Don't Call Mitch Landrieu the White Mayor of Black New Orleans

Landrieu has fought hard for racial unity in post-Katrina New Orleans. It's just the city's Latinos who aren't feeling much love.

Mitch Landrieu is serving his second term as mayor of New Orleans, the city's first white mayor since Landrieu's father left the office more than 30 years ago. The Landrieu name is well known in Louisiana politics (U.S. Sen. Mary Landrieu is the mayor's older sister.) Mitch Landrieu's father, Moon Landrieu, is beloved by African-Americans in New Orleans for his role in desegregating the city in the 1970s. For his part, the younger Landrieu has made huge strides in easing racial tensions that surfaced after Hurricane Katrina, although he is sometimes accused of neglecting the city's poorest residents and Latino immigrants. The mayor recently talked to National Journal about how far New Orleans has come since Katrina and the challenges that still lay ahead. This interview was edited for length and clarity.

A lot of people say New Orleans is back. How is the city different than it was before Katrina?

We got hurt really badly; it was the worst man-made disaster in American history. But we have 85 percent of our people back. And the metropolitan area is as big or bigger than before. I feel really good about the fact that so many people came back. We have a very diverse city—it's still a majority African-American. We've seen a large influx of Hispanics, and they've added to the richness and diversity. Then we also have the young people who came and helped us rebuild and have decided to stay, so there's a good vibe in the city, and we've been getting things done. Some people continue to note that not everything is getting done at the same level for everyone, but we're working on that.

The demographics of New Orleans have changed a lot in the past decade. The traditionally African-American city has grown whiter and more Hispanic. How has that affected race relations?

A little bit, not much. New Orleans is a parochial town, so it's always going to have a constant influx of people. We have people of all races, creeds, and colors. So far it has been excellent. There's a good feeling here for the first time in a long time. This city, like other cities across America, struggles with racial issues, but New Orleans has been a beacon of hope. In the last five years I've seen a marked difference in how people of different backgrounds work together. This is not post-racial America, and Ferguson is a reminder of that. But we are working together for the first time in a long time.

You are the first white mayor of New Orleans since your father left office more than 30 years ago. How did you reach African-American voters?

First of all, that's arguable. I don't see myself as a white mayor or the city as a black city. I completely push back on the idea, because white mayors and black mayors both face the same challenges and the same work. New Orleans has never been a white city and black city. It's a melting pot. The people of the city have received me that way, and we are making this a place for everyone.

Do you feel pressure to fulfill the legacy of your father, who was known for desegregating New Orleans?

It's not pressure. I learned from him and from everybody else, like Dr. Norman Francis. He's the president of Xavier University and has been my father's best friend for years. He's like a father to me. That's the way we learned how to live. I just finished dedicating the Bartholomew Golf Course, which was the first golf course designed by an African-American. It's one of the spaces where whites and blacks have congregated for many years in New Orleans.

Many undocumented immigrants who were recruited to rebuild Katrina say they now feel terrorized and unwelcome in the city, especially because of police cooperation with federal immigration agents. What are your thoughts on that?

I question that statement. There are two opposite issues at the core of it. We are grateful to everyone who helped after Katrina, from the foreign investment and the volunteers, and of course the Latinos who did a lot of reconstruction work. That is separate from whether or not someone is here illegally. Now, I'm in favor of comprehensive immigration reform. But we are a nation of laws, and we have to find a happy medium. That has nothing to do with disrespecting someone. You cannot conflate illegal immigration with whether or not someone is welcome here. I want to make a pathway to citizenship work, but we can't just open the borders. I'm glad that the Latino community is here, and we really need to find the answer to immigration reform, so I hope Congress will do something sooner rather than later.

I think one of the biggest concerns immigrants have is the idea that police are racially profiling them and that the city allows police to work with U.S. Immigration and Customs Enforcement.

I don't think police are racially profiling people. Our police department is not about being a local arm of immigration enforcement. People should follow the law and should not be racially profiled; they should be judged on their behavior and crimes. But the police department has the right to make sure that the public is protected. There are a lot of folks who yell and scream about immigration enforcement, but it's the law. What we have to do is find a way for individuals who are not here legally to find a legal path.

Local Vietnamese fishermen and business owners are glad to see so much economic development in the region. What is your relationship with the Vietnamese community?

We have a wonderful Vietnamese community that has been around for many years, and many of them are shrimpers. They produce a huge amount of the seafood for Louisiana and the nation. After the BP oil spill, it was important for them to get compensated. I can't say everything was perfect, but we were able to help get many of them help.

The city has cut back on public housing, and about half of working-age black men are unemployed. What are you doing to make sure poor black communities benefit from the flood of investment in New Orleans?

You are confusing two issues. Katrina and Rita did not cause every problem in the city. We had an income-inequality problem long before that. It's absolutely a fact that African-American men have not had the same opportunities and that this country has done a terrible job of connecting them with jobs. I have been working on this through our Pathways to Prosperity initiative. We are focusing on African-American males who need work and making sure that they are benefiting from the millions of dollars coming into New Orleans. We have to identify them by name, create the jobs, and train them—and that's what we are doing now.

National Journal recently visited New Orleans to see how the city has changed in the nine years since Hurricane Katrina displaced thousands of African-American families and drew thousands of Latino immigrants to rebuild the city. In the coming weeks, Next America will publish a series of stories about the people who are redefining the future of this iconic city.