What Has Happened Down Here Is The Wind Has Changed
“We’re all going together, and we’re not leaving anyone behind.”
— Mitch Landrieu’s victory speech on Feb.6.
As I sat and watched the first precincts from New Orleansâ€™ mayoral election roll in I sat with my jaw in my lap, trying to figure out how Erroll Williams–an African-America and leader of Dutch Morialâ€™s LIFE organization–had swept bourgewhite Lakeview for assessor. This has to be a mistake, I kept telling myself. Someone at WWL must have gotten the names and numbers mixed.
The night would prove me wrong.
I left for a Carnival party and before Iâ€™d gotten my second beer, my phone starting ringing like a fire alarm with text messages: John Georges has conceded; itâ€™s Mitch by a landslide. We left the party early and once I was home it became increasingly clear. In all but one precinct in the cityâ€”black and white, rich and poor, Uptown and Downtownâ€”Mitch Landrieu had run the table.
It’s hard to conceive a New Orleans in which Landrieu carried both the Black vote and the Lakefront neighborhoods were he stood as an iconic racial enemy, a city in which Lakeview chose a Black man from the Morial camp as their first choice for assessor, in which Stacey Head soundly trounced a reasonable challenge from the son of a prominent Black minister, in which Democrat Susan Guidry led Republican Jay Batt–the textbook example of the good old boy from Lakeview–in a district that combines the Lakefront with parts of uptown and which once reliably sent Republicans to City Hall.
This is without a doubt the most important election of our lifetime. I don’t say that lightly, not with Obama as President, but face it: Obama lost miserably in deep Dixie and what I think of as Greater Idaho, the mountain and upper Midwest. In New Orleans last Saturday we turned that racial profile on its head.
Some people are not going to be very happy about this, the people Black and white who have made race a staple of their political diet for a long time. As I drove onto the neutral ground of Elysian Fields, I accidentally punched up WBOK on the car radio for a minute, and I listed briefly as a man I would guess is about my age (he had the gravelly voice of a lifetime smoker, and I pegged in for someone in his 40s or 50s) who sounded wounded and confused, trying to understand what has happened. Raised his whole life (as I was) to believe that race mattered and suddenly people he thought he knew and understood had turned around on him and done something inconceivable. I understood how he felt. It was the same feeling people all over New Orleans had when they discovered the Good Hands People had been taking their money and lying to them for 20 years, when they discovered the country they thought they were a part of was not coming to help. They were on their own in a world where all their fundamental assumptions were shattered. I pondered that a minute, then punched the radio off and headed off to the Quarter, into a night where black and white were the color of a jersey and nothing else mattered.
I used to get paid to come up with political story lines and I could suggest some to the hosts and guests of WBOK, starting with the precinct changes, but also including the Saints, Georges spreading money around in the Black community–give me some time, I’m sure I can come up with a few others–that will be used to explain why this was not a “fair and representative” election. There are too many people too deeply invested in an exclusively racial storyline who are going to work very hard to try to preserve their position to let this go, but they’re also going to have to explain Erroll Williams sweeping Lakeview.
Out on the white Lakefront, they will excuse their vote for the devil’s own spawn with some mumbling about competence and coming together, but that won’t explain Head’s victory, Guidry’s lead or Williams for Assessor, won’t explain how they tossed their own Jay Batt under the bus for a Democrat. Something has happened which the old narratives doesn’t explain, something as radical as Rabbi Jesus coming along and saying: forget everything you know, I am the way and the whole damn thing fits on a 3×5 card and is as simple as this: love your brother as yourself.
I think I might have to slip over to Lakeview for coffee or lunch a couple of times this week, maybe have a drink at the Steakknife Restaurant, to get a feel for what turned the Lakeview voters for Landrieu. Something seriously transformative happened on Saturday, and there are going to be a lot of people working very hard to make sure this has not undermined them (and that’s not just about the reaction of the African-American community, but also the people who for the last generation have used Hate Landrieu as a socially convenient code for their own racially charged views.The world that Batt and Rob Couhig and their ilk move in can’t very happy about all this either.
If people who have used race as a key part of their political planning on both sides of the divide woke up Sunday morning into a world where that doesn’t necessarily work anymore, then Saturday’s election is more important than Obama’s (even if he helped pave the way, just as Moon Landrieu opened the door for Dutch Morial), for the reason I already stated. Imagine Obama elected carrying Alabama and Idaho.
For the last several years many people, myself included, have held up the response of the United States to the Federal Flood as a measure of whether America was all it claimed to be, as a way to figure out if the venomous political climate of the last generation had sundered America into warring camps and the wrong side winning. I stood up (sort of) on Wet Bank Guide a few years ago and said this: The American experiment is over and the results are in. It failed.
As I have explained over and over again, the American Dream isn’t something I discarded out of some Euro-hipster allegiance to my favorite Marxist professor. It is something that was brutally wrenched away from me in 2005, the foundations weakened by decades of political venom that worked. I would love to be able to leave that cynicism behind, to hear “Washington” and not think “the central government”.
Now we have a different benchmark. Can America measure up to the standard we have set for them? If it cannot, then I will stand by my original take, but to get to that point we first have to stand up to the task we have set for ourselves, to make this the first city in the deep South–perhaps the first city in America–to truly transcend our past and become a place where race is no more a factor than black or white jerseys.
That’s a tough order, but we’re a tough people. What we have been through the last several years has tempered us, and I have to believe that the hope I nurtured four years ago–that the Federal Flood was an equally transformative event, that it made us all equal in the eyes of God, one people with one common experience–might finally triumph because it prepared us for this moment, for this second opportunity to build on that and make this city right.
One Flood. One Team. One City. One People. We need to prove ourselves equal to our own opinion of ourselves, to the standard set by this election and by the Saints. Out football team has shown the world. Now it’s our turn.