One day race will not become a dominant meme in a New Orleans election. Unfortunately, that day is not upon us. In recent weeks, several public officials and candidates for mayor showed they're still willing to use racial division as a pry bar, if not a cudgel, to further their own ambitions. The good news: It's not working like it used to.
The issue of race first surfaced when mayoral candidate Troy Henry called a Jan. 6 press conference to deliver a speech called "The Media Reports on Race." Henry claimed that "some media reports want to diminish this election to race," and he accused some of attempting to marginalize black candidates by over-emphasizing polls. In truth, an independent poll completed just a week earlier showed Henry as the leading black candidate among African-American voters, but with only 12 percent of the black vote. Lt. Gov. Mitch Landrieu was getting nearly half the black vote (46 percent) in that same poll. Those numbers suggest that African-American voters, at least at that point in the campaign, were considering all options. Perhaps fearing that outcome, Henry ramped up his rhetoric a week later at the Urban League debate, saying there is "a move afoot ... to neuter African-American power."
Meanwhile, at a Jan. 8 forum sponsored by the Orleans Parish Democratic Executive Committee, Republican-turned-independent-turned-Democrat John Georges strained to establish his credentials with the largely black audience by describing the proposed LSU teaching hospital in Lower Mid-City as a "plantation." His comment drew nervous giggles and murmurs. At the same forum, Georges said, "Mitch Landrieu is a leader. But you know, I tell you, we still have a Republican as a U.S. Attorney. I voted for Barack Obama, so I'd have a new U.S. Attorney." Despite his follow-up statement — "It's not a racial thing; it's a Democratic thing" — Georges came off as pandering in his assumption that a black audience wouldn't support the work of U.S. Attorney Jim Letten. Georges issued a statement the next day saying he supports Letten, then told The Times-Picayune he was "joking" the whole time.
The worst offender, though, was New Orleans Police Superintendent Warren Riley, who in a Jan. 6 appearance on WBOK-AM said City Councilwoman Stacy Head referred to him as (in his words) "the N-word" in an email. By last Monday (Jan. 11), Riley backed off, telling WDSU-TV he'd never actually seen such an email and didn't have proof Head had ever written such a thing. Among those who heard only Riley's radio interview or who chose to believe it, however, the damage to Head's reputation — and her campaign for re-election — was done.
Riley later dismissed the whole matter as no big deal. We disagree. Suppose, for example, such an email did exist, and suppose Head dismissed it as no big deal. Would that be good enough for Riley? Of course not, and fairness dictates that Riley cannot blithely brush aside his own race baiting. He owes Head — and the citizens of New Orleans — a sincere apology. If he won't offer one, he should resign or be fired. His willingness to deliberately make an unfounded, incendiary accusation against another public official in this city's racially charged political climate is irresponsible and reprehensible. We think it renders him unfit to lead NOPD, whose mission is to protect and to serve all New Orleanians. Man up, Chief, or step down.
Less than 20 years ago, Louisiana voters were confronted with the possibility of a white neo-Nazi in our state's highest office. Rather than allow David Duke to spew his venom from the governor's office, we held our collective nose and elected the corrupt Edwin Edwards to a fourth term. Since then, Louisianans have elected our first woman governor, the nation's first Indian-American governor, and the nation's first Vietnamese-American congressman.
New Orleanians are not yet deaf to the dog whistle of political race baiting, but we have come a long way — as have most Americans — in overcoming our prejudices. We have miles to go, but young people in particular have shown remarkable colorblindness when it comes to voting. That should give us all hope for the future. Meanwhile, sadly, some candidates and public officials remain only too eager to play to people's worst instincts.