How White People Elected Ray Nagin
Issue #
88

NEW ORLEANS—Back in September, it was hard to find an African American who had anything good to say about New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin. Local hip-hop artist Juvenile’s song “Get Ya Hustle On” castigated the mayor as someone black people couldn’t trust. But things began to change in the following months. At an April 1 march protesting the racist blockade of black refugees by police in the suburb of Gretna during the Katrina flooding, many of the 5,000 people who attended were carrying signs or wearing T-shirts supporting Nagin.

Nagin’s powerful showing in the April mayoral primary signaled a sea change in black opinion. Whatever misgivings they had about the mayor in September, African Americans found him more acceptable than the other candidates. And when Nagin narrowly defeated Mitch Landrieu in the May 20 runoff, he got an estimated 80 percent of the black vote and 20 percent of the white vote.

So what happened in the 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 attempting to take the reins of city government to remake New Orleans into a whiter and more affluent city. 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 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 not allowed back into their neighborhoods until May. White “good government” groups fought to deny building permits in the flooded areas, which they hoped to bulldoze into oblivion. Jobs that had been traditionally held by black workers, such as roofers and painters, were given to itinerant Latino laborers. And white neighborhoods effectively prevented FEMA from bringing in 30,000 trailers for displaced people, mostly blacks.

It then 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 percent of the black community remained displaced. The New Orleans Times-Picayune, the city’s daily newspaper, endorsed a majority-white City Council ticket and a white mayoral candidate who had polled only 3 percent black support in a city that was 70 percent black. 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.

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 New Orleans was going to remain a “chocolate city.”

Affluent and powerful whites – who had backed Nagin in 2002, when he campaigned as the “pro-business alternative” – soon abandoned the mayor and ended up pushing him into the arms of 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. Whether or not their faith in Ray Nagin is misplaced we will have to see. But the white elite ended up with the opposite of what they dreamed of: a black mayor and a majority-black City Council.

The pundits will write this election off as old-fashioned racial bloc 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 criminal 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 attempted 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. They have a right to come home to a better life.

Lance Hill 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 lhill@tulane.edu.