LSU has too many Confederates

By Robert Mann

Shortly after prosecutors sent then-Gov. Richard Leche to federal prison for mail fraud in 1940, Louisiana State University officials erased his name from campus. The school’s law school building, completed in December 1937, was named “Leche Hall.” A medallion bearing his profile rested above the building’s main doors.

With Leche in prison, school officials removed the medallion. Above the Corinthian columns on the building’s entrance, workers drew out the large limestone blocks bearing the letters of Leche’s name. They reversed them and shoved them back into place. In a matter of days, the disgraced governor’s name and image vanished from campus.IMG_6024

Seventy-eight years later, it’s time to do the same with Raphael Semmes, whose name adorns one of LSU’s most prominent streets. Semmes was a Confederate admiral and is the subject of a handful of Civil War histories for his exploits. He undoubtedly possessed a great military mind. He is no insignificant figure in Civil War history.

He was, however, a virulent racist who fought ferociously to destroy the Union and preserve slavery. After the war, he was arrested and charged with treason. Although he was never tried, his actions — like those of other Confederate leaders — were treasonous.

Born in Maryland and buried in Alabama, Semmes was not a Louisiana native. In fact, he lived in Louisiana and served on the school’s faculty for less than five months in 1867. And yet LSU accords him the remarkable honor of one of the campus’ most scenic and prominent streets. Raphael Semmes Road is the address of the Student Union, the campus bookstore, the LSU Women’s Center and, ironically, the African American Cultural Center.

Semmes is not the only offensive name on an LSU building or street. As a group of my students learned after conducting a comprehensive inventory of LSU, four buildings and streets on campus are named after Confederates while only three are named for African-Americans. (You can read their research at RenewLSU.org.)

Almost 20 years into the 21st Century, it’s time for Semmes and the other Confederates honored on the LSU campus to go. They have no place on the buildings and streets of a public university that claims to value diversity and inclusion.

My students also discovered that only one academic building displays the name of an African-American, on a campus with a student population that is 12 percent black in a state in which a third of residents are black. That building is A.P. Tureaud Sr. Hall, a grungy classroom building unpopular with students. Tureaud was a great civil rights leader. His son, A.P. Tureaud Jr., was the first black undergraduate student admitted to LSU (in 1953).

I don’t know if Tureaud’s family members are offended their father’s name is affixed to a building afforded so little respect by LSU, but they should be.

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If you can’t speak out for sick kids, quit calling yourself ‘pro-life’

By Robert Mann

It’s hard to find a government program that does more to save innocent lives than the Children’s Health Insurance Program. CHIP and its Louisiana incarnation, LaCHIP, are shining examples of effective, pro-life government initiatives.

Louisiana’s Republican senators and congressional representatives tell us they are pro-life. But the way they have responded to Congress’ recent failure to renew funding for CHIP suggests they are just pro-birth. Once the kids pop out, they’re on their own.

That’s a fair conclusion based on the conspicuous silence of our delegation after Congress allowed the program to expire Sept. 30. Efforts to renew it for another five years are going nowhere after committees in both houses offered different funding plans. It’s not clear when (or if) Congress will resolve those differences.

The program pays for life-saving health care for 8.9 million young Americans, including 121,000 in Louisiana. Since 2003, because of LaCHIP, the percentage of uninsured Louisiana children has plunged from 11.1 percent to 3.8 percent.

The CHIP program supports a range of health services for children 19 and younger, including primary, preventative and emergency care. It also covers immunizations, prescriptions drugs and hospitalization. It saves lives. This should be the easiest government program to fund. And it was until Republicans in Congress let it expire.

Some states have more resources and, therefore, more time before their money dries up. When the federal portion of CHIP vanishes in February 2018, Louisiana must find an extra $31 million — near the end of a fiscal year — to keep the program alive. That means deep cuts to other vital health care services. And in the years after that, the state’s Department of Health and Hospitals says, Louisiana will need an additional $112 million to continue coverage.

Even if Congress restores funding for CHIP, it’s an outrage that so many families with sick kids are agonizing over whether they might end up buried in medical bills or, worse, be forced to forego life-saving treatment.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

How Donald Trump poisons American society, weakens our values

By Robert Mann

Families don’t usually fall apart suddenly. One day, a husband and wife are inseparable. Two years later, they realize they’ve become strangers, after their relationship gradually fell victim to a hundred minor offenses and omissions.

Societies also fray and fail in incremental ways. Like a pot on the stove with a proverbial frog in it, the temperature of societal change inches up. It’s too late to escape when we reach the boiling point.

Perhaps boiling frogs and dissolving families are apt metaphors for what is happening to this country under Donald Trump. It feels we are slowly forsaking values we once treasured and guarded.

It happens. Germany didn’t descend into madness overnight in 1933. Its road to perdition wasn’t an autobahn but a narrow, winding trail of incremental atrocities and compromises that led people to forget and abandon values they once treasured. In different and tragic ways, Thailand, Turkey, Bangladesh and Nicaragua are also abandoning their democracies and betraying their values.

Could the same happen here? Well, it’s already happening.

Every week — sometimes daily — Trump and his acolytes inject the nation’s bloodstream with a drop or two of poison. By itself, each offense does not undermine societal norms or cripple our democracy. Taken together, the accumulation of toxins could render our treasured values meaningless.

Less than two years ago, we could not have imagined a president who would coarsen the nation’s discourse as Trump has in a few months.

Presidents and other public officials once paid a steep price for spewing profanity and racial slurs. Such behavior now feels normal and is applauded by his supporters.

Previous presidents didn’t abuse the bully pulpit to slander American corporations or individuals. They didn’t threaten to prosecute defeated opponents.

Presidents once responded with empathy and compassion to suffering citizens. Can you imagine any previous president attacking the mayor of an American city devastated by a hurricane? Before Trump, it would have been impossible to conceive of a president who would ridicule the mayor of London after a terrorist attack.

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Is Louisiana ignoring its many problems because of institutional racism?

By Robert Mann

It may well be that we will have to repent in this generation. Not merely for the vitriolic words and the violent actions of the bad people, but for the appalling silence and indifference of the good people who sit around and say, ‘Wait on time.'” — Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr.

If 47 percent of our white children lived in poverty, Louisiana would do something about child poverty. If the rate of white women living with an HIV diagnosis were 11.8 times that of black females, Louisiana would declare a public health crisis. If chemical plants were located next to wealthy white neighborhoods, Louisiana would get serious about environmental justice.

If white people were shot and killed by police at a rate far exceeding their share of the state’s population, policing would change quickly. If wealthy people were required to pay a disproportionately high percentage of their incomes in sales taxes, Louisiana would promptly slash that tax.

If payday lenders preyed mostly on white people, the Louisiana Legislature would crack down on this unethical practice. If our prisons were suddenly full of young white men, Louisiana would reform its criminal justice laws overnight. If the median income of white households were half that of black households, Louisiana’s political leaders would pass laws to promote income equality.

Let’s be honest: These problems are not major concerns to most people in Louisiana because they affect primarily African-Americans and other minorities. They aren’t issues that cause most affluent white Louisianians much heartburn or consternation. 

My children have never gone hungry. I’ve never needed a payday loan. There are no chemical plants near my house. Police officers don’t pull me over for no reason. And if I do get stopped, I never fear for my life. I earn enough that sales taxes aren’t the major portion of my tax bill. I don’t worry about contracting HIV.

The problem, however, is I’m in the same boat with all the souls burdened by these and other issues. Cops who are racist aren’t just someone else’s problem. They work for me. The payday lender rips off the poor family with my tacit permission. The sales taxes that punish and crush poor people are high so that my income and property taxes can be a little lower.

There is a term that describes this collective indifference to poverty, disease, discrimination and suffering: institutional racism.

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American can-do vanishes when the NRA check arrives

By Robert Mann

The instinct is common; the pattern is clear: When people die in accidents or from defective or faulty products, Americans are quick to assess the problem and work to prevent it from happening again. For instance:

Whenever a commercial airliner crashes and kills hundreds of people, we determine the cause and work to prevent similar occurrences. That’s why airlines are the world’s safest mode of travel.

On American highways, cars often cross medians and strike oncoming traffic. That’s why many states, including Louisiana, erect barriers to prevent future crashes.

After decades during which more than 40,000 — sometimes 50,000 — people died annually on our highways, federal law in 1968 required automakers to install seat belts in new cars. By 1998, the government also mandated airbags in all new automobiles.

When someone tainted bottles of Tylenol with potassium cyanide in 1981, killing seven people in the Chicago area, it sparked a revolution in the packaging of over-the-counter medication and resulted in the 1983 Federal Anti-Tampering Act.

Following the Sept. 11, 2001, terrorist attacks, the federal government dramatically increased security at airports and on airplanes. 

A would-be shoe bomber tried to blow up a plane on a flight from Paris to Miami in 2001. Today, most U.S. passengers cannot board a commercial jet without removing their shoes.

After 32 infants died in drop-down cribs from 2000 to 2010, the federal Consumer Products Safety Commission (CPSC) banned the manufacture, sale and resale of such cribs.

In the 1980s, more than 6,000 people were injured in lawn dart accidents. In 1982, an errant dart killed a 7-year-old child in California. By 1988, the CPSC banned them in the United States.

Thousands of children once opened medicine bottles and died or became ill after they ingested the contents. Today, child-resistant caps are used for almost all medicine bottles and many other products, such as pesticides and other household chemicals.

Several dozen people, including children, died each year after being locked inside the trunks of cars. In 2001, the federal government required that all new passenger vehicles with trunks must be equipped with an interior release latch. 

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Providing the oil industry with billions in corporate welfare is not Louisiana’s patriotic duty | Robert Mann

By Robert Mann

Louisiana and its politicians have long embraced some unhealthy myths: Corruption in our politics isn’t so bad. Teachers are the real problem with our schools. Poor people are lazy. Climate change is a hoax. Oil is crucial to our economy because it employs so many workers and funds our government.

Few myths have damaged us more than the last one. Our blind allegiance to oil and gas has led to lax or poorly enforced environmental laws. The worst actors in the industry have destroyed our wetlands and poisoned our water.

And our eagerness to subsidize this industry has cost us billions in tax revenue. A 2015 report by the Legislative Auditor found that one exemption from one state tax — the severance tax on horizontal drilling — resulted in the loss of $1.1 billion from 2010 to 2014. Last year, the 27 state tax exemptions Louisiana grants to oil and gas interests amounted to $195 million. In 2012, during the height of the oil boom, the state let slip away $527 million in oil revenue; the following year, $462 million.

Since 2013, Louisiana has absolved one natural gas company, Cameron LNG, of more than $3 billion in property taxes. Since 2010, the state has awarded Cheniere Energy and its subsidiaries more than $3 billion in local and state tax subsidies. And in 2016, Louisiana gave Venture Global LNG $1.86 billion in property tax exemptions.

Total permanent jobs promised by those companies in return for the tax exemptions: about 1,400 (an average of $5.5 million in state and local subsidies per job). Industry officials claim without these generous tax breaks, they cannot afford to do business here.

That might be a stronger argument if energy exploration and refining weren’t already among the most profitable enterprises on Earth. Five of the 12 largest corporations in the world (by revenue) are oil companies, despite the slump in oil prices.

But these corporations provide plenty of good jobs for Louisiana workers, right? “The Louisiana oil and gas industry is one of the leading employers in the state,” the Louisiana Mid-Continent Oil and Gas Association claims. The most recent employment numbers on its website — 64,000 — are from 2013, when oil was around $90 a barrel. The American Petroleum Institute (API), meanwhile, claims 291,00 Louisiana workers were employed in the industry in 2015.

The August 2017 report on industry employment from the Louisiana Workforce Development Commission, however, pegs the number working in or supporting oil and gas at about 40,000 or 2 percent of Louisiana’s total workforce. It’s likely the API’s 2015 numbers were wildly inflated. Even Louisiana oil industry lobbyists acknowledge a sharp jobs downturn caused by slumping oil prices.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Want to save Louisiana schools? Then let’s do something about poverty

By Robert Mann

If there is anything that threatens Louisiana’s future more than the pitiful state of its education system, it’s our unwillingness to talk honestly about what ails our schools and their students. Put another way, little will change until we acknowledge and address the deep, systemic poverty that plagues Louisiana and prevents so many young people from realizing their potential.

Louisiana is in denial about its many problems — and nothing exemplifies that better than our repeated failures in education.

Over the past 30 years, we have tried almost every education “reform” any innovative reformer cooked up. We’ve left few policy ideas on the table.

In 1986, the state approved high-stakes tests to determine whether students should advance to the fifth and ninth grades. Since 1999, the state has issued report cards for schools and identified so-called failing schools. We embraced the 2001 national No Child Left Behind Act that required even more student testing and accountability.

We have enacted all kinds of teacher-quality initiatives. When Bobby Jindal was governor that culminated in legislation to eliminate teacher tenure and make it easier to fire those whose students were underperforming.

In the beginning, at least, Louisiana embraced the Common Core State Standards, an array of college- and career-ready benchmarks for K-12 students. We’ve tried charter schools and private-school vouchers.

After trying all this and much more, where do we stand?

Louisiana schools are still among the nation’s worst. We remain last among states in Wallet Hub’s comprehensive annual ranking of education systems. U.S. News rates Louisiana’s schools as the seventh-worst in the country.

And what do the bright minds who run the state’s school system suggest we do about this? Why, they counsel even more “reforms” and doubling down on what we’re already doing.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Louisiana’s people can handle the truth about their state and its future

By Robert Mann

“How dare you!” a reader scolded me by email after reading my previous column, in which I argue “Louisiana is sick and dying.” She added: “If you have such disdain for this state and this city then get the hell out.”

In September 2016, when I wrote the first draft of what became an elegy for Louisiana, I shelved it. I was afraid I’d be overwhelmed with many such angry responses. I wasn’t certain it was wise to brand an entire state hopeless. Moreover, I wasn’t sure I believed it, having written two years earlier that Louisiana still had hope and that our young people should consider staying to fight for its future.

What prompted me to publish my grim thoughts was reading a remarkable book published last year, “Strangers in Their Own Land.” Sociologist Arlie Russell Hochschild’s examination of Louisiana politics and culture through the prism of corrupt and neglectful environmental policies is bracing, depressing and deadly accurate.

If you think my conclusion is grim, you must read Hochschild’s account, not only for its searing indictment of our decades of environmental degradation but also to appreciate the unwillingness (or inability) of so many to recognize and punish the culprits.

Ostensibly, Hochschild wants readers to understand the Trump-loving Tea Party members adrift in a sea of social change and economic disruption. In doing so, she also reinforces my point: Our state is deathly ill, and there is little inclination to do something about it.I was prepared for a fusillade of ferocious responses to my column, very much like the one above. So I was surprised by how many not only agreed with my diagnosis but said they have had similar conversation with friends and families.

“You put into words what I’ve been feeling for a while,” someone told me on Facebook. A Louisiana native, now living in Texas, wrote, “I have often thought of returning and staying because I love it and will always consider it home, but unsure I want to fight a seemingly losing battle.”

By email, a New Orleanian wrote, “As I get older (I’m almost 67), I realize that nothing, NOTHING, is going to change in this place, and it’s profoundly sad.” A state official called to say he agreed with my analysis about our unwillingness to embrace progress and reform. “We just don’t have it in us,” he concluded.

At church last Sunday, a friend greeted me at the door. Her eyes welled up. She and her husband had discussed the same concerns my column addressed, she told me. Their daughter has begun her second year of college in a distant state and won’t return. That’s because the young woman lives in a progressive, diverse and well-functioning community, the likes of which she never experienced here.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Let’s face facts: Louisiana is sick and dying

By Robert Mann

Two questions have dogged me lately: If I could go back 18 years, would I raise my children in Louisiana? Would I still view this as a place that would nurture and educate them, offer opportunities for personal and financial growth and help my wife and I imbue in them the values important to us?

When my son and daughter were born, I believed the answer was yes. I had hope. Even three years ago, I still had faith in Louisiana, as I wrotein a column to young people who considered abandoning the state: “Stay here, find like-minded people, organize them, expand your influence, demand change, but don’t give up on this amazing, beautiful place. Its good people — flawed as we might be — are worth your efforts.”

When I wrote that, I believed Louisiana had brighter days. I hoped there was a small flame of desire to recreate something great here. I thought Louisiana’s people wanted to redeem their state.

I was wrong.

Today, I ask only, “Is this as good as it will ever be?” The answer, I believe, is yes. It’s not getting better and could get much worse.

For all its rich and diverse culture and abundant natural resources, Louisiana is the sick man of the United States. We’re an economic basket case and a toxic waste pit of environmental neglect and misconduct.

We are the state most adept at missing opportunities and abusing and wasting our abundant natural resources.

Louisiana is my home in every way and, at 59, I cannot imagine living anywhere else. And yet it’s time to admit this is a place with no visible promise and little hope. To pretend otherwise is to engage in delusional thinking. We must face facts.

I’m not saying everyone should give up and leave. I’m staying and fighting for our future. There is much work to do, and I believe I can make a difference. I suspect most of you feel the same. But if we’re staying, we must be honest about Louisiana’s deplorable condition and bleak future.

Blame our leaders, if you like. But the problem is us. On average, we aspire to mediocrity; we are happy with good enough. We live in a land of plenty but view the world from an attitude of scarcity.

Continue reading on NOLA.com at this link.

Hurricane Harvey reminds us (including Ted Cruz) we are all in the same boat

Why is it we often need a flood, earthquake or other natural disaster to remind us of our common humanity? What is it about the cataclysmic flooding in Houston that prompts us to remember we are all in the same boat?I’ve always thought Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. said it well: “All men are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”

Most people know and embrace Jesus’ parable of the Good Samaritan, which he told to answer the question, “Who is my neighbor?” After his unforgettable story of indifference and compassion, Jesus asks, “Which one was a neighbor to the man who fell into the hands of robbers?” The answer: “The one who had mercy on him.”

This foundational principle should be easy for people of all faiths to remember, given that their belief systems are built upon it. In times of crisis, most act upon these teachings. Hearts, doors and wallets open wide, draw in hurt and battered souls and pour out love in the form of cold drinks, hot food and warm beds.

That’s why it’s so painful to watch Texas Republican Sen. Ted Cruz struggle with the concept as journalists and colleagues from New York and New Jersey remind him of his opposition to the $50.5 billion recovery assistance package after Hurricane Sandy devastated that region in 2012. Cruz’s Texas GOP colleague, Sen. John Cornyn also voted against the bill.

Three GOP congressmen from Louisiana — Bill Cassidy (now a U. S. senator), Steve Scalise and John Fleming — also opposed the package, despite their state having received massive federal assistance after hurricanes Katrina and Rita.

Twenty-three members of Congress from Texas voted against Sandy relief. Then and now, the weak, deceitful excuse was that the bill was larded with extraneous items. As Cruz put it the other day, “Two-thirds of that bill had nothing to do with Sandy.” (In 2013, Cassidy made the same claim.)

Some members who opposed the Sandy relief bill also complained the legislation did not impose offsetting cuts to pay for it. That’s a position few in Congress took as Louisiana and Mississippi were suffering in the fall of 2005. (Then-Rep. Mike Pence did, proposing offsetting reductions to Medicare.)

According to an analysis by the Congressional Research Service, however, the Sandy bill contained $16 billion in community development programs, $11.5 billion for FEMA’s disaster relief fund, $10.9 billion for transportation system repairs, $5.4 billion for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers projects, $800 million for social service programs and $826 million for repairs to national park facilities. All that was related to Sandy.

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