The public commemoration of the 10th anniversary of Katrina is over. It is easy to conclude that the magic of New Orleans is back, and in some ways better than it was before the hurricane. Yet, those in the forefront of attempts at racial healing, transformation and sustainable reconciliation remind us of the need for caution in our assessment. While there is an admirable emphasis on binding up the wounds and building a spirit of community, we too easily overlook the many dimensions of reconciliation that are required to build a lasting and authentic community.
While serving as United States Ambassador to South Africa at the beginning of the launch of the new democracy, I often heard from Nelson Mandela and Desmond Tutu that enduring reconciliation requires both personal and social transformation. If a sustainable spirit of community is to be developed in New Orleans, far more people will need to come to grips with historical illusions, dismantle a legacy of deceptions, and eliminate mis-teachings about the past. Individual reconciliation must include a rebalancing of the self, what one wise South African called negotiating with one’s memory and deciding which is to have the last word.
The second element of reconciliation required in New Orleans goes beyond the personal to the communal. It is about creating a caring space for communication, providing opportunities for careful listening and deep conversations that enable people with profound differences to hear each other, respect each other and begin the difficult work of building new relationships. This is far more than simply agreeing to have coffee or a glass of wine together. It is an attempt to reconcile conflicting images of the past, coming to grips with what divides us in order to probe more deeply what needs to be done to unify us.
For all of our oneness in spirit, the touchstone of human interaction begins with the human community. And that is why the South Africans saw the third dimension of reconciliation as political. Different kinds of conflict require different forms and ways of reconciliation. Political reconciliation is not dependent on the kind of intimacy that other forms of reconciliation may demand. Rather statecraft and politics require peaceful co-existence. Forgiveness may come later, after the creation of confidence and the building of trust.
The fourth element or form of reconciliation required in New Orleans is economic. I heard Desmond Tutu often say that “in South Africa the whole process of reconciliation has been placed in very considerable jeopardy by the enormous disparities between the rich and the poor. The huge gaps between the haves and the have-nots pose the greatest threat to reconciliation and stability.” For those in South Africa and the United States who may be inclined to miss the meaning of Tutu’s words, he goes on to say “Unless houses replace the hovels and shacks in which most blacks live, unless blacks gain access to clean water, electricity, affordable health care, decent education, good jobs and a safe environment – things which a vast majority of the whites have –we can just as well kiss reconciliation good bye.”
These are not the words we tend to hear quoted from Tutu by those seeking reconciliation in Louisiana or elsewhere in the United States. There is a fascination with the ability of both South African and African American victims to forgive, but very little is said about the need for economic reconciliation between the victims of past wrongs and those who have benefitted.
As the former chair of the Louisiana Disaster Recovery Foundation, I take pride in the many ways in which we helped strengthen civil society, empowered neighborhoods and supported the development of new, often younger, leaders who played an essential role in rebuilding New Orleans. But I remain concerned about that part of the city still under the radar in this tale of two cities; one doing remarkably well and the other still struggling.
Ten years ago, Hurricane Katrina gave poverty and inequality a human face. What we saw was far more than the devastation caused by broken levies and faulty engineering. Katrina exposed preexisting conditions that were equally disturbing: poverty at its worse, inadequate housing, inadequate schools, inadequate medical services for the poor and the elderly, to name just a few of the pathologies that stunned the world. Far too many of these conditions still exist.
The historian Arthur Schlesinger once wrote that “The America society is neither fixed nor final. We are a nation that is always in the making.” This is certainly true of Louisiana. We cannot stand on our laurels about how New Orleans has been rebuilt. There are many areas in which the whole state of Louisiana needs to be remade. This will require economic reconciliation.