City Elections: The Politics of Race

Throughout this month there will be politicking for city elections heading to the voting date on Feb. 1. This quadrennial exercise in democracy can be both entertaining and maddening; uplifting and discouraging.

There will be lots of political analysis during the month, but whether the political correctness crowd wants to admit it or not, the elephant in the room that dominates all campaign strategies will be race. Essentially, black politicians have been hoping to regain some of the political ground lost since Hurricane Katrina realigned voting patterns; white politicians are hoping not to be shut out in urban politics as much as they were before the storm.

Two recent rather low profile elections, one for judgeships on the West Bank and the other for the Orleans Parish School Board, showed the rebuilding of black muscle as white incumbents were swept out by black challengers.

For most of recent history, since the election of Dutch Morial, New Orleans has had a black mayor and a black majority on the city council. That changed four years ago with the election of Mitch Landrieu. Also, the council now has a 4-3 white majority.

We hasten to mention though that while race is the major factor, racism is not. There are no serious white candidates spouting anti-black dogma, and no major black candidates preaching anti-white. Instead the exercise is basic to politics globally as social divisions want to increase influence. In some parts of the world, that is handled through ballots; in a few places with guns. It speaks well of a nation when people believe in elections rather than battlefields as the place to settle their differences.

For the most part, at least compared to other American cities, the races have gotten along well in New Orleans. There were never major race riots here. The housing patterns were dispersed throughout the city. No one sees race when Drew Brees connects to Marques Colston or when Anthony Davis flies about the court to slam a dunk shot. Mayor Mitch Landrieu is the son of a former mayor who made an all-out effort to integrate city government and who was elected by the black vote.

Where there is racial tension, it has most often been stirred up by politics. It is the one area of public life where targeting according to race guarantees some success. All serious candidates have their maps and demographic studies. They know what the vote is in each neighborhood and who to target.

Four years ago the election was particularly uplifting. On Saturday Feb. 6, 2010, Mitch Landrieu was elected in a primary victory without the need for a divisive runoff. He carried both the black and white vote. On that day the city stood united, but not as united as it would be the next day when the Saints won the Super Bowl. Poor Landrieu never got much spotlight time; a color-blind city was too busy partying.

Race will not be a factor forever; in fact, its hold may already be weakening. As a black middle class strengthens, its people will have more in common with the white middle class. Their concerns will be about quality of life. The bi-racial middle class will not be as susceptible to pandering.

New Orleans is very much on the move. Let’s keep the momentum. To be a great city, we deserve an election in which quality trumps prejudice.

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