Since Hurricane Katrina, people all over New Orleans have argued about whether — and how — our city should change. In many ways, those arguments are moot. The city has changed without anybody taking a vote. The only question is, how will those changes affect our politics?
The answer is up to New Orleans voters.
Let's take an objective look at how New Orleans has changed, and let's start by debunking some myths and analyzing what's actually happening.
Myth Number 1: The city is shifting from a black majority to a white majority.
Reality: New Orleans still has a significant black majority in population and voter registration. On Jan. 1, 2006 — right after Katrina — the city's electorate was 63.6 percent black. The latest monthly figures from the Secretary of State's office now peg that figure at 62.3 percent.
Analysis: While the total number of registered voters has changed very little, the level of voter participation has changed dramatically, particularly among black voters. Except for Mayor Ray Nagin's re-election bid in 2006 and Barack Obama's successful race for president last Nov. 4, black voters have stayed home in droves.
In some instances, black voter participation was so low that whites comprised a majority or near majority of the votes cast. The results of those low turnouts are all around us: white majorities on the City Council and the Orleans Parish School Board, a white district attorney and even an Asian congressman from a solidly black-majority district.
The important thing to remember in each of those elections is that the outcome was determined by the low level of black turnout, not by some seismic "demographic shift." The lone exception in those races is DA Leon Cannizzaro, who historically enjoyed significant levels of support among black voters, even in elections with large black turnouts.
Which brings me to Myth Number 2: Voting patterns in New Orleans continue to follow racial lines.
Reality: In most elections since Katrina, white and black voters have "crossed over" in record numbers. Mitch Landrieu got 25 percent of the black vote in the 2006 mayoral primary, and his 20 percent of the black vote in the runoff was a record for a black-versus-white mayoral runoff. Other citywide officials, both black and white, have enjoyed large crossover votes since then. Ditto for Obama, whose vote total in New Orleans (nearly 80 percent) far exceeded black registration and turnout.
Analysis: While Nagin and some others love to throw down the race card to suit their selfish purposes, more and more New Orleans voters are looking past race.
So, what does this tell us about the next round of citywide elections? It depends on whether the major candidates choose to follow the "old" paradigm of racial politics or bring a new paradigm to the table.
What new paradigm?
How about age? In a reversal of earlier trends, New Orleans has gotten younger since Katrina. In fact, the single largest bloc of registered voters in town is voters age 21-34. There are more than 78,000 of them. The next largest bloc is the nearly 52,000 voters age 45-54 — and the "young" voters outnumber them by 50 percent.
New Orleans' next mayoral race could see the same generational shift that defined Obama's campaign for president. For the first time in memory, New Orleans has a majority of voters under the age of 45. A total of 138,582 voters are younger than 45, whereas fewer than 134,000 voters are older than 45.
Most important of all, younger voters are far less likely to look at candidates through a racial prism, which gives us the potential for our first post-racial campaign for mayor.
For some, the idea of a race that's not about race is unfathomable. It will be interesting to see if any of the candidates in next year's citywide elections think otherwise. No doubt some will work very hard to keep the racial prism in place, but time — and our city's younger electorate — is not on their side.