Brewer_news_042710Cross-posted from ColorLines.com What the state's new immigration law teaches us about the dissembling language of bias in the 21st century. By Daisy Hernández A few weeks ago, I wrote that we’re in the age of the media-savvy racist. It’s a time in our nation when even the racists know it’s not cool to get caught on a YouTube video slinging the N-word at a member of the Congressional Black Caucus. That would be so...Jim Crow and that would be pretty bad. So pains are taken on MSNBC and Twitter alike to use other words (socialist, illegal) and when needed to even denounce racism. Welcome, ladies and señores, to the media-savvy race game, where the objective is to say anything to avoid being called a racist. This explains how last Friday Arizona Gov. Jan Brewer signed a bill into law that basically says, “Cops can use the color of your skin as one factor for demanding proof of citizenship,” and then went on to tell reporters that “racial profiling is illegal.” It also explains how President Obama can call the new Arizona law “misguided” while his own administration’s first year in office had the highest levels of deporting immigrants in history. In the age of the media-savvy racist, racism is not the action of many but the sound byte of a few. It’s pulling out the N-word during a rally or killing someone while calling them “a beaner.” It’s passing a law that says the color of your skin is the sole factor for being detained. And Gov. Brewer wants you to know that having brown skin is not the only reason you’ll be detained in Arizona. That would be racist. Having brown skin is just one reason you’ll be detained. To drive her point home, Gov. Brewer made sure that the new Arizona law had a soulmate. Executive Order 2010-09 declares (in just a short amount of jargon) that cops must get training on the proper ways to racially profile. Okay, technically it says that police officers must be trained on what constitutes reasonable suspicion. But the point is well taken: Gov. Brewer does not condone racism. Now, it’s easy to look at the new law, commonly called SB-1070, from the vantage point of New York City or Oakland and sneer, “What racists.” It’s much harder to say that this is where our national conversation on race stands today. We don’t yell racism when Obama’s administration deports hundreds of thousands of men and women and even teenagers. We didn’t say anything of race in 2008 when Homeland Security Secretary Janet Napolitano, then Arizona’s governor, signed a law forcing employers to verify every employees’ social security number. We barely mentioned racism in the nineties when federal officials decided to beef up border patrol and force migrants to travel the Arizona desert, where they would either die or be easier to catch in the sweltering heat. But put it on paper that race will explicitly be one reason why the cop is pulling over brown folks and we’re all screaming “racist!” This isn’t to suggest that SB-1070 isn’t racist or that we shouldn’t be raising hell. But the real opportunity here is to say that racism is more than one new law dictating you have to show citizenship papers if you have brown skin. It’s a whole set of policies at the state and federal level that has a disproportionate impact on brown people. If we show up in Arizona to just fight this one new law, then we’re buying into the media-savvy race game ourselves. And we’ll lose.
Cross-posted from ColorLines From undocumented dads to gay kids, we'd never seen TV like that. Here are five ways the show blew up the small screen—with video to prove it. By Jorge Rivas The remarkable "Ugly Betty" ended its five-season, primetime run last Thursday night, and the TV landscape's a lot flatter for the loss. Say what you will about the ABC dramedy's quality over the past couple seasons. The show featured a cast of brown-skinned characters that were unprecedented in primetime television. The series featured smart and strong Latinas, a powerful Black woman and even an undocumented father from Mexico. Not to mention the show's humanistic handling of its gay and transgender characters. Just one of these characters would radicalize most primetime TV shows. In the end, though, critics say the multiple storylines these characters spawned did the show in, by stealing Betty's spotlight. During its first three seasons, "Ugly Betty" aired on Thursday nights, where it was mostly successful. However, when viewership dropped ABC shuffled the show around and lost even more viewers. On Jan. 27, 2010, ABC announced it was canceling the series. That's a shame, and here are five reasons why—along with a compilation of scenes that make the point better than I can. No. 1—It was real. Networks are increasingly targeting Latino viewers, but "Ugly Betty" was the first primetime show to address real issues Latinos in the U.S. face—like immigration laws and trying to assimilate to U.S. culture. Lisa Navarrete, a vice president for the National Council of La Raza says "the plot line illustrated the complexity of the lives of many undocumented immigrants who are otherwise integrated into American life." No. 2—Betty Suarez was no Jennifer Lopez. And she was the first TV Latina who lived in "both" worlds—the white professional Manhattan world and a Mexican working class home in Queens, NY. No. 3—It was queer. Betty's family accepted her brother Justin's love for musicals and fashion from a very young age and never discouraged him from following his interests—which included Austin, his boyfriend. The show also provided a compelling and human portrait of Alex Meade, who transformed into Alexis. No. 4—It opened other closets, too. Ignacio Suarez's undocumented immigration status had its own storyline. That's a coming out tale for 2010. No. 5—And still, it was a family affair. "Ugly Betty" did all of this while still bridging the generational divide. Tias and Ninas alike were glued to Betty La Fea.
Originally published on ColorLines By Jamilah King and Jorge Rivas John McCain. Newt Gingrich. CNBC. Fox News. Even poor old Michael Steele. It's taken a whole lotta leaders to keep this party going. Click your way down memory lane. Ironically, it all started with a quintessentially Black oratorical device: the call and response. John McCain asked his campaign rally if they knew who Barack Obama was. Somebody shouted back, "A terrorist!" And so it began: About thirteen months of madness in a public square dominated by the Tea Party's wild, demonstrably false but still lasting claims about both the president and his agenda. But they didn't do it on their own. Conservative think tanks and lobby groups, corporate media outlets and the Republican Party have all kept the party jumping—and profited from it. We've put together an interactive timeline of that dismal history. Watch the videos, follow the links, then forward along.
Richmond_trainingCross-posted from ColorLines Stories abound of programs that turn out workers with new, promising skills—who can't find jobs. By Yvonne Liu Jason Smith needs a job. For two years, he’s been submitting applications and waiting by the phone for a callback. Sometimes, he gets a response, but the ratio of applicants to openings is at historic highs, so he hasn’t been hired. That wouldn’t make Smith much different from the 15 million Americans who are out of work, except that he was supposed to be among those leading us into a promising 21st century economy. Last June, Smith graduated as a member of the inaugural class of the Oakland Green Jobs Corps. He and his classmates were hopeful for their future—they’d get cutting edge jobs and be part of a movement for climate justice. Eight months later, many sit waiting for employment. A 26-year old Black man, Smith’s living with his parents, where he moved when he lost his job. He’s among 3.4 million workers who have been unemployed for more than a year. A year ago, President Obama was among the nation’s loudest advocates for reversing the Great Recession by building a green economy. Congress included almost $4 billion in the Recovery Act for green job training. This funding is on top of the Department of Labor’s annual training allotment, which was a combined $7.4 billion in fiscal years 2009 and 2010. Job training programs have sprung into action and workers have jumped at the chance for a new career. But Washington stopped there. While Obama began this year vowing to focus on “jobs, jobs, jobs”, most economists agree the jobs bill he signed into law last month is too little, too late. The Senate’s plan to roll out further job creation efforts appears stalled. They can’t even agree to keep unemployment insurance going for all those long-term jobless workers like Smith. So we are facing a jobless recovery, with some estimates predicting that job numbers won’t return to pre-recession levels until November 2014. The White House has said it doesn’t expect unemployment to drop meaningfully this year. As a result of this neglect, the experience of Smith and his training classmates is not uncommon. There are no firm numbers on how many newly trained green workers are still jobless. But stories abound of programs that turn out workers with new, promising skills—in solar panel installation and weatherization, in places like Seattle and Chicago—and who nonetheless can’t find jobs. The Oakland Green Jobs Corps was created in October 2008 as a demonstration of how investments in renewable energy can create opportunities to lift people of color out of poverty and onto promising career pathways. When the city won $250 million in a settlement from the state’s Enron lawsuit, advocates urged the money be used to fund green jobs, specifically a local training program. They argued the money should benefit communities of color, who were hurt the most by the unscrupulous practices of large energy corporations. The Ella Baker Center surveyed 20 employers and found that many were in the process of expanding their businesses and that the major challenge they faced was finding trained people. In October 2008, about a dozen members of the Green Employer Council—a group of employers that helped shape the job training curriculum—committed to hiring a graduate of the Oakland Green Jobs Corp. But eight months later, when Smith and his colleagues donned green helmets and received diplomas in a graduation ceremony, the employers didn’t follow through on their promise. The ongoing recession curbed their business expansion; they were no longer hiring new workers. The lesson ought to be clear: Job training alone doesn’t create jobs. But since 1982, the federal government has argued the contrary. That was the last economic downturn in which unemployment reached toward double digits. According to President Ronald Reagan, the cause wasn’t a shortage of jobs. He said he’d “looked in the Sunday paper at the help-wanted ads” and found “as many as 65 pages,” which “convinced us that there are jobs waiting and people not trained for those jobs.” To Reagan, the era’s 9.8 unemployment rate reflected a skills gap. This moment marked a fundamental shift in how the federal government addressed rising jobless numbers, argues University of Oregon labor educator Gordon Lafer, in his 2002 book The Job Training Charade. Reagan enacted the Job Training Partnership Act (JTPA), which altered the landscape of job training in three crucial ways. First, the federal government moved from being an employer of last resort to a source of funding for privatized, short-term training. An earlier job training initiative, the Comprehensive Employment and Training Administration (CETA), provided both training and jobs. At its peak, CETA employed nearly three-quarters of a million adults and an additional one million youth for summer jobs. “The only case in which training creates jobs is when businesses want to hire more people, but can’t find people with skills,” says Lafer. “This is very rarely true, especially during times of recession. Politically, training gets promoted the most when the economy is down, when it can’t create jobs.” Reagan’s JTPA dissolved CETA’s public employment arm and redirected the money to private, for-profit job trainers. This was the second fundamental change. Previously, CETA programs operated at the city level and enabled community-based organizations to manage operations. JTPA instead empowered state governors with primary budget authority and setup private business councils, which planned the training programs at the local level. Third, the Reagan program fundamentally changed the discourse around job training. Rather than being part of a one-two punch to get people back to work, it set up unemployment and poverty as personal failures. Only through filing individual skills deficits—especially in “soft skills,” such as discipline, punctuality, loyalty and “work ethic”—could the disproportionately Black and Latino poor and unemployed move into the middle class. The impact on communities of color and women was grim. To begin with, funding was woefully inadequate, enough to serve only 2 percent of the eligible population. Because the federal government paid training providers for their services when they met certain outcomes, widespread “creaming” occurred by the program operators. People of color and women were skipped over as providers recruited white male workers to their programs, knowing that the latter population suffered the least in terms of barriers to employment. As a result, Black enrollment in job training fell by half in JTPA’s first year. Latino participation dropped even further. Two studies found that two-thirds of the on-the-job trainees were white men. “Green job training is subject to the same critique as the JTPA,” says Lafer. “Green jobs are like a mantra, but nobody knows what they are or where they are.” Wherever they are, there aren’t currently enough of them for the people that want them. Instead of continuing to pour money into training for green jobs that don’t exist, what the country needs is investments in large-scale job creation, one that will put people of color and women to work—in green jobs. Jason Smith perhaps says it best. “We need to get back to [being] a producing country, where we make things and then sell it to other countries,” Smith concludes. “So much money has been given to corporations, I just want a piece of it, I just want a job.” Yvonne Liu is a senior research associate of the Applied Research Center
violence_recession_033110Originally posted on ColorLines.com Our economic crisis is about a lot more than lost jobs and evaporating 401Ks. It’s closing off options for women in abusive relationships. By Daisy Hernández Today marks the end of Women’s History Month and I spent these last couple of weeks at colleges across the country talking about feminism, racial justice and media. From Michigan to Florida to Minnesota, I heard students debate what activism looks like for their generation while fielding their questions about immigration and hearing their fears that when graduation comes they might not find a job. The conversation that stayed with me though took place in Michigan, a state where the economy has imploded spectacularly. A student at Eastern Michigan University, Laura Hoehner, 24, works part-time counseling women who are getting beat up by their boyfriends or husbands. Sometimes the violence is physical; always it’s emotional and psychological. Increasingly, she says, it’s economic. “He has the job; she doesn’t. She has to ask for an allowance,” says Laura. “He gives her X amount for groceries. He’s the dad in the picture.” She points to one of her clients as an example. The woman had given birth to the couple’s first child and her partner’s family gave him $300 to help with groceries. But her partner, who received the cash, lied and said it was only $100, only enough to buy milk, eggs, juice and a Swifter mop. The new mom was left to dip into what money she had to provide groceries for the family of three. Money had become one more weapon for the abuser. Advocates call it “economic abuse” and it’s part of the rise in domestic violence that they report happening nationwide in this recession. The last data available on the issue is a 2004 report by the National Institute of Justice, an agency of the Department of Justice, which found that when unemployment rates go up among men so does violence against women. This is of particular significance for Black and Latino communities where unemployment rates are in the double digits. Stats on domestic violence though aren’t released every month along with unemployment data. As such, we’re trained to place the major issues of the day into their little silos: Women’s rights over here. Job issues over there. Health care to the left and the war in Afghanistan to the right. But the stories Laura shared with me suggest that if we don’t pay attention to the so-called women’s issues then our chances at a real economic recovery are nil because creating more Dunkin Donuts-type jobs isn’t going to save women (or anyone else for that matter). Last month, for example, our ColorLines video team released a half hour TV show on race and the economy. In it, Tisha, a single Black mom in Connecticut, spoke about reaching a point where she had to go back to her child’s father, an abusive partner. In one of the show’s most poignant moments, she said she felt she had no other option because she knew he could help pay the bills. Low-wage jobs—in the absence of access to higher education, child care and a political education—simply keeps women vulnerable. In Michigan, one of Laura’s clients left her abuser and moved in with a sister. Now that her sister’s losing her house in a foreclosure, the young woman is trying to decide if she should go back to the abusive ex or move to a shelter. And then there’s the safety plan. Safety plans are what advocates create with women in domestic violence situations. The idea is to have a plan in place for when a woman is ready to leave. This can mean putting an extra set of keys, copies of birth certificates and clothes in a safe spot like the trunk of the car. Ideally of course it means putting aside any little bit of money, a task that’s hard with low-wage jobs and impossible when those jobs disappear. These problems won’t go away because Walmart or Starbucks start opening more stores and hiring more people. As Siobhan Brooks wrote in a ColorLines essay years ago, when she took part in union negotiations she realized she had never thought of making demands on any system. It was a classic moment of the feminist personal is political ethos, of realizing that what a person can fight for at work is closely tied to what they believe they can have in their personal lives. And men need this just as much. The year my own father started working as a janitor after almost two decades in manufacturing as a union member, he seemed to come undone in new ways, snapping at me when I just asked about his work. I don’t think it was that cleaning other people’s dirty plates alone hurt his self-esteem, although clearly it did, but it was also that there was no collective work, no union, no organizing, no sense that he could do anything about what was happening. In the end, economic problems, as well as domestic violence, are expansive and complex. If our solutions are going to last—and if we really want to honor the histories of the women who’ve come before—then we need to step outside the silos and start thinking about these problems in ways that are much more intricate.
Obama_HealthcareBillOriginally published on ColorLines Yes, if you think of it as a first step toward fixing a broken system rather than landmark legislation. By Flávio Casoy The health care bill that President Obama is signing today is a far cry from our initial vision for universal medical coverage. Undocumented immigrants remain excluded; anti-choice forces cynically use health care to advance their misogynist agenda; and the paradigm that health care is about profit, not people, remains unchallenged. Did we lose? Have we failed? No. This legislation is a first step in fixing a broken health care system and improving the lives of millions of people of color. When it goes into effect, the law will expand the eligibility of the Medicaid program to people earning 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or less (currently that’s set at $18,310 in yearly income for a family of three). Many states have more generous eligibilities than the federal one, but others do not. The federal expansion then sets a new floor for states. This will be especially meaningful in conservative states since now everyone in every state earning 133 percent of the Federal Poverty Level or less is eligible for Medicaid. The legislation will also expand Medicaid eligibility to adults who have no children and who’ve faced more restricted access in the past; this will be especially important for younger Americans and men of color. According to estimates from the Congressional Budget Office, almost a quarter of Americans who don’t have health insurance today will be covered under Medicaid over the next 10 years. The Medicaid expansion is critical for communities of color. More than a half of the country’s uninsured are people of color, according to data from the Kaiser Family Foundation, and that rate would be even higher if it weren’t for public insurance programs such as Medicaid. Twenty percent of nonelderly Blacks are uninsured and 30 percent depend on Medicaid or other public programs. The numbers are comparable among Latinos and Native Americans: 26 percent and 28 percent, respectively, use Medicaid or similar programs. Whites, by comparison, have greater access to jobs and as a result to employer-based insurance. Only 13 percent of whites depend on public programs and only 13 percent live without insurance. What the new law doesn’t do for Medicaid unfortunately is resolve problems at the state level. Each state decides how to administer the program with federal dollars. While the legislation increases how much the federal government is spending on Medicaid it doesn’t alter how much or how little states are putting in. The program’s chronic budget problems have to do with states not being ale to afford their piece of the pie and the federal law doesn’t address this. This also means that depending on the state they’re in, patients may still find it hard to get a doctor who takes Medicaid. Two other features of the new law will be important for communities of color. Employers with more than 200 employees will now have to offer health benefits to all of them, even low-income ones, and those with at least 50 employees would be required to pay a fine if they don’t offer health insurance. Also, businesses with at least 50 employees who impose a waiting period before employees can enroll in coverage would have a sliding scale fine based on the length of the waiting period. This will be important for people of color who are overrepresented in these low-income jobs. One of the most discussed elements of the new legislation is a ban on denying or rescinding coverage based on pre-existing conditions. As it stands now, private insurance companies may deny or cut off people who are older or sicker if they had a medical illness prior to application or enrollment. Given that communities of color are more likely to experience chronic illness because of a lifetime of being denied health care access, these insurance industry practices disproportionately harm them. The proposal would ban this practice and make it easier for people to get and to keep health insurance. While the legislation President Obama is signing today is less than our desired ideal, this will be a lifeline for millions of people of color who are now blocked from getting health care services they desperately need. The real danger moving forward will be in thinking that the work is done when in fact it has just begun. Flávio Casoy, MD is a resident psychiatrist in San Francisco, CA
Re-printed from ColorLines By Erasmo Guerra Despite Mexico’s bad press, one writer finds that the border spirit lives on. February 19, 2010 At the San Antonio bus station, the Americanos bus idled in lane two. I got on line behind a young guy on crutches, a desert-camouflage rucksack on his back that read “National Guardsmen Since 1836.” Overhead announcements continued to blare for the McAllen/Brownsville/Matamoros route now boarding. A second-generation Texas-Mexican, I grew up on the U.S.-Mexico border and have been living in New York City for the past 16 years. All last year I kept up with the papers and watched the nightly reports about the increasing border violence and the spread of swine flu. I endured the fear mongers who insisted on more agents, even troops, and those who made taco jokes at our expense. Even my mother, who still lived in the Rio Grande Valley, made me wince when she admitted in her Sunday night phone calls that things back home had “gotten bien ugly.” I remembered a different place, where panaderías sold gingerbread pig cookies and going across the border was just a routine, care-free activity to buy birthday piñatas and string puppets for us kids, discount cartons of Salems for my father and sacks of candied pumpkin for my mother. So while I was in San Antonio recently, I decided to head back to see just how bad and broken the border was. Climbing aboard the bus, I nearly tore my pressed, button-down shirt on a cheap, jerry-rigged clothes hanger sticking out of the inside panel of the front door. It’s something I wouldn’t have noticed growing up because do-it-yourself fixes were such a regular part of our make-do life along the border. We baked enchiladas with blocks of government cheese, insulated house windows with aluminum foil and drove around with gallon jugs of water in our used cars to pour into overheated radiators. On the bus, I took a seat in the second row, and a young couple with a toddler took the seat behind me—only the man explained to the driver, "M'just dropping her off, sir.” The couple kissed, and the man reassured the woman, "Call y'later." On his way back out, he told the driver, "Dios lo bendiga." The young woman pulled her daughter to the window and went through a mom and daughter ventriloquist act, saying, "Bye, Papi. I love you." Our driver, in a white button-down shirt, black clip-on tie hanging to one side and a bright yellow vest worn over the whole uniform, chatted in Spanish with one of the other drivers. They commiserated about their nagging coughs, speaking of them as if they were women they couldn't shake. "N'hombre, hasta limón con miel l’hecho—y no me deja,” one said. Just as our driver was about to shut the door and take us on our way, the other driver called out, "Tienes uno más." A Mexican-Mexican, as we used to say, meaning he was from across the river. Wearing a pair of Wranglers, a straw cowboy hat in his hands, the man stood quietly at the bottom of the staircase. "Vámonos," the driver hollered before the man even dared come aboard. He took a seat in the front row, but not before politely asking the driver if it was okay to sit there. 

"Cómo que no," the driver said and got behind the wheel. Pulling out of the station and into the downtown streets, the young mother was already phoning the man she’d left behind, alternately scolding her daughter—"Gorda, siéntate, porque vamos ir b'bye!"—and pulling her over to speak on the cell phone with her daddy. I looked over at the man who'd come in last. I've always been startled by men like these—men like my father, who grew up picking cotton and was weathered from too much work in the sun, his skin now like that of a battered leather wallet, but who still managed to clean up good. This man wore a gray polo that matched his trim mustache and his salt-and-pepper hair. His straw hat looked so pristine that he might've just bought it for that trip south. He looked, as we say, bien arregla'o, bien planchadito. It would've made any mama proud. It’s why I’d dressed up, too. As the miles ticked off and the landscape went from suburban monotony to dense thickets of mesquite and nopal, I didn't think we'd make so much as a stop during the four-hour ride down to the Valley. But in Falfurrias, just before the border checkpoint and 50 miles from the border wall that is being built, the bus pulled into one of those sprawling service stations, and the driver announced, "Fifteen minutes. Quince minutos." After the break, all of us back in our seats and ready to get back on the road, the driver couldn’t get the door closed. He used one hand to pull the wire hanger and the other to push a button on the dashboard. "Ay, puertita," he said, as he tried again and the hydraulic mechanism failed with a defeated sigh. He turned to the Mexican in the gray shirt and explained that he’d been assured he wouldn't have trouble with the door. He was told he’d make it all the way to Matamoros. "Allí estan los mecánicos," he said. While the driver pulled on the door, the Mexican pushed the dashboard button, and the rest of us sat in silence—except for la Gorda, who began to act up and got a new name to match her attitude. "Pórtate bien, Chiflada,” her mother snapped. We needed more than the blessing we’d been given at the start of the trip, so the driver got off in search of help and returned with a crowbar. Back inside the bus, he tried to pry the door shut, while outside a much older man and some kids, whom I took to be his grandchildren, watched. They were dressed in camouflage, the old man standing tall in a hunter's cap, as if they were on their way to shoot paloma, venado or javelina. This was what I’d come for: to see these faces and hear these voices all around me. It proved that we were still the people I knew us to be, not the terrible outlaws they reported on TV, which I had nearly believed. Having been away from home for so many years and so many miles, I was being reminded as I drew closer that even when certain things in our life circumstances seemed broken, our spirit wasn’t. Once the bus door was forced shut, the crowbar was passed through the driver's window to the grandfather and the kids and the young father who came around later—all three generations of one South Texas family. Starting the bus engine, the driver called to the Mexican behind him. "Gracias por tu ayuda." "No, pos, de nada," the Mexican said with the typical humility that has always bewildered my American need to take credit. But it was more than nothing. He’d brought us that much closer to getting home. And for the rest of the ride, I was hopeful that we’d figure a way to hold it together and keep going. Erasmo Guerra is a writer living in New York City.
Cross-posted to Jack and Jill Politics President Obama says the stimulus saved or created 2 million jobs in 2009. But is the recovery really working? The American dream of good jobs and strong communities is still just a dream for too many. The unfair economy hurts certain groups more, and that ends up hurting everyone. From the bottom line to the unemployment line to the color line, watch a new in-depth program from Link TV and Applied Research Center for a closer look. “ColorLines: Race and Economic Recovery” follows communities making ends meet in The Great Recession. The program narrates the moving story of Tisha, mother of three in Connecticut, facing a social safety net shredded further by the crisis. Then the program goes to Los Angeles where community-based organization SCOPE has mobilized to win green jobs for communities of color. This half-hour magazine-style show is hosted by Chris Rabb, founder of Afro-Netizen and author of forthcoming book Invisible Capital: How Unseen Forces Shape Entrepreneurial Opportunity. The in-studio guest is Tram Nguyen, a journalist who has written extensively on racial justice and author of We Are All Suspects Now: Untold Stories from Immigrant America After 9/11. Tram is former editor of ColorLines magazine and now works at the California Reinvestment Coalition. Watch the full episode.
Orginally posted on ColorLines.com By Jordan Flaherty Can a social justice candidate win an election in the new New Orleans? January 28, 2010 On New Year’s Eve in 2004, nine months before Hurricane Katrina hit, bouncers in the Bourbon Street club Razzoo’s killed a Black college student named Levon Jones. The outrage led to near-daily protests outside the club, threats of a Black tourist boycott of the city and a mayor’s commission to explore the issue of racism in the French Quarter. Despite widely publicized advance warning, a “secret shopper” audit of the Quarter found rampant discrimination in local businesses. Bars had different dress codes, admission charges and drink prices—all based on whether the patron was Black or white. James Perry oversaw that audit as director of the organization Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center and he’s now running for mayor of New Orleans. The election will be on Saturday, February 6 (with a run-off in March if no candidate wins more than 50 percent) and is shaping up to be an historic milestone in the city’s post-Katrina political realignment. After more than 30 years of Black mayors, the best-funded and highest-polling of the 11 candidates in this election, Mitch Landrieu, is white, and the seven-person city council may be heading towards a 5-2 white majority. Outside of New Orleans, progressives and liberals are excited about Perry. They’re receiving emails, Tweets and FaceBook updates about his progressive platform. But in New Orleans, the candidate who seems to have the most to offer the city is relatively unknown. That’s surprising given Perry’s work over the years. Since Hurricane Katrina, he’s testified before Congress about the obstacles to rebuilding New Orleans and the larger Gulf Coast region. He’s also overseen lawsuits and reports that have challenged housing discrimination in the city and its surrounding suburbs. A charismatic speaker with a broad and deep knowledge of the issues facing the city, Perry has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars—mostly through small donations—over the last year. According to polls, though, his campaign hasn’t caught on with voters, many of whom still don’t seem to know about his accomplishments. “I think people don’t know that James was behind all those things,” said political consultant Vincent Sylvain, who’s not working with Perry’s campaign. “You have to remember that when he engaged in these fights it was not for glory.” Political analyst and Xavier University professor Silas Lee agreed. “The public seems less receptive to a candidate with less political experience,” he said, explaining that this tendency has made people lean towards Landrieu, a Democratic candidate who has advertised his connections in Washington DC and Baton Rouge as important assets. Political contests in New Orleans often pivot on racial divides that are unpredictable. When Mayor Ray Nagin was first elected in 2002, he won (against another Black candidate) with 80 percent of the white vote and about 40 percent of the Black vote. But when he won re-election in 2006, it was with about 80 percent of the Black vote and about 20 percent of the white vote. This election, all the candidates are stressing their abilities to heal this racial divide. With many of the city’s poor people dispersed, analysts like Sylvain question whether a progressive candidate can win in the new New Orleans. Perry is campaigning hard, appearing at several events every day and striving to fundraise enough to be competitive. “We have to challenge this system,” he said in an interview at the city’s Urban League office after the fourth major debate in three days. “And if we don’t get a progressive mayor, I don’t know if we ever challenge the system in a real way.” He’s the appealing candidate among social justice activists, who note that he’s the only candidate to talk about the city’s problems as systemic. Discussing the city’s tourism-based economy, Perry said: “New Orleans has a system that is almost designed to be oppressive.” He described a workforce subsisting on minimum-wage jobs and a public housing system that subsidizes employers who pay unfair salaries. “If we paid people a living wage, then we could really transform our city,” said Perry. A native New Orleanian, Perry founded a fair housing center in Mississippi before becoming director of the Greater New Orleans Fair Housing Action Center in 2005. His central promise is to reduce the city’s murder rate by 40 percent in his first term, saying he would do this by focusing the police department’s resources on what he says are “one or two hundred individuals” who are responsible for most of the violent crime in the city and away from the nonviolent offenses that he says the department currently focuses on. He said that if he was elected and did not meet his promised goal he wouldn’t run for re-election. Perry has also promised to attack blight by “making sheriff sales a priority,” as well as offering homeowners counseling and financial assistance to help them keep their homes. After eight years of Nagin (who is prevented by term limits from running again), dissatisfaction with the mayor is at the highest point in the history of mayoral polling in New Orleans, and the electorate seems ready for a new direction. Perry represents a marked change from Nagin, who was the city’s first businessman mayor. For Perry’s supporters, the lack of local traction has been frustrating. He’s racked up some high-profile endorsements from national figures like Henry Louis Gates Jr., musical legend Dr. John and Phoenix Suns All-Star Grant Hill. The Nation magazine endorsed him, and Philadelphia Mayor Michael Nutter hosted a benefit for him, but no Louisiana politicians have endorsed him. Perry supports the right of gays and lesbians to marry legally, but the city’s LGBT organizations have endorsed other candidates or stayed silent. The Forum For Equality PAC, the largest of those political organizations, made a joint endorsement of two other candidates with less progressive positions on gay and lesbian issues, leaving some onlookers to think that they’re hedging their bets with the candidates that seem more likely to win. While Perry’s writing has been featured in The Nation and on the Huffington Post blog—often with his partner, Melissa Harris Lacewell, a scholar and regular guest on MSNBC—he’s received little local media attention. In fact, many observers say that the local daily paper has decided that Landrieu has already won, and national press like the New York Times have followed their lead. But with 11 candidates running for mayor, the race is certainly not decided. Adding to the unpredictability, the election falls not only during Mardi Gras season—a time of parades, balls and festivities around the city—but also the same weekend that the city’s enormously popular football team, the Saints, will be playing in the Super Bowl. Analysts are expecting historically low turnout for this election. Mayoral candidate Troy Henry, a former Enron executive who polls say is leading among the Black candidates, has criticized the press coverage of the campaign, which he says has anointed Landrieu the front-runner and declared the election all but decided. At a recent news conference, Henry told the assembled print and television reporters: “There’s not an African American among you in the press today. How you interpret what you say and how African American candidates like myself interpret what you say is different.” Landrieu, the current Lieutenant Governor and brother of Louisiana’s U.S. Senator, does hold a commanding lead in most polls. This is Landrieu’s third run at the office, which was held by his father from 1970-1978. The elder Landrieu was the last white mayor of New Orleans and is often credited with integrating city hall. Landrieu’s father ran city hall during a time of changing demographics in New Orleans. Through the 1960s and ‘70s, as integration took hold, the city’s white population fled to the suburbs. The white population of New Orleans dropped about 160,000 from 1960 to 1980, while the Black population increased by 40,000. The city became, as Mayor Nagin famously said in 2006, a “Chocolate City.” In the aftermath of Katrina, the trend has in many ways reversed. Although the exact changes in New Orleans’s population will not be known until after this year’s census is completed, the city seems to have lost tens of thousands more Black residents than white residents. On WBOK, a Black-owned radio station that has become the unofficial voice of Black politics in the city, callers expressed fears that white New Orleanians are making a political power grab. The station’s morning call-in show is dedicated almost exclusively to the issues around the upcoming election, and it offers a helpful if unscientific perspective on the community’s feelings about the upcoming election. Listening to the show or reading the pages of the city’s three Black-owned newspapers, it appears that Perry has failed to catch on among Black voters. Perhaps this is because he is not as well-known as Landrieu and doesn’t have the deep pockets of businessman candidates Troy Henry and John Georges, who have less than $500,000 combined in contributions but have supplemented that total with $1.9 million in personal loans to their campaigns. Perry comes from outside of the city’s Black political power structure, having never worked for a political campaign before or held an elected office. Many voters feel that, at 34, Perry is too young for the position, but this hasn’t hurt him with everyone. Yvette Thierry, the lead organizer with Safe Streets Strong Communities, a grassroots criminal justice reform organization, said that Perry’s youth is an advantage. “We need new voices and new ideas,” she said, adding that she is still an undecided voter. Sylvain agreed that his age does not have to hold Perry back. “I don’t think James has done a good enough job of reminding people that when [former mayor] Marc Morial took office, Marc was only 35,” said Sylvain. “And that has probably been a failure of his campaign.” To Perry, one of his biggest obstacles is a class divide in the Black community. “There are folks who are really focused on the interests of the wealthy and upper-income African American community, and then there are folks like me who are focused on low-income communities and focused on really answering the question of why people are poor and transforming our community.” Perry believes that his work for social justice will catch on with voters by election day, even if the city’s power structure is ready to count him out. Jordan Flaherty is a journalist, an editor of Left Turn Magazine, and a staffer with the Louisiana Justice Institute. He was the first writer to bring the story of the Jena Six to a national audience. Haymarket Press will release his new book, FLOODLINES: Stories of Community and Resistance from Katrina to the Jena Six, in 2010. He can be reached at [email protected].