Power Plays and Useful Idiots
The mayor’s race is about the next four generations for black folks, not simply the next four years
By J.B. Borders
Even to the casual observer, it’s a ludicrous notion: a black political majority voluntarily surrenders its power and submits itself to white minority rule because it is dissatisfied with the commitment to black interests of its current chief black elected official.
And yet, that’s precisely the issue being contested in the New Orleans mayoral election in May 2006.
There are, of course, those who vehemently deny that race is a central factor in the contest. They say the election is about selecting a person with genuine leadership qualities, communications skills and the capability to rebuild New Orleans and protect its lives and property when the next storms come howling in our direction.
That’s all true, but it’s only part of the story. Mayors should be able to lead diverse constituencies and to inspire confidence in their followers. However, the main prize to be won or lost in this election has almost nothing to do with individuals and the next four years and practically everything to do with groups and the next four generations.
The overarching issue is which racial group will impose its will in this crucial contest – the city’s black majority or its white minority? And what implications does victory in this election have on the future of New Orleans?
The really nutty thing about all this is that in order for the white minority to have a shot at winning back political power (they have never even been remotely threatened economically), they have had to convince a sizable percentage of seemingly sane black folks to become useful idiots – unwitting traitors to their own group interests in the befuddled belief that they are serving some higher, greater good. And there has been no shortage of misguided, myopic, misanthropic Negroes willing to publicly side with the white supremacist agenda.
Initially, of course, the white community thought it could remain the numerical majority in post-Katrina New Orleans after the black population had been either evacuated, killed off or incarcerated. But as the poet-philosopher Bill Gex has explained, “Black folks are cockroaches in the kitchen of the universe. You can never get rid of them completely.”
And sure enough, after the flood waters receded, increasing numbers of African Americans began resurfacing in New Orleans neighborhoods. Gradually, the smiles started disappearing from white folks’ faces in the vanilla sections of the city. Grimly, their power brokers began to rethink their political strategies. They realized they couldn’t win by just aggregating their own votes, they also had to convince lots of black people to support their quest for control.
That’s when they started their campaign to convince black folks that we would be better off with a white man than with a white man’s Negro. Having a Ray Nagin in office made it an easier sell than it should have been. After all, he was the white electorate’s overwhelming choice four years ago. Moreover, the anti-corruption probes abetted by his administration during its first term struck at the heart of city’s alleged Creole Mafia. These probes and crackdowns further alienated a sector of the tiny but influential black middle class from Nagin while seemingly raising his stock in the white community.
But things changed quickly after the storm. Apparently, due to his supposed candor and alleged communications and leadership deficiencies, Nagin is now a pariah among most of his former white cronies.
The heart of the matter is much more basic, I believe. Now that there is an opportunity to loot some serious money – not just TV sets and tennis shoes – suddenly there is no black person qualified enough to lead the city, white folks have told us repeatedly in so many words since the extent of the damage to New Orleans has become clear.
Emboldened by what they perceive as a once-in-a-lifetime chance to rid New Orleans of its Black Problem (and the city’s intolerable rates of poverty and crime), several of Nagin’s supposed white friends and acquaintances have publicly trashed him in recent weeks in political forums, in articles and books, in political ads and on talk shows.
You would think that most black folks would take this turnabout in sentiment as an object lesson, i.e., like they turned on him, they’ll turn on you. You would think we would take note of this development and realize that the majority of white folks think black folks are not the best qualified people for any of the jobs we hold unless we are athletes, minstrels or menial laborers.
So when our so-called white friends rook us into believing that the real issue in the mayoral campaign is about getting the best person for the job, we should recognize the implications for our own jobs, too, especially if we happen to be elected officials or small business owners or corporate executives or civil servants or doctors, lawyers or Mardi Gras Indian chiefs.
You would think we would see straight through this ruse. Instead we have bunches of simple-minded colored folks joining these crackerfied choruses shouting, “Yes, Lord, give us a solicitous, patronizing, grandstanding, glad-handing white man as our leader. We will gladly be subservient sidekicks if he promises us a little something-something on the side. What choice do we have? The black guy doesn’t play ball with us.”
New Orleans has long been known as the capital of sycophantic, handkerchief-head Negroes, but this latest round of public boot-licking is a new low for the post-Black Power Era.
Some observers say we brought this disgrace on ourselves four years ago when the machine-controlled black electorate positioned the semiliterate police chief to run against the white business community’s cable executive who happened to be colored and incorruptible. The choice was supposed to be obvious, wasn’t it?
This time around the contest has been fashioned into a choice between the privileged white guy with strong political connections and the bumbling black guy with no solid allies. Once again, the choice is supposed to be obvious.
And if a decisive number of black folks go for the okey-doke, what will it mean? Probably a majority white electorate within four years and an unbroken line of white political leadership for the rest of this century. And though it seems counterintuitive to some folks, white political leadership will spell the economic doom of New Orleans. Here’s why.
I agree that New Orleans has only one shot at greatness as a city and as an economic engine. That path to greatness begins by building on the Crescent City’s reputation as a culturally distinct place. The city’s major cultural assets are all closely identified with black creativity – jazz and gumbo. However, black cultural expression in the context of white political domination smacks of slavery and colonialism. This will make New Orleans seem an even more tainted, backward place in the eyes of the world. No amount of spin will change this basic fact.
Worse, the political subordination of black New Orleans will also provoke constant political agitation from local, national and international black and progressive non-black communities. The political liberation of New Orleans will become a global cause celebre that will derail the potentially explosive economic development the region could experience.
A Vision of Greatness
I generally sum up my vision of what New Orleans can become in the 21st century with the shorthand description, “In the bowl but off the grid.”
Since geography is destiny, we need to build up our levees and wetlands to provide greater protection to the city during hurricane season. We also need to be the most energy self-reliant and self-sufficient city in the world, using solar and lunar power technologies to light and cool our homes and buildings to an unprecedented degree. We should be selling energy to Entergy, not buying it from them.
We also need to be the “greenest city in the world,” using this opportunity to rebuild affordable homes and businesses with new energy-efficient, storm-resistant materials. In fact, given the volume of building that will be taking place here, we need to be the epicenter of the green building movement with the requisite factories to produce new building materials and energy systems for the Gulf Coast, the Caribbean and Latin America.
That also means we need to be committed to moving to a post-petroleum economy for the city and the Gulf – especially ceasing to be reliant on drilling activities in the Gulf that help to increase the warming of those waters in the summer months, not to mention helping to fuel global warming in general.
In order to be masters of our economic fate, New Orleans also needs to be the most literate city in the world. That means a major commitment to high-quality life-long education, especially the education of African-American men and boys. Getting there will require inexpensive universal access to the Internet for all Orleanians and the willingness to employ and adapt proven literacy programs that use local culture as a cornerstone of the learning process. It also means infusing more arts and culture in the education system and an increased focus on applied science and math, especially those applications related to the protection and survival of New Orleanians.
Of course, literacy must result in living-wage jobs for people who are literate. And we must encourage entrepreneurship and microenterprise development across the board and ensure that no one leaves prison without sufficient basic literacy and numeracy skills that can make them gainfully employed upon release.
I think we need to create man-made beaches to boost the leisure component of our tourism industry and to continue to emphasize music and food and a good-time culture as the competitive advantages of our tourism industry.
But I also think special efforts need to be made to make New Orleans a new world-city connected to the economies and cultures of Latin America, India, China, Africa, the Middle East, Japan and the Caribbean as well as the U.S. and Europe. That means it must be a town that is aggressive in courting and welcoming large numbers of entrepreneurial and highly capitalized people of color from across the globe who want to own a piece of the action in a new, larger world-class New Orleans.
Remember, people of color make up more than 80% of the world population and are seizing political and economic control all over the globe. The new international centers of the 21st century will possess these demographics and power dynamics or they'll become economically irrelevant.
I don't expect government to make all of this happen in New Orleans; I just don't expect it to prevent it or to slow it down. We have to leap-frog lots of other cities to become a desirable place to live and work and invest in.
The next four years are going to be tough any way you look at it, but reverting to white-minority rule is a step in the wrong direction. It sends the wrong signal to the rest of the world. It sends the wrong message to our psyches. It says the wrong thing about our capabilities as a people. It sets the wrong example for our young. It’s just plain wrong.