Tuesday, November 9, 2010


Rev. Torin T. Sanders, Ph.D.

I once heard that the legendary Andrew Young, sometime after the assassination of Martin Luther King, said that it was “now time to integrate the money”. What this statement underscored was that the fight for civil rights was not the end, but the means to an end. As degrading and humiliating as segregation was, it was still not enough to be able to walk through the front door of a hotel or to sit at a lunch counter. We wanted also to be able to afford to spend the night and to pay for the meal. That fight – the battle for economic parity – is still only just beginning.

It is within this context that the battle of Richards and Metro to maintain their sanitation contracts with the City of New Orleans should be understood. It is why Richards and Metro mean so much to so many of us. We remember our history and that history informs our understanding of the present. African-Americans helped to build this city, largely for free as unpaid slaves and laborers. When slavery ended and the curtain closed on the period of Reconstruction, a time during which African-Americans began in earnest to participate politically and economically, we entered another hell called Jim Crow, legal segregation – the reinstallment of White supremacy in EVERY area of life, including economically. We were now free to be poor, free to be exploited economically, free to be servants and maids, free to be second class, free to be lynched if we acted as though we were entitled to fair treatment in any aspect of life. Space does not permit a full treatment of this topic here, but interested readers should explore chapter six of the book entitled Long Memory written by noted historians Mary Frances Berry and John Blassingame.

That is why over a hundred years after slavery had ended, Dr. King declared in the historic March on Washington speech that the Negro had come to cash a check, a check “which has come back marked insufficient funds”. That was 1963. Here it is 2010. Five years ago the whole world witnessed that African-Americans, in New Orleans at least, had not progressed very far from the poverty which had marked our past. Despite being a majority African-American city, African-Americans have yet to achieve any semblance of real economic power. Our rate of poverty – twice the national average. The rate of black unemployment – above the national average. New Orleans is known for its port, its tourism – yet African Americans have a miniscule presence in either of these industries as employers and owners. We clean hotels, we don’t own them; we drive cabs but we don’t own the companies; we unload ships and containers, but we don’t own them or the docks where the work is done; and for years, many years, we picked up the city’s trash, but we never owned the company that had the contract – until a few years ago. Ironically, even this opportunity came only in the midst of an unprecedented crisis where others who were able to bid didn’t even see the work as a worthwhile risk.

This is why Richards and Metro mean so much. Let me be clear. No one wants to pay more for a service than what it’s worth. But the data says that’s not the issue. Metro charges $18.15 per household and Richards charges $22.00 per household. Baton Rouge residents pay $19.00. St. Tammany residents pay between $24.00 to $30.00. Residents in cities such as Atlanta and Tampa pay over $25.00 per household. No one wants to pay a company that renders poor service. But no one says that’s the issue either. No one wants the city to do business with companies which received their contracts in a questionable manner. But that’s not the issue either. Well, what about the fact that we just can’t afford the service? That may be plausible were it not for the fact that the Mayor’s proposed 2011 budget adds an additional $8 million to the Mayor’s office and an additional $11 million to the Chief Administrative Office (CAO).

I do not believe Mayor Landrieu is racist or a white supremacist. Quite the contrary. However, given the facts and the history presented here, it is safe to say that his actions, if successful, would be a critical setback to the cause and interest of African American economic advancement in the city of New Orleans. Metro and Richards mean more to African-Americans than just the companies that pick up our trash. They represent a giant step forward, they signify new possibility for a people once denied, their presence indicates that African-Americans have arrived as a people to be serious players in the economy of New Orleans – a city whose beginnings we helped to build. To threaten them is to threaten all of our economic viability. To put them and their businesses at risk so freely and cavalierly is to treat us all with the same disrespect. That is unacceptable. And we should all remember.

Dr. Torin T. Sanders is a licensed clinical social worker, an ordained minister, an experienced family therapist, parent educator, mediator and a mentor trainer. For over 13 years, Dr. Sanders has served as pastor of The Sixth Baptist Church, organized in 1858. Dr. Sanders earned his bachelor's degree from Howard University in Washington, D.C. He graduated magna cum laude and was admitted to Phi Beta Kappa. He earned both his master's degree and Ph.D. in social work from Tulane University. He has served as an adjunct faculty member at both Southern University at New Orleans and Tulane University schools of social work.

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