Guest column: Promote equity for all New Orleanians


New Orleans is turning 300, and during this Tricentennial year, the city is alive, vibrant, and busy doing what it does best – celebrating the people, food, music, culture and joie de vivre that are uniquely New Orleans. It is also a time to reflect on the past 300 years, take stock of the city today, and lay plans for an even brighter future.

Will this finally be the year New Orleans uplifts black women and black birth?

Three hundred years ago, the city was founded on the principle that not all people are created equal – its bricks laid, its streets paved, and its economy established on the backs of those who were bought and sold as property. Three hundred years later, inequality in the city remains, and the imbalance of power – accumulated over generations – means that not all New Orleanians have the resources to make healthy choices and the opportunities to live long lives.

The ability to raise a family in safe and stable housing, to eat healthy foods, to visit a doctor or get medicine when needed, to pursue high-quality education through college and beyond are taken for granted by some and distinctly out of reach for others. Whole communities of people who call New Orleans home are still today denied a fair shot at a happy, healthy life from the very moment they are born into a city that forgot to care.

All of these factors manifest into two horrific statistics detailed in our report on the challenge, researched by me, Maeve Wallace, of Tulane University, and Joia Crear-Perry, of the National Birth Equity Collaborative:

Black women in New Orleans die during pregnancy and childbirth at a rate two times that of white women. Black babies die before reaching their first birthday at a rate three times that of white babies.

The reasons for these discrepancies are not inherent genetic differences between white and black residents; there are none. And these trends are not unique to New Orleans or Louisiana; they are evident in cities and states across the nation. Instead, they are a symptom of a society that does not value all of its members equally.

The resilience and strength of the people of New Orleans is undeniable, affirmed by what they have endured over centuries of traumas, both natural and unnatural. Today, harnessing that strength to uplift women and children’s health and well-being can make New Orleans the leading example for the rest of the country.

Achieving this goal will require listening to what black women want and need to be healthy.

It will require implementing policies that reduce economic inequality and ensure equal access to affordable, quality education, health and social services. It will require policies and programs that guarantee support for all families connected by their desire to nurture, love, and support each other. It will require electing officials concerned about ensuring fairness of opportunity for their constituents. And it will require holding them – and all of us – accountable for these unacceptable losses of life in this beautiful city.

Critically important bills under consideration at the Legislature this year include proposals to raise the minimum wage, extend equal pay for women protections, and guarantee financial support for higher education to high-achieving, low-income students. Each one represents a step toward promoting economic opportunity and security for every New Orleanian, supporting their ability to live healthy productive lives. Citizen engagement with policymakers around these issues will ensure their passage and prove that we are a city ready to stand together and uplift each other for the next 300 years. The incoming mayor – a woman, for the first time in the city’s history – and an incoming City Council increasingly reflective of the city’s diversity can build upon the previous administration’s progress and set a course for this vision of the future.

What is past is prologue. Now, we have the opportunity to make history, not repeat it.

Katherine Theall, a member of the Scholars Strategy Network, is a faculty member in the Department of Global Community Health and Behavioral Sciences at Tulane University and director of the Mary Amelia Douglas-Whited Community Women’s Health Education Center.