Topic: Dutch to Barack
From Dutch Morial to Barack Obama
Thirty years after Dutch, Obama makes an historic breakthrough using a completely different political style
By J.B. Borders
The Hornets’ season is over but not all our hopes have been dashed. The city’s recovery keeps inching forward and, on the national front, Barack Obama has become the presumptive Democratic Party candidate for the presidency of the United States.
As fate would have it, Obama’s monumental breakthrough comes 30 years after Ernest “Dutch” Morial was inaugurated as the first black mayor of New Orleans. It’s tempting to draw parallels between them as political long shots who overcame incredible odds to snare their respective political brass rings. Tempting, but also too neat.
Though both are the personification of political change, Morial and Obama are products of different eras. Dutch was forged in the Jim Crow South. By the time he became mayor, he represented the last vestiges of the Black Power Movement that helped speed the dismantling of legalized segregation.
Morial’s combative personal style, his refusal to be punked or to play the punk owed more to the tradition of Malcolm X and Rap Brown than it did to the low-key nice-guy mannerisms of Presidents Gerald Ford and Jimmy Carter or the pretend-tough-guy persona of Ronald Reagan, the hero of ignorant, angry, mediocre white folks then and now.
Barack Obama, on the other hand, is the first major beneficiary of fundraising and political organizing in the Internet age. He’s also a bi-racial product of the post-colonial, post-civil rights global village, a point he emphasizes at every available opportunity.
Obama has also proved all too willing to be manipulated by adversarial forces, based on his handling of the Jeremiah Wright issue and his defense of Israel’s illegal occupation of Palestinian territories. And while Obama’s speech on race was refreshingly candid and conscientiously balanced, it wasn’t exactly a ringing endorsement of affirmative action or social and economic justice for black folks.
To his credit, Dutch would have been more emphatic than Obama about the need to dismantle racism and unwarranted white privilege. That might help explain why the 30th anniversary of Morial’s inauguration came and went with so little fanfare (save for the efforts of the African American Leadership Project and the dustup over the changing of the convention center’s branding): too many people are now uncomfortable about advocating for remedies to lessen African American inequities in wealth, employment, education, life expectancy, incarceration, etc .
Obama’s no exception in this regard. He can’t endorse too much black justice these days. It’s apparently part of the pact he’s made in exchange for the amazing $300+ million his campaign has raised to date from tens of thousands of small donors.
Remember, that was the early knock against him – the black guy can’t raise enough real money to be a serious player. And those pundits might have been proved right had it not been for one undervalued and unconventional opportunity. For while the Clintons and other Washington insiders had locked up all the usual strongholds of Democratic funding across the country, they had also overlooked a veritable untapped pot of gold in northern California – Silicon Valley, Nerd World, land of the rich and the restlessly visionary.
Silicon Valley is the one and perhaps only place in America where everyone lives to latch onto the next big new thing before it proves itself in the marketplace, even if that big new thing takes the form of a charismatic, mixed-race presidential candidate.
So, through this one-time-only opportunity, Barack Obama had a clear field to become America’s first techno-populist president – if he could downplay the conventional black-white divide and sell himself as a uniter, not a fighter. That’s why he was forced to denounce Rev. Wright. That’s why he and his handlers will kick any other serious black issue to the curb, at least until the White House is secured. No person of color has ever come this close to winning the presidency. He can’t afford to let anything trip him up now.
Obama’s quest has been aided immeasurably by the Republican Party’s nomination of John McCain. After five years of war in Iraq, more than 4,000 American soldiers have been killed and another 30,000 injured. And, according to the U.S. military’s own reports, 1,000 current and former combatants attempt suicide each month. But McCain wants to stay in Iraq for 100 years, if necessary, to bring “peace and democracy” to the Middle East.
He should be the perfect foil for Obama, this John McCain. He should be what Joe DiRosa was for Dutch Morial’s history-making mayoral campaign 30 years ago – a white man so indisputably dumb many of his own people will be too embarrassed to support him and so might vote for a smart black guy instead, especially if the black guy is not too black in appearance or policy.
Still, the election won’t be a cakewalk. According to several polls, 15-25 percent of white voters say race is a factor in their choice for president. So even though Obama will be the patently superior candidate with the more sensible platform, a lot of McCain’s fellow whites will vote for him anyway. In that regard, the presidential election of 2008 will be interpreted as a referendum on racism in the United States. If you’re white and you vote for McCain, chances are you’re racist. It’ll be good to finally quantify that kind of idiocy.
Meanwhile, as Obama’s star rises, Dutch’s luster continues to grow dull. Some people have suggested that the less said about the Morials these days, the better. After all, Dutch’s brother-in-law, his sister-in-law and various members of the Marc Morial administration have seriously sullied the Morial reputation. Some folks insist the damage is beyond repair. Time will tell, of course. But 20 years from now, on the 50th anniversary of Dutch Morial’s inauguration, it’ll be interesting to see what kind of attention the occasion receives and what the general assessment will be of Dutch’s contributions to the development of the city.
Five years ago, at the 25th anniversary celebration of Dutch’s mayoralty, Xavier University President Norman Francis spoke candidly about the differences between himself and his good friend Ernest Morial. In a nutshell, he described Morial as a challenger and himself as a bargainer, to use Shelby Steele’s recently published classifications (which are a nuanced update of the old “house Negro/field Negro” dichotomy).
I thought about Francis’ assessment a few months ago when he was named the most influential leader in New Orleans by a poll of predominately “white movers and shakers.” True to form, a white-owned publication promptly put a caricature of Francis on their cover, grinning from ear to ear. He was cited for chairing the Louisiana Recovery Authority and guiding its efforts to bring disparate governmental and private sector forces together to rebuild southeast Louisiana.
Though Francis’s work has been truly laudable, the message embedded in the caricature was unmistakably clear: be extra-affable, black people, or be history. Don’t bring any of that glowering, hollering, pissed-off, snarling Negro attitude up in here, up in here. No signifying, loud-capping, snapping or gangsta rappin’ allowed. If you feel your pain, keep it to yourself. Grin and bear it. Everyone knows you’re getting ripped off, stepped on, cleared out. But let’s pretend it’s the best thing for you. Things had to change anyway. Somebody might as well profit from it. Even though it won’t be you, be happy for those who are successfully exploiting the situation.
Dutch probably couldn’t make it in this post-Black Power, pseudo-kinder and gentler era. He’d bust a gut if he couldn’t go off on some sho’ nuff stupidity with his characteristic retorts: Shut up, sit down or meet me outside.
Barack, on the other hand, will be forced to keep his temper in check. Like Colin Powell. Like Jackie Robinson. Like Bill Cosby once upon a time. To break form and raise your voice is to risk being called a lunatic or a divisive element.
Of course, I always say a black person who’s not angry is a black person who hasn’t been paying attention.
Thankfully, righteous indignation never stays out of fashion for long. When it does come back in style once again, maybe Dutch will be one of its exemplars. A lot can happen in 20 years. For certain, 2008 will be remembered as the year a white man was named valedictorian at Morehouse, a half-white man was named executive director of the NAACP and a half-African was elected president of the United States.
Maybe it will also be remembered as the year we finally started to make things right in New Orleans, America and the rest of the globe.
That’s a hope worth clinging onto for another six months, at least.