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Following Richmond Visit, Former New Orleans Mayor Releases Report On Race, Class Divide In The South

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (right) participating in a panel discussion with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and University of Richmond professor Julian Hayter (Roberto Roldan/VPM).
Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu (right) participating in a panel discussion with Richmond Mayor Levar Stoney and University of Richmond professor Julian Hayter (Roberto Roldan/VPM).

Former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu spent the last year traveling across the South, speaking with local politicians and everyday people about the enduring divisions of race and class. 

Now, Landrieu and his team of researchers have released a report outlining what they founding. The report, entitled Divided by Design: Findings from the American South, was the product of more than 800 interviews in 28 communities across 13 states. Landrieu stopped in Richmond back in March. You can read the full report here. 

VPM’s Roberto Roldan recently spoke with Landrieu about what he’s calling the E Pluribus Unum initiative and some of the key findings from his travels. 


Roberto Roldan: Just to start out, can you tell me a little bit about some of the conversations that you were having as you traveled across the South over the last year?

Mitch Landrieu: Well, they were incredible, it was really wonderful to be able to spend time with individuals. We interviewed over 800 people. What was so refreshing and surprising was that nobody was really mimicking what they heard on MSNBC or CNN or Fox or CBS or NBC. They were really just talking about the challenges that they have in their life. And it was pretty clear from our discussions across the South that there are absolute differences from state to state and community to community. But most people really just want a great opportunity, they want their children to do better than them. Everybody wants to be able to work, but they don't think that they ought to have to work three jobs to make ends meet — where many, many years ago it was really just one job — because they can't see their kids and they don't have a quality of life

Roldan: And you weren't just doing interviews with people, right? There was also some polling that you all conducted. One of the things that you found is that there is a racial divide when it comes to the way that people view the health of the economy. So the majority of African Americans and Latinx individuals see the economy getting worse for them, but white people, on the whole, think that the economy is doing better. Another thing you found was that African Americans see the legacy of segregation and slavery as a continuing barrier to success, but white people don't see the history of racism as being relevant today. How does that play out in terms of the conversations that people are having in their communities?

Landrieu: Most white people think that racism is an individual act of malice against a person of color by not treating them well or calling them a bad word and that's it. Not one white person thought that they were racist, that we talked to. African Americans on the other hand, while they acknowledged that that is racism, are much more deeply affected by what they call institutional racism. It is also true that white people have very little understanding of what that means. And because we live segregated lives — lots of white kids don't go to school with black kids, or we don't go to church together, we don't play ball together — white people don't really understand the negative impact that blacks may have suffered under since slavery, Jim Crow, civil rights, et cetera, et cetera. And so when whites say, what is that? And you began to explain to them what redlining is, which they've not heard of before. They didn't know that by law African Americans were not given loans to build houses in certain communities because they just didn't do that. When white people find that out, they go ‘Oh, I didn't know that.’ And you said, well, that's what institutional racism is, there's an institutional rule that prohibits African Americans from having what you had. Then they go ‘Oh, I didn't realize that's what you were talking about.’ But Blacks say ‘Well, that's been happening to us forever. How did you not know that?’

Roldan: One of the major takeaways from your visit to Richmond was that both black and white residents felt like they're not benefiting from the growth and the gentrification that we're experiencing. Was that a common thing you heard in places like Charlotte or Louisville, other places that are experiencing growth?

Landrieu: We're not just divided by race, we’re divided by class. And in that instance, working-class whites and working-class blacks felt they were all getting moved out by an economy that favors the wealthy. As a consequence of a negative situation, African Americans and whites who are in the same place are having the same negative hit. So they do have common ground. This one happens to be a negative one.

Roldan: So what's next for this E Pluribus Unum initiative? How do you take the data and the interviews and then act on that?

Landrieu: One thing we think we have to do is help people understand the full narrative, which is to say that we have to know the whole story of what occurred. What really is the history of the United States? When people told stories, did they tell the story from every different perspective? Do we really know whether or not there's institutional racism that exists? What kind of criminal justice reform is taking place in communities? Is there voter suppression? The second thing we're going to do is we're going to bring leaders in from across the South, elected leaders, and start to work with them through these issues to teach them about what it is that we learn, and then to give them examples of how certain cities have dealt with bringing people together and getting folks, irrespective of their race, creed, or color to work together. And the third thing we're going to do is we're going to build a policy arm that supports all of the work that we're doing and the leadership forum that we're going to put together and the narrative change that we're going to do. And then we're just going to keep working on it. We believe that there's a lot of evidence that when you do that, things get a lot better.

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