Essence Fest showcases how much Black women have to offer

The Essence Festival of Culture, the ultimate celebration of Black women in America, has just wrapped up in New Orleans. As the mayor who saw the festival’s potential 30 years ago when many city leaders were skeptical, I consider it among my proudest achievements. Over the decades, it has brought hundreds of millions of dollars and thousands of jobs and has become as much a New Orleans institution as Mardi Gras, gumbo and jazz.

At this moment in history, however, the story of Essence Festival carries a powerful moral for the rest of the nation: Underestimate Black women at your own risk.

In that first year, tourism industry leaders wondered if the city would see any real financial benefit from an event catered to Black women. Retailers in the French Quarter closed up shop.

That first weekend, Saks Fifth Avenue on Canal Place sold nearly every piece of merchandise available. Those doubting tourism and retail leaders learned a lesson on how their narrow, stereotypical view of Black women held them back.

Now, a narrow, stereotypical view of Black women threatens to hold back the entire nation.

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We see it in the nation’s colleges and universities, where a sexist, racist campaign to discredit Harvard President Claudine Gay hounded her from office.

We see it in business financing, where anti-racial justice activists are ferociously grappling to shut down a tiny grant program meant to even the playing field for Black women entrepreneurs.

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We see it every time right-wing extremists lunge in the courts and in state legislatures to keep the gates of authority and influence locked tight against Black women and other marginalized people, and to block even a sliver of prosperity from falling into hands that are not their own.

As part of the Essence Festival last week, the National Urban League honored the accomplishments of four Black women who have made significant marks in the community. Our first-ever Women in Harmony awards luncheon celebrated attorney and legal analyst Faith Jenkins, who presided over the TV show “Divorce Court”; Tracey Edmonds, president and CEO of Edmonds Entertainment Group; radio and TV personality Bevy Smith; and Lisa Price, the founder and creator of hair products empire Carol’s Daughter.

The National Urban League is proud to celebrate and support Black women in every facet of American life because the nation is stronger when we do. Racism has cost the U.S. economy at least $16 trillion over 20 years. Gender inequality costs the global economy at least $7 trillion every single year. But for the vision of some in my administration and the business community, such narrow-mindedness could have cost New Orleans a billion or more over the last three decades.

The nation is progressing, however haltingly and unevenly, toward a more equitable, multicultural society that lifts everyone. Those who would cling to a historically white, male power structure ultimately are dragging themselves down, along with their intended targets. They would do well — the entire country, would do well — to heed the lessons of the Essence Festival.

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Marc H. Morial is president and CEO of the National Urban League and was mayor of New Orleans from 1994 to 2002. He writes a twice-monthly column for the Sun-Times.

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