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.