Three Questions with Mitch Landrieu, Former Mayor of New Orleans
Sudha David-Wilp: Mayor Mitch Landrieu, thanks for joining us for the three-question format. The first question:
Q1: You have often talked about institutional racism—what is it and how does it manifest itself in America today?
Mitch Landrieu: Well, Sudha thank you for that really important question. Most people, particularly white people, think that racism is simply a negative or hateful act of one individual to another. That’s how they see it. That’s how they understand it. And they think that racism begins and stops there. African American people know that this is wholly inadequate while they have suffered those kinds of admonitions and bad behavior. They also want the rest of the world to understand and to know what institutional biases and what institutional racism is. Essentially, what they are trying to communicate to us is that since the beginning of time, the systems of government, the systems of the church, the systems of health care, the systems of education, and the system of how we vote—that African Americans are not as everybody else is. And as a consequence, always fall on the short end of the stick of how the rules are written and how they align. More poignantly, for in the moment we are in right now, the criminal justice system treats African Americans in a disproportionally negative way. If you look at the COVID virus, even though the COVID virus affects everybody, or touches everybody, in the same way, it has a negative and disparate impact on African Americans. All these things are built into the systems, into the institutions that we have. They have a negative consequence, either intentionally or as a matter of benign neglect. What has to happen in America, is that we really have to think about how we design systems so that there is equity, not just equality and that everybody has got a fair shot.
Q2: Your foundation E Pluribus Unum recently published a study called “Divided by Design.” What were the most important takeaways you found from traveling throughout 13 U.S. states and conducting approximately 1800 interviews?
Mitch Landrieu: What’s interesting when we started this, we really wanted to block out the national noise—twitter, and things we saw on TV—and actually go listen to people. We listened to African Americans, whites, and people of color, rural, urban, rich, and poor to try to get their sense of where there was common ground. The most interesting thing was, no matter where we went, no matter how poor or broken down the neighborhood or how wealthy, everybody had pride in the place where they lived and where they were from. Even if they were on the short end of the stick in that area, they still had great joy about and memories from how they grew up, who their friends were, etc.
The other thing we found out in common was that historic preservation, culture, and sports always bring people together. It’s something that they rally around. But as I said just a minute ago, there are very contrasting views about how everybody got to where they got. Many white people think that African Americans are where they are by choice. African Americans are adamant that, no, they got there because of the systems and the institutional racism made it all harder for them to have the same opportunities and take advantage to build the same generational wealth as white families did. So, we developed what we call “Fifteen Different Truths” that we think we know—I just gave you three or four of them. Not many white people know the real history. Or the stories that were told from a perspective that doesn’t really reflect the diversity. So, one of the things that we are embarking on is a specific effort to change the narrative and to write the history that should have been written in the first place and that includes everybody. That will give you a different perspective, because who is telling the story and how the story is told has a lot to do with what you see, what you hear, and what you conclude. Many of our textbooks in America don’t really tell the full history or the correct history or the rich history that we have. So that was the first thing we learned.
The second thing we learned was that leadership really matters. Folks that are elected into office, folks that are running companies, folks that are leading playground and community groups are all critically important. And how to lead around race is very hard because it not an easy topic for us to talk about.
The third thing we learned was that people, because they don’t really know and they haven’t learned how to lead, we figured out that we ought to put some policies together to give folks some direction on the federal, state, and local level. Not just for the government, but business and philanthropical community—some ideas about changes that can be made to make things much better.
Q3: And finally, how should political leaders confront the current standoff in cities across America today, and how can the United States eventually heal?
Mitch Landrieu: That’s the $64,000 question, isn’t it? Right now, as we tape this, we are one week and some days past the death of George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, and a whole host of other terrible incidents on top of an economic crisis, and layered into it a COVID crisis. Race, in my opinion, is this nation’s most traumatic issue. We have never learned how to deal with it. We have walked around it, we have walked under it, we have walked over it. We don’t know how to go through it. We all have to figure out that we want to get to the other side first. And I’m not sure that many or all Americans are in agreement in that. I think that they are wrong. I do not think that the United States will ever be the country that she aspires to be and wishes to be if she doesn’t live up to her original promise, which was that all men are created equal, endowed by their creator with certain unalienable rights of life, liberty, and the pursuit of happiness. I can assure you that the term “the pursuit of happiness” was not a throwaway term because they couldn’t think of anything else to say when they were drafting the original documents. Happiness is only attainable if you are free. Happiness is only attainable if you have opportunity. If you have none of those things, then you can’t get there: you can’t have opportunity, you can’t build generational wealth if you don’t have a good education, if you don’t have health care, if you don’t have systems that don’t disproportionally and negatively impact you.
So, right now in America, we have protests on the street because our criminal justice system clearly, once again, is not responding to the calls of African Americans about how it disproportionally treats them and uses force, and a whole host of other issues. What we did early on was very wrong. That it had negative consequences, that it existed today; that we have systems that continue to perpetuate it, and that our fellow brothers and sisters who are African Americans and brown don’t feel like they have the same shot at the American Dream as the rest of us. Unless and until we make that acknowledgement and a commitment to change, it’s going to be very hard.
I am very, very hopeful. As my friend John Lewis, who I believe is a walking saint, reminds us, we have come a long way, but we have a long way to go. The most important thing is to make a commitment because as President Obama says when he quotes Dr. King quoting Ganhdi, the arc of the moral universe bends toward justice. But we always add that it doesn’t bend on its own. Somebody’s gotta do the bending. And that is what we hope to do moving forward.
Sudha David-Wilp: Thank you, Mayor Landrieu, for your very thoughtful answers.