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An Intriguing Notion

Mitch Landrieu

This passage in a news story caught my eye. Mary Rickard for Reuters:

Along with a championship team, New Orleans has a new mayor in Mitch Landrieu, who won election on Saturday by a wide margin. Landrieu, the city’s first white mayor in more than 30 years, pledged to bridge racial divides that have grown under Ray Nagin, the current mayor.

I’m one of those white voters who always thought the mayor of New Orleans should be black. That is to say, I see the value in having a mayor of color in a place with a long, ugly, bloody legacy of racial oppression. Even though I’m just as Nordic as can be, I sympathize with the perspective of African-Americans who fought for political power and want to hold on to it and view white candidates with suspicion. No, I haven’t walked in their shoes. But I know about the systematic suppression of the black vote. That was wrong, and I always figured having a black mayor kind of helped make up for it in some way.

So that’s where I align myself. All other considerations being equal, I’m pulling for the black guy. Call me a self-loathing honky if you like; it won’t hurt my feelings.

And therefore the notion in the Reuters article intrigues me — the idea that a white man could unify a city in which politics are so racially polarized. Is that really possible? Can white unite? It seems counter-intuitive at first glance. Outsiders might even be tempted to dismiss Landrieu’s election as an effect of black voters being displaced by the flooding of New Orleans. But in fact Landrieu won something like 60% of the black vote — which is still the majority in Orleans Parish. In fact, Landrieu won every precinct but one, and that was lost by only a handful of votes. (An election map is available on NolaStat.) His victory is considered a landslide of historic proportions, considering especially it was an open primary which he won outright. It should also be noted that Mitch’s father, Moon, was famous for integrating City Hall. That was before my time, but I gather that he was quite respected by many African-Americans. Apparently he was also hated by some white folks for the same reason.

Once upon a time I was an outsider who could pretend to be above it all, or at least ignorant. The longer I live here, of course, the more I become ensnared in the local political mindset. Being a white “Yankee” working at a historically black college puts some interesting twists in it to be sure. I’m still far from understanding all the nuances of race in New Orleans, but I do know this: The racial distrust cuts both ways here. It strikes me as possible that black folks may be ready to trust a white guy. I’m not sure if the reverse is true at this particular moment.

Of course, it must be said, the white guy has to perform. Landrieu has to make good on his promises and demonstrate from the start that he intends to govern equitably. There are surely plenty of black folks who are nervous and distrustful at this turn, and surely plenty of white folks who are gleeful for all the wrong reasons. But maybe, just maybe, the time is right and the people are ready and this guy has the stuff to bring some unity and a period of healing to the city.

It strikes me as vaguely improbable. But even the improbable seems possible in New Orleans today. After the all, the Saints just won the Super Bowl.

Published inNew OrleansPolitix


  1. Anthony Anthony

    It’s even more complex than that.

    There are white folks who don’t like the Landrieu’s cause they THINK they are ONLY catering to the black community. And if it had come down to a runoff with someone like Ed Murray, who has proven himself able to get crossover votes, they probably would have gone with the black candidate.

    I think Ray’s race baiting over the last 4 years made Mitch’s election possible. Because there is a feeling that, outside of a couple of contractors, Ray really didn’t benefit anyone in New Orleans, black or white. Folks figured, given who Mitch was, with the connections he had and the energy he seems to bring to things, he’d be the anti-Ray. Connected, articulate, not going to embarrass us by going ‘off script”. And so when both John Georges put his foot in his mouth and Troy Henry started in with trying to make the election about race, these business candidates, evoked Ray.

  2. Garvey Garvey

    Maybe the black people of NO aren’t all hung up on melanin like you are and actually want results. We are in a post-racial, Obama utopia now, etc.

  3. anna anna

    hey Bart!
    Moon was biracial. So is Mitch.

  4. The white segregationists and anti-progressives hated Moon Landreiu. They used to call him “Moon the Coon”. I wonder to what extent that has carried over into more recent politics, like Couhig’s endorsement of Nagin in 06 and the recent shennanigans in Mary Landrieu’s Poydras office.

  5. It seems we are doomed to see all politics in New Orleans through a racial filter. But I can’t remember when that filter served anyone well. How about pushing for competence for a start. I cannot recall when anything I ever did relating to New Orleans officialdom felt like anything but a circus act. Hang around any court for a day or two for sad examples.

  6. Peris Peris

    So when does the tit-for-tat end? How is this not pure tokenism? Doesn’t a black mayor provide moral cover for whites in their individual interracial behaviors, and doesn’t a white mayor now remove that and put them on notice?

  7. Grampa Ray Grampa Ray

    Swiftone sounds like a visionary to me. I can’t imagine a better measure for the Mayor’s office than competence.

  8. David David

    I think Anthony is right, that it is complicated.

    Sunday, I was walking through the Quarter to Barkus. I passed a group of white people, standing on the corner, yelling “Who Dat?” Naturally, I joined them, and just as I was stepping away, I heard one of their women behind me yell, “And we got a white mayor!” I was disgusted but didn’t know what to say that was constructive. I wish I’d said, “Our last president was white, and he was a train wreck.” Ironically, of course, such people probably opposed Mary Landrieu; they seemed to be happy with their new mahor based simply on his race and not his positions.

    I wonder if Obama’s election did not make it easier for such a large portion of the black community to vote for Landrieu. Maybe some didn’t feel as constrained by voting as much by race as you described.

  9. David David

    That said, I do find the conversation about choosing “competent” officials a bit one-sided. That is, when black people choose a lousy black politician, say Marion Barry, it’s because they only vote based on race. But such seeming competence advocates never seem to consider the election of, oh, Andrew Johnson, Ulysses S. Grant, Herbert Hoover, Richard Nixon, Ronald Reagan, and George W. Bush as a negative reflection on their supporters, largely (and at times, exclusively) white men. In fact, a common meme in the 2008 election was that black people were voting for Obama because they were racist, ignoring the fact that McCain’s lilly-white supporters were voting for a guy about as white as Frosty the snowman. It was pretty clear that that was a case of projection.

    Typically, I find the demographic group with the best political instincts is black women. Hands down, the worst group is white men. (And I say that as a white man.)

  10. Garvey Garvey

    As usual, David is all wrong. Can’t quite begin to figure out his wingnut doubletalk about Bush et al., and how it has anything to do with…anything. Typical fallacy ridden wingnut “logic”. As usual.

    Electoral politics viewed solely as a racial issue are as cynical as one can get.

    No one on this page said, or suggested, that white = competent. The idea is that Mitch L was elected REGARDLESS of race… Wouldn’t that be nice?

  11. Fred E. Fred E.

    Why are you trying to out black the black folk? If it wasn’t for the black vote Landrieu would not have won the election. Give it a rest dude.

  12. In white districts, black politicians tend to do badly. They have a chance when the local black population is too small to be a swing vote. The black politician rises up catering to white demands and white culture. Districts that are nearly even in black/white population tend to have very divisive racial politics.

    In 1983 here in Chicago, black politician Harold Washington won the mayor’s office in a 3 way with two white candidates. Chicago’s black population was just a bit smaller than its white population. He had to deal with insane levels of racism and obstruction even though he always tried to deal evenly with white and black demands. To offset black voting power, white politicos created an accommodation with Latinos to keep the mayor’s office white. And Mayor Daley has integrated the Machine, supporting black politicians for powerful local offices. For a hack, Daley does try.

    In the same way that a black politician has to speak to whites in a white district, Landrieu has to cater to the black electorate. Infrogmation makes this point with Moon Landrieu, who was seen as a turncoat. The current Landrieu can’t take the black vote for granted. Of course, Nagin couldn’t either but he did.

  13. Jack Schick Jack Schick

    In Albuquerque,
    a perception of Hispanic cronyism and Hispanic soft-on-crime admins
    has resulted in a Whitey mayor. His campaign
    ads focused on the image of
    his own burned-out stolen truck, and
    he left a sense, unspoken, of the complaint about a town where
    obviously the cops are most interested in Revenue-extortion activities,
    not confronting major gang infestation.
    Now we face no money, like Uncle Sam,
    and Big “Democrat” (?) Expenses…like Uncle Sam…

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