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Politics Mondays: Who elected Ray Nagin? by Lance Hill

I was surprised too. But there were hints along the way.

Back in September it was hard to find an African American who had anything good to say about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. In early September, New Orleans Rap artist “Juvenile” penned the song “Get Ya Hustle On” which was released as an album and video in February of 2006. The song castigated Nagin as someone that black people couldn’t trust and his video featured three figures wandering the devastated Ninth Ward wearing paper masks of George Busch, Dick Cheney, and Ray Nagin. Three peas in a pod as far as Juvenile was concerned.

Juvenile was someone to listen to if you wanted a gauge black opinion—at least poor dispossessed blacks. In 2002 Tulane professor Joel Devine published a study of public opinion of Central City neighborhood of New Orleans , an overwhelmingly black and poor neighborhood bordering the most affluent sections of Uptown New Orleans. Devine’s poll asked residents in nine of the eleven census tracts who they regarded as the most important leaders in their community for “getting things done.” Respondents were offered choices including the current Mayor, Marc Morial, and other black elected officials as well as home-grown Rap entertainers, including Juvenile.

Remarkably, Juvenile trounced the opposition. While only 11% of the respondents considered Morial “very important, nearly three times as many (32%) ranked Juvenile as the most effective leader. Indeed, Juvenile emerged as the most popular leader in the community, followed by rappers Master P and Jubilee. Based on his popularity, it would be reasonable to conclude that Juvenile was only giving voice to the attitudes among his supporters and fans who hesitated to express them publicly.

Things began to change in the following months. On April 1, 2006, I attended the rally and March across the Mississippi River Bridge protesting the racist the Gretna police blockade of black refugees during the Katrina flooding. As a historian of civil rights movement, I can say that the 5,000 people who crossed the bridge were taking part in the largest protest in New Orleans history.

That fact slipped past the local media but it was still a harbinger of the growing anger and frustration that African Americans were feeling. Something else was obvious at the rally and march. For the first time I noticed public support for Nagin. His signs and t-shirts were everywhere and the speakers on the Dias, Al Shapton included, appeared to be coalescing around Nagin as black New Orleans last hope.

Nagin’s powerful showing in the April Mayoral primary signaled a sea change in black opinion (long before the publication of Douglas Brinkley’s highly critical book on Nagin). Whatever misgivings they had about the Mayor in September, African Americans found him more acceptable then the other candidates. So what happened in the intervening months following the controversial evacuation and rescue efforts?

I think it’s clear from the people I have been talking to, both in the city and those still displaced, that by the primary a consensus had developed in the black community that white people were deliberately attempting to take the reins of city government remake New Orleans into a whiter and more affluent community. This fear was disparaged in the local media as the “so called conspiracy theory,” but one event after another occurred that left little doubt that, far from a conspiracy, there was an open and organized movement to prevent poor people and their neighborhoods from returning.

The public school system had been virtually closed; thousands of poor blacks were evicted from their homes; utility companies dragged their feet on reconnecting black neighborhoods (Ninth Ward residents were only allowed back into their neighborhoods this month; white “good government” groups fought to deny building permits in the flooded areas which they hoped to bulldoze into oblivion; traditional black occupations such as roofers and painters were given to itinerant Latino labors; and white neighborhoods effectively prevented FEMA from bringing in 30,000 trailers for displaced people, mostly blacks.

It then it got worse. The uptown white elite pushed to abolish the school board and assessors offices, both majority black, and then demanded that the Mayoral election be held while 80% of the black community remained displaced. This campaign to change the political balance was best represented in the New Orleans Times-Picayune’s endorsement of a white mayoral candidate who had only 3% black support in a city that was 70% black and then endorsed a majority white city council ticket. No wonder that African Americans began to fear that there was no place for them in the city envisioned by the uptown elite and their confederates comprised of developers, urban planners, and ageing and increasingly conservative yuppies.

Only one person with the requisite power took a stand against these exclusion policies: Ray Nagin. The Mayor ignored the recommendations of his own Bring New Orleans Back Commission and allowed building permits in the flooded areas. He rejected the plans to turn the Ninth Ward into a park and promised to bring back all neighborhoods. While many white uptowners openly told the national media that they hoped for a whiter city, Nagin, in his infamous Martin Luther King Day speech, attempted in a clumsy way to assure blacks that they would return in the same numbers as before—that the city was going to remain a Chocolate city.

As it became obvious that Nagin was not going to do the bidding of affluent and powerful whites, they soon abandoned him in search of a real white hope. As the pulled their money and political support for Nagin, the white elite ended up pushing the Mayor into the arms of the only section of the electorate left: the African American voters. Mitch Landrieu had solid liberal credentials, but asking blacks to place their fates in the hands of any white man in Louisiana was asking for blind faith. In Nagin they had a candidate they believed was beholden to them and them alone. Whether or not their faith is misplaced we will have to see. But the white elite ended up with the opposite of what they dreamed for: a black mayor and a majority black city council. We can only hope they will be more charitable and forgiving then their erstwhile insurrectionists

The pundits will write this election off as old-fashioned racial block voting. They’ll say Nagin won because black people always vote for black people. They are dead wrong. New Orleans ’ blacks have demonstrated repeatedly that they are willing to elect white officials. For years, black voters re-elected a white District Attorney and Civil Sheriff in contests that included black candidates. No, people were not voting skin color; they were voting fear. It was the deliberate efforts of the white elite and their supporters to take control of city government and prevent poor African Americans from returning that created the racial fear and distrust that sent black voters into Nagin’s camp. It was white people, not blacks, who got Ray Nagin elected.

Not all white people were part of this power grab, but their silence in the face of injustices didn’t help inspire interracial trust. We can restore that trust and bridge the racial divide by repudiating those who led the palace coup and start anew by treating the poor and the displaced as people who did not lose their citizenship when they lost their homes and they have a right to come home to a better life. .

Lance Hill, Ph.D. is Executive Director of the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University and author of The Deacons for Defense: Armed Resistance and the Civil Rights Movement.” He can be contacted at This article appears on Gulf Coast Reconstruction Watch.

Lance Hill

Monday, May 22, 2006

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