Wilmington Park, recalled people in his hometown focused on "money and horses." Now, he lives a block away from the New Orleans Fair Grounds. Here, people seem "more caught up" in racial issues, he said. Local whites seem ignorant of black scholars at Xavier University and other historically black colleges and universities. Young blacks, meanwhile, seem just as angry and strident as whites are naive. "I've witnessed how race turns them into racists," Craddock said of blacks.

The crowd applauds his candor.

A white woman, a neighborhood activist, stresses the importance of inclusiveness and activism. She offered a neighborhood cleanup as an example. "We started cleaning up Stallings playground -- and the winos and the drug dealers started helping us."

Another woman said this new group must be equally inclusive -- "We have to include winos and drug dealers." A few nodded in agreement, but that idea never developed. The conversation quickly turned back to race, perhaps because that challenge was sufficient for the night.

Dedeaux announced a correction on the questionnaire: "It's totally unnecessary to put down your race."

Everyone laughed.

One woman suggested bringing another person of a different race to the next meeting. John Barnes, a sculptor who heads the art department at Dillard University, said he moved to New Orleans in 1999. "I noticed the racial stuff immediately," Barnes said. For example, he said, he was offended when he saw a young black man tap-dancing for white people for a "pickle jar full of tips" at an art gallery in the French Quarter. "It made me sick to my stomach."

Stephanie Atkins, a black artist and administrator with the Arts Council of New Orleans, said both race and class divisions stymie local progress. "Hopefully, we'll challenge ourselves to go beyond helping the have-nots," Atkins said.

Jeanie Cooper, a photographer, suggested forming teams of black and white artists and showing their works together to local school children.

"There are no bad ideas," Birch noted.

Cherise Harrison-Nelson, a Mardi Gras Indian "queen" and daughter of the late Mardi Gras Indian Chief Donald Harrison Sr., rose to speak. "I believe the issue here is culture," she said, firmly. "It's social and pleasure clubs and brass bands that make New Orleans great."

Harrison-Nelson then stressed the importance of language in racial dialogue, discouraging the use of words such as "them" and "they." "We -- us -- we're all in this together," she said, adding just before sitting down again, "That's my beaded soap box."

Nick Cage, a visiting black artist from Chicago who is working on an international art project, said, "Everyone should ask themselves -- 'How diverse is (my) circle of friends?' If not, why are you here?"

After the meeting, Dedeaux said she hopes the group can create a climate of racial amnesty. Part of the reason ColorBlind began was because prospects for reconciliation are dim within existing political frameworks, she noted. "White politicians feel they have to be politically correct. Black politicians worry about their block votes, so these issues don't really get expressed well."

Blacks and whites alike need to address their differences and move forward, she adds. "Unless we start talking about having real dialogue, the consequences are that we don't really heal," she says. "We go forth as a city divided, not as a city united."

Leaders of several established racial diversity groups welcomed the emergence of the artist-led organization -- cautiously.

"I applaud the development of ColorBlind and any group that attempts to bridge the racial divide and overcome racism," says Lance Hill, a historian and director of Tulane's Southern Institute. "But if they and other new groups are not organized around the principle of recognizing inequalities in power and speaking out against injustices, then they are doomed to being little more than polite salon discussion groups."

Rhoda Faust, a cofounder of ERACE, which is widely recognized for its "ERACISM" bumper stickers, also welcomed ColorBlind. "My preference would be we all come together as one group, yet all groups have a different focus," Faust says.

ERACE members believe that people of all races can "have racist feelings" and suffer from racial bias. Bill Knecht, chairman of the board of ERACE, adds that the growing Hispanic community in the area is changing the tone of race relations. "The dialogue in this town is historically black and white," Knecht says. "But that's changing, and we need to respond to those changes."

Discounting a common local sentiment that professional sports helped break down racial barriers in New Orleans, Hill offers a word of caution: "You can unite people around a common goal, but that kind of unity lasts no more than four quarters. The long-range goal is to unite people around a better city that is also fair and equitable."

Artists/co-founders of Color Blind: (l-r) Jackie Bishop, Ron - Bechet, Dawn Dedeaux and Willie Birch.
  • Artists/co-founders of Color Blind: (l-r) Jackie Bishop, Ron Bechet, Dawn Dedeaux and Willie Birch.

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