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Racial Changes In New Orleans

 By Justin Vogt, managing editor of World Policy Journal.


NEW ORLEANS - In the wake of Hurricane Katrina—after all the survivors had been evacuated from the Superdome, plucked from a rooftop, or rescued from one of the city’s squalid highway interchanges—a new fear began to grip the black population of New Orleans. Recognizing that the emptiest, most ravaged parts of the city were predominantly African American neighborhoods, they worried that the storm’s most lasting toll would be demographic: the demise of the city’s black majority and the political voice that came with it.

It was that anxiety that the city’s then mayor, Ray Nagin, addressed when he delivered his infamous “chocolate city” speech in January 2006. “This city will be chocolate at the end of the day,” he told a crowd on Martin Luther King Jr. Day. “It’s the way God wants it to be.”

But as it happened, the precipitous downfall of black New Orleans did not come to pass. Before the storm, African Americans made up around 68 percent of the city’s population; today they make up closer to 61 percent—a drop-off, to be sure, but the black majority remains solidly intact. Instead, a rather more unexpected transformation has taken place.

When Katrina struck in 2005, the city had a black mayor, a black police chief, and a black district attorney. The city council and the school board were majority black, and the area was represented in Washington by a veteran black Democratic congressman. Today, New Orleans has a white mayor, a white district attorney, and a white police chief. The city council and the school board are majority white. And the city’s congressman for the past two years has been a Vietnamese American Republican. The elected leadership looks almost like a photo negative of the pre-Katrina government.

It is an unprecedented reversal. Other American cities have seen black mayors rise and fall. But in no other city has the racial contrast between the population and its freely elected leaders become quite so stark, quite so quickly.

No one really believes anymore that the election of Barack Obama signaled the dawn of a “post-racial” era in American politics. But as a majority-black city that has suddenly elected a predominantly white government, New Orleans is charting unfamiliar territory, carrying out an experiment in a form of politics that might be post-racial—but looks distinctly retro-racial.

At the center of this transformation stands Mitch Landrieu, the first white politician to serve as mayor of New Orleans in more than thirty years. Last February, he was elected in an astonishing landslide to succeed Nagin, who had reached his term limit. In a primary field that included three black candidates and two other white contenders, Landrieu avoided a runoff by winning 66 percent of the vote—including an estimated 62 percent of the black vote. Landrieu’s election was hailed locally and nationally as a harbinger of unity in a city that, since Hurricane Katrina, has come to epitomize America’s lasting racial divisions.

Before becoming mayor, Landrieu spent sixteen years in the Louisiana state legislature and seven years as the state’s lieutenant governor. A youthful fifty years old, he is a compact, energetic man. His intense gaze and closely cropped buzz cut lend him a vaguely military bearing, but up close, he is an expert flesh-presser, chatty and quick to smile. His technocratic talk of “budgeting for outcomes” and “efficiency optimization” is bathed in a bayou drawl that belies just how fast he’s speaking. He’s charming, and he knows it.

Over the summer, as the fifth anniversary of Katrina approached, Landrieu announced a series of public meetings, ostensibly to gather input on his agenda, but also to gauge the depth of his support. And so on a brutally humid night last August, close to a thousand New Orleanians—almost all of them African American—came to see Landrieu at the Household of Faith church, a hulking concrete structure on an interstate service road in eastern New Orleans. He had been mayor for three months.

With his entire senior staff arrayed behind him, Landrieu stood to address the crowd. “We’re doing the first of these meetings in New Orleans East,” Landrieu said, “to honor the frustration, and anxiety, and uncertainty that exist in the East about whether you’re a real part of the city of New Orleans.”

A sprawling patchwork of suburban-style subdivisions and cul-de-sacs, the East is the most typically American-looking section of a city beloved for being so different from the rest of the country. Long regarded as a haven for the black middle class, the East suffered some of the most severe flooding in the storm’s aftermath. Most of the area took on at least six feet of water, with the levels rising to more than ten feet in many places.

The East’s population has rebounded to about 70 percent of its pre-Katrina size. But life is nothing like it was before. The nearest emergency room is a thirty-minute drive away. There is only one supermarket. Worst of all, thousands of abandoned properties have left the area stricken with blight, driving down already-depressed property values and offering refuge to squatters and criminals. Residents of the East feel they’ve been neglected, and they had come to let Landrieu know it.

For the next three hours, the new mayor listened while residents took turns at a microphone and poured out a stream of anger, sorrow, and fear. “We demand respect,” cried one woman. “We are not coming to you with our hands out. We’re taxpayers and homeowners.” Another pleaded, her voice quavering, “We need your help, Mr. Mayor. I lay in bed at night thinking about that abandoned house next to me.”

After Katrina, the loudest voices in the black community were those defending the right of the hundreds of thousands of displaced people to return to their homes and rebuild. Many feared that much-touted early efforts to “reinvent” the city masked a real desire to prevent them from coming home—to make the city smaller, wealthier, and whiter.

But five years on, concerns over the displaced have receded from view, supplanted in public debates by the grievances of those who made it back. In an inevitable reversal, their well-being is now compromised by the absence of those who didn’t return. Some of them are now demanding the aggressive actions—inspections, seizures, demolitions—that had been anathema in the storm’s immediate aftermath.

One woman spent nearly ten minutes pouring out her troubles, her voice growing hoarse with fury. “I’m not gonna wait another five years,” she wailed. “I’m gonna move to Mississippi!”

Dozens of voices called out.

“Don’t move!”

“Don’t do it, girl!”

“That’s what they want!”

Landrieu listened intently—biting his lip, raising his eyebrows, shaking his head. He filled a legal pad with notes. By the time he finally stood to respond, it was close to eleven o’clock, and the crowd had reached a kind of exhausted catharsis.

“A lot of you talked about blight. But I wanna talk about race for a second,” Landrieu said, pausing to stroll further into the crowd. “If I start taking people’s houses, who aren’t back from Houston and Atlanta—our brothers and sisters—then people on CNN are gonna run up on me and say, ‘Why are you trying to stop people from coming home? Why don’t you want the brothers and sisters to come home, lil’ mister Mitch, looking the way you do?’”

There was some laughter, but mostly the room was quiet.

“So I just want to make sure I heard you right,” Landrieu continued. “Y’all are ready for me to say that on a certain date, we’re gonna start inspecting? And we’re gonna start enforcing? I just wanna make sure I heard you right. Because I promise you, as soon as I lay it down, somebody’s gonna come down here, and there’s gonna be a march, and somebody’s gonna try to turn it into something it’s not.”

“We got your back!” a women’s voice cried out, interrupting Landrieu. The crowd burst into a loud round of applause. Landrieu let the moment sink in.

The woman was Cynthia Bell, a retired telephone company employee. “It was a breath of fresh air,” she told me the next day. “As you could tell, it’s what we’ve been asking for. We’ve been asking for someone to pay attention. That’s why African Americans voted for Mitch. He understands where we are coming from.”

It is a perception Landrieu will have to work hard to preserve. When Nagin made his “chocolate city” speech in 2006, he was excoriated for what critics deemed an attempt to exploit the racial tensions Katrina had exposed and fueled. Yet it was difficult to take issue with his underlying point. In addition to comprising a supermajority of the city’s residents, black New Orleanians have created a set of unique cultural traditions—second-line parades, jazz funerals, the Mardi Gras Indians—that are at the heart of the city’s identity. Likewise, the many successes of the city’s black politicians were the hard-earned fruits of decades of civil rights activism and grassroots organizing, undertaken by a deeply rooted African American community.

Nagin tapped into the fear that black New Orleans was at risk of falling to a storm-surge coup d’etat. Five years later, it is inevitable that some in the city will come to see the new political order as a fulfillment of that anxiety—and Landrieu knows it. His remarks at the Household of Faith church revealed a man deftly shoring himself up against a potential racial backlash.

It was a promising showing, but piloting New Orleans successfully will require all of Landrieu’s political gifts and more. The Big Easy faces tremendous challenges. More than 40,000 abandoned properties fester all over the city. New Orleans boasts the highest murder rate in America. Its out-of-control police department is currently the subject of a massive investigation by the Department of Justice; a dozen officers have already been indicted. As a parting gift, former Mayor Nagin left behind an $80 million budget deficit. And although the city was not impacted by the BP oil disaster as directly as surrounding rural parishes, three pillars of the metro area’s economy—oil and gas, tourism, and seafood—are all threatened by the spill’s still-unknown long-term effects. Governing under these conditions will require making the kinds of difficult choices that inevitably create serious political vulnerabilities for any elected leadership—but especially one like Mitch Landrieu’s, which has the added burden of holding together an unlikely biracial coalition.

Mitch Landrieu is not just the first white mayor of New Orleans in thirty years. He is also the son of the last white mayor: Maurice “Moon” Landrieu, a legendary figure in Louisiana politics and the patriarch of a Democratic political dynasty sometimes called the Cajun Camelot. (Mitch’s eldest sister is Mary Landrieu, Louisiana’s senior senator. A younger sister, Madeleine, is a state appeals court judge, and a younger brother, Maurice, is a high-profile federal prosecutor based in New Orleans.)

Three decades before his son became mayor, Moon did more than any other white leader to aid the cause of black political power and usher it into its long-standing place at the head of New Orleans’s governance. Over the course of two terms as mayor in the 1970s, Moon Landrieu almost single-handedly desegregated political life in New Orleans, stocking his administration with dozens of young black staffers who had earned their stripes in the civil rights movement and the community organizing efforts funded by LBJ’s Great Society programs.

Before running for mayor, Moon had earned a reputation as a liberal on race during his time in the state legislature in the 1960s, when he had pushed for integrating the schools and making it easier for blacks to register to vote. When Landrieu heard himself referred to as a “nigger lover,” he replied, “You right. I am. I flat am, without any shame or apologies.” Attitudes of this sort made Moon an underdog when he first ran for mayor in 1969.

Moon, who is now eighty, still lives with his wife in the house where Mitch grew up, an inconspicuous converted two-family home in the working- and middle-class neighborhood of Broadmoor. Inside, it looks like not much has changed since the 1970s, when Moon was mayor. The walls of a center hallway are covered with photo portraits of the Landrieu brood—nine children in all—along with mementos of Moon’s political career, including an enlarged photo of his 1979 swearing-in as secretary of the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development. In the photo, President Jimmy Carter smiles as he watches Moon take his oath—a reminder of a time before the extinction of the liberal white southern Democrat.

I asked Moon about his first campaign for mayor. He placed second in the 1969 Democratic primary, forcing a runoff against Jimmy Fitzmorris, a less progressive Democrat with strong support among working-class whites. “During a televised debate, Jimmy and I were asked whether we would hire a black department head,” Moon recalled. “Jimmy said he would hire the most qualified person. But every black person listening knew that meant he wouldn’t need apply. I said, ‘Yes, I will—but that’s not the real question. The real question is, how do we develop a community that is fair and equitable,’ or something to that effect. After getting elected, I began to bring blacks in to city hall in large numbers, since I figured they’d hang me for a sheep as quickly as they’d hang me for a goat.”

“Before we went to work for Moon, blacks weren’t really allowed in city hall, except for the janitors who came in at night,” said James Singleton, a teacher and community organizer who was hired by Landrieu as an administrative assistant in 1970. Singleton ultimately became one of the most influential black leaders in the city, serving on the city council for more than two decades.

Those political changes were accompanied by a “white flight” out of New Orleans that led to a major shift in the city’s demographics. In 1970, the year Landrieu took office, New Orleans was 55 percent white. By 1980, it was 55 percent black. For a powerful class of conservative, old-line white elites who stayed put in their Uptown and Garden District enclaves, Landrieu—“Moon the Coon,” some called him—become an enduring symbol of their weakening grip.

Twenty years later, the white elites found their own kind of racial accommodation by supporting a black mayor who looked after their business interests. When Nagin was elected, in 2002, he ran as the preferred candidate of the white business establishment, winning 86 percent of the white vote and less than 40 percent of the black vote. (During his first term, Nagin was derisively nicknamed “Ray Reagan” by some of his black and liberal white constituents.) But when race became a major factor in the immediate aftermath of Katrina, Nagin totally altered his political identity, turning his back on his former patrons in the white establishment and casting himself as a defender of the city’s black majority. Nevertheless, when Mitch Landrieu ran against Nagin in 2006, the lingering disdain for the Landrieu name was so profound that some conservative whites stuck with Nagin, helping him narrowly defeat his challenger.

Beyond fulfilling a pledge to allow rebuilding in every neighborhood of the city—an issue of crucial importance to the black community after Katrina—Nagin delivered few tangible results for his newfound black supporters in his second term. In the final months of his tenure, a poll found that his approval rating among African Americans—83 percent of whom had voted for him in 2006—was down to 41 percent.

Though Nagin wasn’t on the ballot last year, black disenchantment with him was a major factor in Landrieu’s victory. Many observers interpreted the black “crossover” vote for Landrieu as sign of buyer’s remorse. “This was like a big do-over for black and white, but especially for blacks,” said Clancy DuBos, the publisher and political columnist of Gambit, the city’s main alt-weekly. “It was as if black electorate said, ‘My bad, we gotta fix it.’”

But the true significance of the crossover vote is debatable. One reason Landrieu won such a large share of the black vote was the absence of a credible, well-known black candidate in the race. Barely a month before the primary, the leading black candidate, a veteran state legislator, Ed Murray, stunned his supporters by abruptly pulling out of the campaign. Murray released a statement citing the difficulty of raising money and explaining that the decision was also motivated by his fear that a likely runoff between him and Landrieu would prove “extremely racially divisive.”

“Our poll numbers suggested that a large number of African Americans were committed to Mitch,” Murray told me recently. “In order to pull them off, I would have had to make an emotional appeal on race. And that wasn’t something I wanted to do.”

The three black candidates who remained in the contest were political novices with no institutional backing and very little name recognition. Partly as a result, black voter turnout was far lower than white turnout—around 44 percent of white registered voters cast ballots, compared with only around 28 percent of black registered voters. Landrieu is the first mayor of New Orleans ever elected with a majority of both the black and white vote. But his support among whites was so strong, and black turnout so low, that Landrieu could have won the primary and avoided a runoff with as little as one-third of the black vote.

That did not prevent Landrieu’s supporters and much of the national media from hailing the results as a sign of interracial reconciliation. The very next day, the underdog Saints triumphed in the Super Bowl, sparking an epic celebration and bringing black and white New Orleanians together more effectively than any politician ever had. Landrieu’s transition team cannily sought to meld the Saints victory with his own, placing billboards around the city that read,“One Team. One Fight. One Voice. One City.”

Amid all those cheers for a new era, a profound sense of loss has gripped the black political establishment and the community of educated black professionals from which it draws its strength. “We had so much, and we’re losing it so fast,” lamented Lambert Boissiere Jr., a former city councilman and state senator whose political career began in the 1970s. It’s a refrain echoed by many of his peers in the old guard of black leaders who came of age during the Moon Landrieu era. “We failed in the sense that we didn’t use that power to create an educational process, to keep bringing young people in and sharing our experiences with them so that today we’d have people really ready to represent us,” Boissiere said.

That process of political dissolution arguably began years ago, with the 2002 election of Nagin. The mayor’s lack of connection to the traditional black political organizations—neighborhood-based groups with acronymic names like BOLD, SOUL, and COUP—further diminished their ability to dole out political spoils like contracts or city hall jobs. Once the engine of the black community’s political machine, they began a slide into irrelevance.

Then, in the years immediately following Hurricane Katrina, black New Orleans teetered on the brink. Though the flooding affected 80 percent of the city, including some well-heeled white neighborhoods, African Americans were disproportionately impacted. And it is undeniable that there was a desire on the part of some members of the white establishment to use the crisis as a chance to reshape the city to their advantage. (Less than two weeks after the storm, the Wall Street Journal ran an article titled “Old-Line Families Escape Worst of Flood and Plot the Future,” which quoted one Uptown swell musing about the need to “demographically” transform the city. “The way we’ve been living is not going to happen again, or we’re out,” he said on behalf of his friends and neighbors.)

The black community needed effective leadership more than ever. What it got instead was scandal and corruption on a scale remarkable even by Louisiana standards. In the summer of 2007, Congressman William Jefferson, probably the most powerful black official in the city, was indicted on bribery charges. The Feds had found $90,000 in bribe money wrapped in aluminum foil in Jefferson’s freezer. He was later convicted and sentenced to thirteen years in prison. (An appeal is pending.) At around the same time, the former president of the majority-black school board pleaded guilty to accepting bribes, as did a popular black councilman who was considered a likely future mayor. A few months later, in a particularly embarrassing spectacle, the city’s black district attorney resigned in disgrace. After taking office, he had summarily fired dozens of white support staffers and investigators in the DA’s office and replaced them with African Americans. A jury ruled he had discriminated on the basis of race, and fined the office $3.7 million.

Those events added to a growing cynicism in the black community about politics, fed mostly by a perception that thirty years of African Americans serving in high office had achieved little in the way of economic gains for black New Orleanians. “We’ve had black mayors in the city now for a number of years,” said Jon D. Johnson, one of the two current African American members of the seven-seat city council. “But we need more opportunities in the economic arena for disadvantaged businesses. And that just simply has not happened over the years.”

That lack of economic progress was not only the result of ineffective elected leadership. Even after New Orleans became majority black and African Americans began winning election to high-level positions, the predominantly white business establishment still retained an enormous amount of influence, and did very little to encourage black economic advancement. In addition to backing pliant black politicians (like Ray Nagin pre-Katrina), the traditional white elites continue to exercise control over city affairs through myriad agencies—the Sewerage & Water Board, the Board of Liquidation, the Dock Board—which play a decisive role in the local economy and whose members are not elected but appointed, in some cases by state officials. In the black community, these groups—along with the city’s banking sector, real estate developers, and the secretive, all-white Mardi Gras krewes that dominate the city’s high society—are collectively referred to as the “shadow government.” “To an outsider, that term might sound like conspiratorial hyperbole,” said Lance Hill, a historian who directs the Southern Institute for Education and Research at Tulane University. “But in New Orleans, it’s actually a fairly accurate description.”

Still, the white establishment in New Orleans is hardly monolithic. Its most relevant division stems from tension between two groups that simultaneously overlap and compete. On the one side are the old-line Uptown elites, families that trace their roots in New Orleans back to the antebellum era—or, even more prestigiously, to the French and Spanish colonial eras. They are bankers and lawyers who belong to private, white-Christian-male-only lunch clubs and Mardi Gras krewes that channel an atavistic yearning for the Reconstruction era and the defense of Confederate honor. (When the city tried to force the old-line krewes to integrate in the early 1990s, most opted to stop parading altogether, rather than adhere to the new rules.) Their daughters debut every year in elaborate balls and are profiled in an annual special insert of the Times-Picayune.

On the other side are entrepreneurial, good-government types—relative newcomers to the city, often involved in the region’s energy industry or its burgeoning post-Katrina “recovery economy.” They are real estate developers and oilmen who roll their eyes at the hidebound aristocracy. They celebrate Mardi Gras with the populist “superkrewes” whose parades are led by out-of-town celebrities. Many of them are Italian or Jewish—two groups still less than welcome in the upper echelons of old-line high society. They sit on the boards of groups like the Business Council of New Orleans, which push for lower taxes, civil service reforms, and greater transparency in contracting—efforts which, during the era of black political domination, were often perceived (with plenty of justification) as veiled attacks on the black establishment and its patronage networks.

In a sense, Mitch Landrieu’s election represents the ascendance of the newer guard of white elites and the decline of the older one—a meritocratic elite eclipsing an aristocratic one. The new guard has been aided by the fact that they frequently have more money than their more socially august peers, many of whom are house rich but cash poor, struggling to keep up appearances while watching their trust funds dwindle. Landrieu is considered a savior by the types of business-minded white folks who in prior decades often gave up on New Orleans and moved to Houston or New York, frustrated by the old-line white elites and the black political establishment alike.

David Voelker is emblematic of this group. A wealthy venture capitalist, Voelker is a political pragmatist: a friend and supporter of Louisiana’s conservative Republican governor, Bobby Jindal, he is also Barack Obama’s largest fund-raiser in the state. I met Voelker in his spacious office in a glass tower in the city’s Central Business District, overlooking the Mississippi River. He had raised money for Landrieu and was clearly happy with his man. “Mitch is gonna do a great job,” he said. “He’ll take the bull by the horns. I like where we are right now with him in city hall—it’s a vibrant moment.” Voelker came to New Orleans twenty-five years ago from Lafayette, the capital of Cajun country. The old-line families famously shunned many of the industrious out-of-towners who came to the city during the oil boom in the late 1970s and early ’80s. But Voelker, for his part, wasn’t much interested in being accepted by the mandarin class.

“I just didn’t want to belong. I’m a member of the Boston Club”—one of the white-only, private businessman’s groups—“but I’ve only been there once,” he said with a laugh. Voelker told me he’d joined a new group called the New Orleans Club. It was founded last year and intends to rival the old-line clubs, with membership open to men—and women—of all races and creeds. (One of its founders told a local business newspaper that membership would be based on merit and character, and not on “what one’s grandfather might have done.”) “There’s absolutely a new guard,” Voelker said. “People who were fringe players are starting to take center stage.”

Even within the traditional white establishment—where contempt for the Landrieus was once the norm—attitudes have softened. In another office tower, I met with Allain Andry, a charming, patrician septuagenarian from one of New Orleans’s old landed families. (Andry Street, which runs through the middle of a flood-ravaged, largely abandoned section of the Lower Ninth Ward, takes its name from a plantation once owned by Andry’s forbearers.) Andry is a lawyer and the chairman emeritus of a local billion-dollar savings and loan company. Weddings in his family are the stuff of the Times-Picayune’s Social Scene column.

I asked him whether he belongs to any of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes or businessman’s lunch clubs. He allowed that he has “had the pleasure” of being a member, but downplayed the importance of those institutions. “It’s been a very long time since they ran the city,” he said. Still, he declined to tell me which krewes or clubs he belonged to, upholding the secrecy expected of all members.

Like most of his peers, Andry supported Ray Nagin in 2002. But he was disappointed by Nagin’s performance during Katrina and turned off by his race-based appeals. Andry says he never harbored any ill-will toward Moon Landrieu, and he decided to vote for Mitch in 2006. “Some of my dear friends did not,” he said with a sigh.

This year, though, things had been different, Andry said. In the mansions along St. Charles Avenue and the high-walled compounds of the French Quarter, he reported, there had been a change of heart. “Some of the people who felt the strongest about Moon were the older folks, not contemporaries of Mitch,” he said. “They probably voted for Mitch the second time around”—he paused for a moment—“to make up for their sins.”

The new mayor may have made inroads with some of the more conservative members of the white elite. But for some old-school black activists, who have long been wary of Landrieu, the ultimate goal is still to see the African American political class regain elected power. “This isn’t the end of black political influence at all. It’s a blip on the radar screen,” said Mtangulizi Sanyika, a retired professor of African world studies and the manager emeritus of the African American Leadership Project. The AALP is a small group of black professionals and activists who aim to encourage other African Americans to get involved in politics. The group functions as a sort of informal lobby, organizing demonstrations and attempting to get elected officials to pay attention to the needs of the black community, sometimes working alongside larger organizations like the NAACP.

“The black community hasn’t gone to sleep,” Sanyika assured me over the summer. He was raised in the Lower Ninth Ward and adopted an African name as a younger man, like many black activists of his generation. “We’re not intoxicated with the Landrieus, or with ‘white fever,’ to use a street term—although it might appear that way to some.”

The black political class was cheered in November, when Cedric Richmond, a young black state senator, ran for U.S. Congress and defeated the Republican incumbent, the Vietnamese American Ahn “Joseph” Cao. Cao was elected in 2008, defeating Bill Jefferson, who had by then been indicted on bribery charges. New Orleans is in one of the “minority-majority” districts created by the Civil Rights Act in 1965. It was a source of consternation for Sanyika and his colleagues that the seat had been “lost.” President Obama endorsed Richmond and appeared in one of his campaign ads. Still, black turnout in Richmond’s election was only 30 percent.

The apathy behind low turnout is a frequent topic of conversation on WBOK, a n AM talk-radio station that caters to politically engaged black listeners. Prior to Katrina, WBOK was a gospel music station. With its studio wrecked by flooding and the future of its target audience in doubt, the station’s owners put it up for sale. It was purchased in 2006 by Danny Bakewell, the New Orleans–born owner of the Los Angeles Sentinel, one of the country’s oldest and largest black newspapers. Bakewell wanted to create an outlet for black New Orleanians to discuss politics and public affairs while crucial decisions about the city’s future were being made.

“After Katrina, there was no black talk radio in New Orleans—you just didn’t hear black voices,” explained Lance Hill, the historian at Tulane, who sometimes appears as a guest on WBOK. “The station was created expressly as a vehicle for blacks to regain political influence, which makes it pretty remarkable in the national media environment.”

I visited WBOK last summer and watched from the control booth during a broadcast of Showtime in the Afternoon, a call-in show cohosted by Paul Beaulieu, a veteran newspaper and television journalist who is the station’s most compelling personality. Like others in the black political class who came of age in the 1960s and ’70s, Beaulieu gives voice to an angry, passionate version of black empowerment—and his skepticism about the intentions and capabilities of white people can border on outright hostility.

“It’s amazing to me,” Beaulieu said in his gravely baritone. “White mayor, white DA, white police chief, five out of seven are white on the city council. It’s just going on and on! What has happened? I’m not necessarily saying white is bad. No, I’m not saying that. I’m just saying, I don’t understand. What happened?”

Beaulieu listened as one caller after another expressed an uneasy mix of emotions: frustration at the current racial balance of power tempered by a soul-searching disappointment with local black politics. A caller named Gail said she had worked for the state’s post-Katrina recovery program, known as the Road Home. “I was waiting on black people to start hollering and screaming about what was being done to them,” she said. “But they did not. But I bet you any money that people from Lakeview”—a wealthy white enclave that was badly flooded—“were out there. They were fussing, they wanted their money. But we were not out there shouting and screaming. We sat back and waited on somebody else to do what we needed to do for ourselves. And now it’s the same thing with elections.”

This topic had a visceral effect on Beaulieu. His face clenched into grimace. “I keep telling you,” he said, “that white folk don’t come up with a scenario that’s going to benefit black folk—particularly in this city! The Times-Picayune ain’t gonna do it. White developers ain’t gonna do it. It ain’t gonna get done … unless you people stand up! Unless you people stand up!”

As he spoke, his producer, an African American woman nearly two generations younger than Beaulieu, turned around and smiled at me. “You know, I kind of love it when we have a white person in the studio and Paul starts to talk like this,” she said with a good-natured laugh. “I sort of cringe in my seat a little and wonder what they must be thinking.” Even in New Orleans, a city where race is constantly discussed, younger educated black people don’t usually speak in such stark terms about white people as a group, the way Beaulieu often does—at least not in public. It’s another subtle divide within the community, a generational gap when it comes to the confrontational rhetoric of an earlier era.

To mark the fifth anniversary of Katrina, Mitch Landrieu’s administration put together a public event at the Mahalia Jackson Theater. There was an interfaith prayer ceremony, and performances by a number of New Orleans musical legends. But it wasn’t quite a commemoration or a memorial; there was hardly any mention at all of the 100,000 New Orleanians who never returned after the hurricane. Rather, the focus was squarely on the city’s future and the man who will have the most influence over it.

When the lights dimmed, a procession of Mardi Gras Indians entered the theater, resplendent in their brightly colored, hand-sewn suits. Drumming and chanting, they headed to the foot of the stage. As they sang “My Indian Red”—an ode to strength and independence (“We won’t bow down, on nobody’s ground”)—Landrieu was handed a tambourine, stood up, and joined in. Big Chief Brian Nelson of the Guardians of the Flame tribe put his arm around the mayor as he chanted. The Mardi Gras Indians have long been a symbol of black autonomy and resistance to white authority. The significance of their embrace of Landrieu was lost on no one.

In his keynote speech, Landrieu implored his audience to listen to each other. “When we truly listen, do you know what we will hear?” he asked. “We will hear and we will learn the beautiful truth that Katrina taught us all: we are all the same!” Of course, the experience of Katrina had led many New Orleanians to precisely the opposite conclusion. But in front of this audience, the line got huge applause.

After Landrieu’s speech, the Rebirth Brass Band played a celebratory medley that got the entire crowd on its feet. Landrieu joined them onstage and danced. A few people in the seats around me—white and black—wiped tears from their eyes. A young black man in low-slung jeans and an oversized T-shirt stood on a seat at the back of the theater. “This is how we do it, people!” he exhorted those around him. “Like this! Like this!” he cried, extending his arms in front of his chest, lacing his fingers, and locking his hands together.

Nearby, Mtangulizi Sanyika of the AALP watched as people thronged Landrieu at the front of the room. Sanyika seemed out of place, at a loss and uncertain what to make of the spectacle. Looking around, he told me he was impressed by the symbolism but distressed by its near-total lack of substance. “He’s going to do all these cosmetic things,” he said. “He’ll have visible African Americans on his staff. And he’ll go to some second-line parades. But I want to see how he handles economic development. I want to see how he manages the distribution of wealth and resources. That’s the evidence I need, but I don’t have it yet.” He paused and looked around at the jubilant crowd, then shook his head. “It’s too early to tell.”

By the fall, Sanyika had what he considered enough evidence to make a firmer judgment. In early November, he sent an e-mail to his network of black professionals and activists with the subject line: “THE MAYOR DECLARES WAR ON BLACK INTERESTS—THE HONEYMOON IS OVER.”

It had been a pretty long honeymoon. A poll taken in mid-September, four months after he took office, found Landrieu’s approval rating among whites and blacks alike was sky-high—close to 90 percent. But a few weeks later, as he prepared to present his plans to close the $80 million budget gap, Landrieu’s brand of coalition politics got its first real test. In his quest to find spending cuts, he quickly focused on the city’s contracts with three sanitation firms that collect residential and commercial trash. Two of these firms are owned by African Americans, who were awarded the deals by Mayor Nagin after submitting the lowest bids in an open process in 2006. They are the two largest contracts ever given to a black-owned business by the city, and the companies have become important symbols in the black community. Their owners are treated with great deference by the city’s black press and by its black elected officials, many of whom have accepted generous political donations from the owners and their companies.

When Landrieu demanded lower prices from the firms, the white-owned company agreed to cut its price by 25 percent, but also reduced its services. Negotiations with the two black-owned firms dragged on, with the city arguing that it was paying far more than surrounding parishes, and the contractors retorting that their rates were in line with those paid by cities like St. Louis and Baton Rouge. In early November, claiming the negotiations had reached an impasse, Landrieu announced that the city would simply rebid the contracts, threatening to unilaterally cancel the ones held by the two black-owned firms. It’s not at all clear that the city has the legal authority to take such action, and the lawyer who represents both black-owned companies vowed to sue if Landrieu followed through with his threat.

In a press conference, Landrieu said he expected the dispute would take on “racial overtones.” The following day, a group of black elected officials and activists called a press conference of their own on the steps of city hall. As news cameras rolled, black city council members and state legislators took turns decrying the way the black-owned firms had been treated. It was precisely the kind of tableau that had defined the aftermath of Katrina and had so far been noticeably absent in the nascent Landrieu era.

Among the activists gathered in support of the firms, I noticed Jacques Morial. He is the younger brother of former Mayor Marc Morial, who is considered a behind-the-scenes supporter of Mitch Landrieu. (Their father is the late Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor; the Morials are, in a sense, an African American counterpart to the Landrieus.) Jacques works as a community organizer for a local civil rights advocacy group called the Louisiana Justice Institute. When I spoke with him over the summer, he had been on the fence about Landrieu, but seemed basically open-minded. But the mayor’s approach to the sanitation contracts didn’t sit well with him. “It makes me wonder whether he is really committed to coalition politics,” he said. “I mean, is this really worth the increased bargaining power he thinks he’ll get out of it?”

In fact, it turned out to be a shrewd move, one that apparently earned Landrieu quite a bit of bargaining power. Barely a week after he announced his intention to rebid, one of the firms agreed to lower its rates, shorten the length of its contract, and offer a new recycling service. A few weeks later, the other firm agreed to similar terms. It was a clear-cut win for Landrieu, who got a better deal for the city and demonstrated that he was not afraid to take on what remains of the black political establishment.

However, trouble also began to brew on the other side of Landrieu’s coalition. In addition to looking for budget cuts, Landrieu is seeking to increase city revenues, in part by raising property taxes and fees on city services. This provoked grumbling on the city council, and among some of Landrieu’s supporters in the white establishment and the business community. “It concerns me greatly. I don’t think that’s the way to go,” said Tommy Westfeldt, a major figure in the Uptown establishment. Westfeldt co-owns a coffee importing business and a poultry exporting firm. He lives in a historic Garden District mansion, serves as chair of the powerful Dock Board, and sits on the board of the locally influential Whitney Bank. Just as importantly, he is a senior figure in the Rex organization, the largest of the old-line Mardi Gras krewes, and also the most civic-minded and liberal on race. (The krewe integrated in the early 1990s.)

Westfeldt told me he generally approved of Landrieu’s administration, so far. But the tax issue was a sore spot. “You start raising taxes, and it puts a negative impact on the city,” he said. “Until you can cut as much as you can out of the budget, don’t go raising taxes!”

In New Orleans, as in much of America, whites wrongly tend to believe the public sector only benefits blacks, and blacks just as wrongly tend to believe the private sector only benefits whites. Those assumptions are what’s behind the Uptown whining about taxes and the griping about garbage contracts in the Seventh Ward. But the fight over limited resources also reflects a mutually shared unease about how New Orleans will survive as a city, especially once all the federal recovery money finally dries up. As Westfeldt put it, “I want to know, where’s the growth going to come from? How’s the city going to make it? Where’s this all going—you know?”

Around the fifth anniversary of Katrina, when the national media descended in their annual late-August swarm over New Orleans, Landrieu was a primary focus of their attention. He seemed to be on television constantly, soaking up all the well-wishes and vowing to persevere in the fight for the city’s survival. His communications office went into high gear, helping reporters cover the kinds of uplifting stories of unity and resilience they were hoping to highlight. But since then, Landrieu has avoided the spotlight and returned to the messy business of governing this fractious city.

It promises to get messier as time goes on. Landrieu appears to have triumphed in his first real tussle with the black political establishment, and has so far been spared a full-blown public feud with the white business establishment over taxes. In December, the city council approved a property tax increase only slightly lower than what Landrieu had proposed. And a poll conducted in mid-November showed that, although his approval numbers were no longer in the stratosphere, they were still very high, at 75 percent. Still, the push and pull over the budget revealed fault lines in his coalition that are likely to reappear again and again.

At a groundbreaking ceremony for a new school in November, I spoke briefly with him about the pushback he’d begun to face. “Honeymoons can’t last forever,” he said with a shrug, echoing the post-nuptial metaphor that has become the dominant way of talking about his time in office. “There are some minor hiccups about which direction we should go, but nothing out of the ordinary is happening. It’s been a pretty good run. Nobody could possibly expect there are not going to be any controversies.”

Did he worry that, going forward, every decision he made would be seen through the prism of race—by whites and black alike? “There are always going to be racial flare-ups,” he told me. “Racial conflict is alive and well. But we’re doing a lot better than we did during the past five years in managing our way through it in a much more constructive way.” The response reflected a realism about the city’s race relations that contrasted starkly with the “beautiful truth” he had invoked just a few months earlier.

Later that day, I stopped for lunch at Lil’ Dizzy’s Café, in Treme. At midday, a fairly representative sample of the city—cops, musicians, city hall workers, hotel bellhops—comes in for gumbo and fried chicken. I asked a few of my fellow diners how they thought Landrieu was doing. “We love him,” said Mike Dyal, a white landscape architect eating with his business partner. “We like the new police chief. We live in the Quarter, so for us it’s all about crime—gotta keep the crime down to keep the tourists coming.”

A few tables over, an African American jazz singer named Naydja CoJoe said she thought Landrieu was doing a good job. “I told him I’d vote for him, and I did,” she said. “I feel like I know him. But everybody knows everybody in this town, you know?”

Sitting across from CoJoe, Lonnie Batiste was less impressed. “I’m not happy with what’s happening with the garbage contracts,” she said. Batiste and her husband own a few restaurant franchises in the area. “They’re trying to make everything go back to the way it was. Mitch might have been raised different, but he’s not his daddy.”

“That’s true,” CoJoe said.

“Have you asked the former mayor what he thinks of Mitch?” Batiste asked me. I told her that Ray Nagin hadn’t spoken much to the press since leaving office last May. Batiste pointed over my shoulder. “You should go over and talk to him: he’s sitting right over there.”

Sure enough, Nagin was eating lunch with a friend and quietly holding court at the back of the café. “Here’s what I’ll tell you,” he said, pulling his chair out from the table. “Mitch is in his honeymoon period, and so far so good. It’s still early. Being mayor of New Orleans, you’re going to have complications. We’re a great city, and we come together to party for Mardi Gras and what have you. But there’s a serious divide in the city that’s under the surface, and it raises its head a lot. But Mitch will get through it!”

Nagin—who had transparently sought to exploit the city’s racial divide—now spoke about it as though it were a mysterious geological phenomenon. If his vote of confidence seemed blasé, it was probably because racial politics and other forces of nature were now the new man’s problem.

Perhaps Landrieu’s election created unrealistic expectations of unity. But it would be a shame if all those hopes were dashed too soon. It is extremely rare in American life for an elected official to win strong majority support from both black and white voters. And when it does happen, the leader usually can’t sustain the politics of unity for very long. (See: Obama, Barack.) Still, such brief periods are valuable, if only because they provide shelter for moments of racial progress within the body politic—not end points in some new “post-racial” America, but milestones along the way.

When I spoke with Moon Landrieu, he declined to share with me whatever advice he’d given his son or his thoughts about Mitch’s performance to date. Instead, he left me with a line of poetry. “I think it’s by an African American writer, and it goes something like, ‘All I know is there is a vast ocean behind me, and in front of me are the great mountains.’ I like that line. It’s a poetic way of saying that we don’t know a helluva lot about where we are. What we know is the experience behind us. And as we climb, what will we find? We can’t know.”


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