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New Orleanians go to Atlanta, then to China

Guest post by Andre M. Perry

Cities’ abilities to be resilient in the face of disasters will be the primary determinant of whether they retain their population. From New Orleans to various cities in the Middle East to London; major disasters are prone to occur in urban areas because of their inequitable pasts. However, city resiliency and their consequent future success will be based on how equitable they become before and after major crisis events.

By 2050, most of the world’s population will live in urban areas. The majority of those residents will be people of color. Unfortunately, the new majority may not have sustaining shares of power, wealth, and political control if capacity is not built to realize those community ideals. New Orleans has lived with economic and social disparities for decades and survived in spite of these differences as well as debilitating disasters. However, New Orleans will become a mere tourist site for viewing cultural artifacts if we don’t create more equitable environments for underserved populations.

As part of the Just Cities Conference sponsored by the Ford Foundation, New York Times reporter and author Isabel Wilkerson correctly pointed out that population shifts should be considered referendums on the quality of cities. World migration patterns show that people find it necessary to move for work that sustains their families. People are actively pursuing economic and social happiness. For centuries, American cities have been clear destinations for the world, but future urban areas will have to compete on a global stage. Even Americans are looking for better opportunities in Asia, Africa, and Europe.

Corporate influence on our daily lives has grown considerably over the last 30 years. The rights and privileges once ascribed by citizenship or residence are now achieved primarily through employment. Access to quality private and public goods is increasingly becoming more likely depending on what company you work for. As an example of this growing influence, the Louisiana legislature recently voted to allow corporations to purchase seats on a board of a charter school and to guarantee seats for its employees’ children.

If New Orleans wants to attract and retain current and future residents, employers must provide competitive wages and benefits. For generations, New Orleans employers have indirectly profited from high retention rates based on residents’ deep affections for the region. Because folks didn’t move, city dwellers passively undersold themselves.

However, cities are having a harder time retaining residents if they can’t maintain a decent quality of life for them. Katrina evacuees and post-storm transplants exposed to quality systems compound New Orleans’ situation. Expectations are high. If employers aren’t more competitive with their benefit packages even the most die-hard Saints fans will find themselves in Atlanta (By the way, Atlanta had less than 100 murders last year). Municipalities must create business friendly environments that benefit workers. We simply can’t expect gumbo to keep people, especially the poor and working poor, in town.   

Even if you’re mean spirited and would like to see poor people leave New Orleans, the new realities are that cities will be less competitive nationally and globally if we lose population. Consequently, our city’s sustainability will be based on our ability to maximize equity. Injustice and inequity will destroy New Orleans before another storm will.

Collectively, we need to create the southern green economy and participatory governance structures. We need smoother streets made flat by minority-owned businesses. New Orleanians have to invest more into our city’s future--the currently underserved. If not, manufacturing jobs won’t be the only things we lose to China.

Andre Perry, Ph.D. is the Director of Education Initiatives for the Loyola Institute for Quality and Equity in Education and author of The Garden Path: The Miseducation of a City. He can be reached at, or on Twitter @andreperrynola.