Is Louisiana racist?
I pose this question because I was perplexed when U.S. Senator Tim Scott (R-South Carolina), proclaimed on national television last week that America is not racist.
Scott, the lone Black Republican in the Senate, made this declaration during his Republican response to President Joe Biden’s first address to a joint session of Congress April 29. I was even more perplexed to learn that Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris agree with him.
“No, I don’t think the American people are racist,” Biden told NBC’s Craig Melvin. “But I think after 400 years, African Americans have been left in a position where they’re so far behind the eight ball in terms of education, health, in terms of opportunity.”
On “Good Morning America,” Harris, who’s Black and Asian, said America is not a racist country but the nation must speak the truth about its racist history.
After listening to Scott, Biden and Harris, I worried that I’d missed something. Did I fall asleep for 20 years like Rip Van Winkle and miss the nation’s racial revolution? If so, did Louisiana undergo a similar radical change?
Let’s first define racism. I prefer the definition provided by scholar and antiracist activist Ibram X. Kendi. Racism, he says, is a collection of racist policies that leads to racial inequalities that are substantiated by racist ideas. Merriam-Webster’s definition is pretty good, too: “Racism is the systemic oppression of a racial group to the social, economic, and political advantage of another.”
Historically, Louisiana embodied both definitions of racism in many ways — starting with the first slave ships from Africa arriving in 1719, a year after New Orleans was founded. Twenty-three ships brought enslaved Africans to Louisiana in the French period alone, almost all embarking prior to 1730. In 1860, the year before the start of the Civil War, there were 331,726 enslaved people in Louisiana.
During the post-Civil War Reconstruction era, white mobs comprised of the Ku Klux Klan, the White League and former Confederate soldiers killed numerous Black people during massacres in New Orleans, Thibodaux, Opelousas, Colfax and St. Bernard Parish. From 1882-1936, at least 389 lynchings of Black people occurred in Louisiana.
In 1953, Baton Rouge was the site of the nation’s first bus boycott against segregated seating. Baptist minister T.J. Jemison, who would later become a founding officer of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, led that boycott, which served as a model for the pivotal Montgomery (Ala.) Bus Boycott that started in 1955.
In 1960, Leona Tate, Tessie Prevost, Gail Etienne and Ruby Bridges — all of them 6-year-old New Orleans girls — became the first Black children to attend all-white elementary schools in the South. Leona, Tessie and Gail started together at McDonogh 19 and Ruby at William Frantz Elementary School by herself. The television crews and reporters focused almost all their attention on Ruby as, day after day, she walked past an angry White mob that hurled racial epithets and objects at her. For a year, little Ruby sat in Barbara Henry’s class alone because White parents had pulled their children out of school in protest.
Yes, Louisiana has a racist past, and it has made progress over the past 302 years. Does that mean we have erased racism? Consider the following stats:
- For every 100,000 White people in Louisiana, 675 are incarcerated; for every 100,000 Hispanic people in Louisiana, 1,114 are incarcerated, and for every 100,000 Black people in Louisiana, 2,749 are incarcerated.
- 36.5% of Blacks students and 36.5 % of Latino students have no access to home internet, compared to 28% of White students.
- During the 2018-19 school year, 37,893 Black students were given out-of-school suspensions, compared to 16,127 White students.
- Black women in Louisiana are four times as likely as White women to die from complications related to pregnancy and the Black infant mortality rate, 10.5 infants per one thousand live births, is more than twice the rate for White Louisianans.
Despite all that, Rep. Ray Garofalo Jr. (R-Chalmette), chair of the House Education Committee, tried to ban schools and colleges from teaching “divisive concepts” related to systemic racism. While explaining his bill, Garofalo said a teacher could talk about “the good, the bad, (and) the ugly” aspects of slavery. Rep. Stephanie Hilferty (R-Metairie) quickly shut him down by pointing out “there is no good to slavery.”
The committee room burst into laughter, but this was not a laughing matter.
I did not fall asleep, and racism is not history. It continues to thrive in our systems, our policies and our social structures. Scott, Biden, Harris and everybody else who thinks either America or Louisiana is not racist, are the ones who need to wake up.
As long as our leaders continue to make false statements or tiptoe around the impacts of racism, the dream of a racial revolution will never become reality.