Jul 11 2006
Notes from New Orleans: The Content Of Our Character
June 29, 2006
By Deborah Cotton
I recently spoke with local activist Malcolm Suber at a demonstration to reopen public housing. He was explaining the strategy of setting up a tent city in front of the housing projects to bring media attention and force the feds to reopen the undamaged apartments so displaced people can return home.
“We’re trying to put pressure on the U.S. government to meet U.N. standards. And our Uncle Tom mayor …”
Suber is a stark contrast to the angry yet well-mannered Black activists here in the genteel south. He doesn’t mind publicly calling our elected patriarch any and everything but a child of God. Still, his penchant for name-calling is startling to hear down here in the South where manners tend to trump outrage.
“Black people stood up for him,” he continued. “It’s time for him to stand up for us. We still have no jobs, no schools, all the things that need to be repaired have not been repaired. He still seems to be listening to white business Uptown. Black people hustled to vote for him. But I don’t see any hustling on his part.” Casting a look over at the homeless tenants erecting tents in the middle of the street without trace of ‘hizzoner’ anywhere in sight, he remarked in disgust. “He shoulda been here by now.”
In these recent days of voting schizophrenia, I was so surprised to hear a Black person openly expressing disdain for Clarence Ray Nagin, I went straight to the blunt question.
“So … who did you vote for in the election?”
“Oh, I voted for Nagin,” Malcolm admitted candidly.
A needle ripped over the record. My mind drifted momentarily to that seminal Rick James moment in Charlie Murphy’s True Hollywood Stories on the Dave Chapelle show when Rick is questioned about destroying Eddie Murphy’s white suede sofa.
“What am I gon’ do, just grind my feet in someone’s couch like it’s something to do? C’mon now, I got a little more sense than that …” (pause). “Yeah, I remember grinding my feet on Eddie’s couch.”
Suber continued on. “I didn’t support him. Black people were concerned about that seat. It was a vote for hope that we can make him stand up. It was about Black self-determination, not a vote for him. We have no love for Ray Nagin. We have love for ourselves.”
He added, almost to himself, “Hopefully, we can exact something from him.”
Now that the coast is clear, New Orleans voters, political analysts, and Black power leaders are coming out of the woodwork, fessing up loudly, publicly — proudly even — that Black people voted en masse to keep a Black mayor in place, despite the fact they have no faith in his leadership or policies as they relate to the Black community.
One of those Black power leaders who worked diligently to get Ray re-elected was Dorothy Brown, a native Louisianan who is now Chicago’s circuit court clerk. A jubilant Dorothy spoke at Nagin’s inauguration, invoking the words of the Reverend Martin Luther King Jr. to contextualize Black New Orleans’ victory for the world.
Nagin’s “re-election should be a symbol of what is supposed to be good about America: that we are supposed to be judged by the content of our character, not the color of our skin.”
Of all the MLK quotes that abound, that ‘content of our character’ one is our favorite go-to sound bite for all political rallies, demonstrations, and election stump speeches. It’s the bedrock motto of our Civil Rights movement.
And yet, it seems that when it comes to walking Martin’s talk, we aren’t able to go the distance anymore. That ‘not judging one by the color of their skin’ business doesn’t apply to us because … well, DAMMIT, we’ve been wronged! We have our political correct, Black-conscious rationales for why that rule of thumb doesn’t pertain to us. And if you question us too much on it, we’ll unleash four hundred years of pent up rage on you and send you scalded and running.
But after the dust settles, what does our double standard say to the world about the content of our character?
When we reject our own core principles, when we cockily adopt tactics that we once decried, when we vote based on skin color rather than substance of policies or character or trustworthiness, we weaken our credibility, undercut our power, diminish our relevance, converting ourselves into pawns of fate rather than directors of our destiny. We continue to move further and further away from who we say we are until we are no longer recognizable to ourselves or our allies. We become a caricature of what we once were and give our detractors grounds for disavowing our stance for justice.
Nagin’s political strategist Jim Carvin, who the Times Picayune reports, has ‘a flair for negative campaigning — “a way with the knife”, is now touting his own cleverness at having played on the fears of some Black voters that the White establishment was trying to “take back” the city. They aired ‘us against them’ radio ads, made veiled remarks as to the reasons why anyone but a Black person would have the audacity to even consider running for office in New Orleans. Yet when challenged by local news anchor Norm Robinson, Nagin admitted on a national televised debate that he’d never actually heard any White Uptown agent provocateur organizing to shut Blacks out of New Orleans — a contradiction of his earlier statement that arrogant Whites had actually said as much to his face. In a nutshell, he and his ‘ends justified the means’ campaign manager played upon Black people’s fears during the worst trauma of our natural lives in order to win re-election.
By fighting a dirty, racially-polarizing fight, Nagin showed us the content of his character. And by playing the game along with him and voting for a candidate based on race rather than being willing to choose rationally based on their policies and track record, we have called into question the content of ours. Perhaps his opponent Lt. Governor Mitch Landrieu wasn’t the ideal candidate. But one thing is certain — his track record for social justice and his position that all devastated neighborhoods should be rebuilt helps the current plight of the Black community in New Orleans more than Nagin’s policies of ‘shrinking the footprint’, starving certain Black neighborhoods of utilities and services, and staying mute while the feds permanently shutter public housing.
We made the color of the mayor and the potential for Blacks to maintain our majority status the same thing — but it’s not. Not letting ‘them’ have the city is not the same thing as letting one of ‘them’ be mayor any more than having one of ‘ours’ in power means ‘we’ have any real power. A simplistic, one-dimensional analysis of the candidates and our reactionary double standard voting will not garner the results we are looking for — because resolving the crisis plaguing New Orleans requires a deeper commitment to justice and higher standards of ethics and accountability for our leaders and ourselves than relying on discriminatory strategies.
Double standard is a double edged sword. By trying to play by the rules we decry as unfair when others do it, we set ourselves up to lose what we’re fighting for, sabotaging our best interest for the sake of winning a pissing match. Only by really living the principles of Martin, not just paying lip service, will we ever regain our wisdom, sanity, and power as leaders for justice.
Will the Black community survive this era of reconstruction? Most certainly — we’re wired for survival. But for all our machinations to keep a Black figurehead in office, we have just ensured that the mayoral candidate with the least favorable policies towards the Black community remains at the helm of our city’s re-invention. So if we end up with less ‘chocolate’ at the end of four more years, it won’t because the White bogeyman Uptown ran us out of town. It will be because we voted ourselves right on out of New Orleans.
Deborah Cotton is a freelance journalist and public speaker based in New Orleans, covering on-the-ground stories of the city’s recovery and chronicling the rebuilding efforts of the historic Ninth Ward. She can be reached at Deborah.firstname.lastname@example.org.
Filed under: Good Governance
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