Magazine article The Nation

Talking about Race in Lafayette; a Louisiana Story

Magazine article The Nation

Talking about Race in Lafayette; a Louisiana Story

Article excerpt

One thing that the verdicts in the Reginald Denny trial, the New York City mayoral election, the Whoopi Goldberg Friars Club roast and kindred recent events drove home is that race is once again a hot-button issue in this country. But the national media reporting on the subject often leaves us with lurid images and heated arguments rather than understanding. Sometimes it's helpful to get away from the mainstream and focus on the problem in an out-of-the-way place--a small city like Lafayette, Louisiana, for example, where I live.

This past summer I had occasion to conduct research for an article in a local publication, The Times of Acadiana, on how relations between the races fare in Lafayette. As it happened, when I was winding up my research, the national media were ritualistically lamenting the failure of Martin Luther King's dream, as he had enunciated it at the March on Washington on August 28, thirty years ago. And so I found myself comparing my data with the media reports of ill-being among African-Americans and violence-prone racial hatred across the land.

Lafayette is the "hub city" of Cajun country in southern Louisiana. It's not your average American boondocks or even a stereotypical Southern town. (The northern, non-Cajun part of the state is like the rest of the South.) It has a majority-white population (70 percent, to 27 percent black) of around 100,000.

Based on little more than my impressions of the civilitry with which the races treat each other here in public and the notion that the largely Catholic population might have derived a measure of tolerance form church teachings, I began my inquiry with a vague belief that race relations might be better than average.

Certainly, some aspects of race relations are. For example, the white supremacist, former Nazi David Duke did not get a majority of white votes in Lafayette in the 1991 governor's race, as he did in most of the rest of the state. (Only the black vote prevented his winning.) Duke's mixture of the Reagan/Bush sanitized racism targeting welfare mothers, Willie Hortons, racial quotas, etc., attracted alarming white acclaim and financial support nationwide.

My assumption was put to the test in interviews with black leaders, including two legislators who represent the now-customary gerrymandered majority-black districts; whites sympathetic to blacks, of whom there are probably more than is the norm in our increasingly tribalized nation; faculty members and students at the University of Southwestern Louisiana (U.S.L.), enrollment 16,500, home of the Ragin' Cajuns; and average black and white citizens. Among the latter, most of the whites were unwilling to be quoted by name. As one told me: "I understand the great danger of giving an interview like this. Anything you say will be held against you by races."

I consulted the census data and read histories of the city and accounts of past race relations. Lafayette, settled in 1775 and part of the Cajun diaspora, has long been a trading and education center. Striking in the history was the story of how Catholics around the turn of the century helped Jews raise money to build a synagogue. When Baptists arrived, Catholics let them use their churches and the Jews their synagogue until the Baptists could build their own house of worship.

Lafayette had, by all accounts, friendly race relations even during the bad old days of segregation. Smaller then, it was a place where blacks and whites knew one another. Old-timers speak of a real interracial sense of community.

This enhanced the early phases of desegregation in the 1960s and 1970s.

But now it is a different story. "Blacks ar more angry and bitter now than I've ever seen them," said Joseph Dennis, local elder statesman of black causes. "They feel everything whites do has a racist purpose." Dennis was not necessarily agreeing with this blanket condemnation, just reporting it from his vantage point as a vice president of the Lafayette chapter of the N. …

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