Race, Reform and Power

4 answers to the argument

We have heard the question many times before:

“Why do whites want reform now that blacks are in power, yet they never worried about it when they were in power?”

We know that hardly anyone, black or white, really believes this argument, yet it surfaces occasionally, as it did over the recent City Hall transparency veto flap. The argument is especially popular among those who have the most to lose because of reform. Since the question isn’t likely to go away soon, here are some answers to consider.

4. Back when white people were in power, other white folks were checking on them, too. During the era of machine politics there was a good government element that looked suspiciously at the (all white) machine bosses. One reason New Orleans still has so many independent boards was because of machine-era reforms to weaken the power of the bosses. Civil service reform began as a way of curtailing the arbitrary hiring power of the old machines. Whites were thrown in jail, too, most notably Governor Richard Leche and some of his cronies. As Huey Long lay dying from an assassin’s bullet, he supposedly lamented that without him to control his followers they would all wind up in jail — some did. Former State President Michael O’Keefe, once the most powerful of legislators, is now serving his second term in the federal prison and Edwin Edwards, the person who served the most terms as governor, is counting the remaining days of a 10-year sentence. Legitimate concern over the accumulation of political power knows no racial boundaries.

3. Blacks being in power is hardly novel. Dutch Morial, the city’s first black mayor, took office in 1978 (31 years ago); a black majority city council soon followed, so any effort at reform isn’t a sudden reaction against blacks.

2. If there is a new wave of reform it has nothing to do with race but rather the post-Hurricane Katrina mood to fix the things that are wrong with the city. We have rebuilt the levee board system and streamlined the assessors’ office, all to make government more efficient. Education is improving partially because of the number of new charter schools. Those schools are reaching children across the spectrum and giving them opportunities. Yet, pre-Katrina, efforts to establish charter schools were sometimes criticized as being racist because they weakened the then black majority school board. Now, more people than ever, of all races, can have a say in planning their area school. Despite the racial arguments, charter schools have empowered people, not taken power away.

1. Where there is waste in government, the most tragic victims are the ones who need government services the most, usually the poor. Those are the same people who are most exploited by the racial arguments.

That is not just a sin against race; it is a sin against democracy.

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