Imagine for a moment that Salt Lake City was hit by a massive earthquake that toppled buildings, destroyed infrastructure and made the city unlivable for months. Much of the city’s population fled, many never to return. Then imagine that the mayor began wistfully extolling the virtues of his town in barely veiled racial euphemisms. "Salt Lake City has always been a plain vanilla town," he says, at first only before audiences he thinks will warm to the message. Then, as the city starts to rebuild, the mayor hints that he’s not thrilled that many of the jobs to rebuild the city are going to Latinos and blacks, many of whom did not live in Salt Lake before disaster struck. Before long, the mayor gets bolder in his appeals. "It’s time for us to rebuild Salt Lake City — the one that should be a vanilla Salt Lake," he says. "I don’t care what people are saying Uptown or wherever they are, this city will be vanilla at the end of the day. This city will be a majority white city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have Salt Lake City any other way. It wouldn’t be Salt Lake City."
Are you squirming yet? I certainly would be. And if this fictional scenario played out in real life with the mayor actively discouraging non-whites from moving into Salt Lake City, the feds would be on the case. Housing discrimination is against the law — it has been since Congress passed the Fair Housing Act of 1968. A city official who made clear his intention to keep his city white would not only incur the wrath of the federal government, but he’d likely be hounded from office by the media.
So why is it that New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin — whose comments I’ve paraphrased above, substituting "vanilla" for "chocolate" and Salt Lake City for New Orleans — can get away with such blatantly racist claptrap? Most major newspapers buried the mayor’s comments, if they reported them at all, and those national news programs that played them did so largely without commentary. I can’t imagine a white mayor praising the racial purity of a white community getting similar treatment.
For all his appeals to black solidarity, the irony is that Ray Nagin wouldn’t be mayor of New Orleans were it not for whites. Nagin won election as a political novice in 2002 because white voters overwhelmingly cast their ballots for him. According to Ed Renwick, the director of Loyola University’s Institute of Politics, Nagin won about 90 percent of whites’ votes, but less than half of blacks’. Perhaps he thinks he can curry favor with New Orleans’ African-American community by appealing to race. But those who were stuck for days in the Convention Center during Hurricane Katrina may not soon forget that their mayor let them down. He was slow to order an evacuation when Katrina was bearing down on the coast, refused offers of help to move people out of the city before the storm hit, and let city workers — including many police and firefighters — flee rather than stay to keep order in the city. He had no clue how to marshal New Orleans’ own resources to help in the rescue, letting school buses that could have been used to transport people out of the city be inundated by rising flood waters. And in the first few days of the tragedy, he was hunkered down out of sight, except for a strange call-in to a radio show where he rambled on about everyone else’s but his own failure to provide leadership.
The best thing Ray Nagin could do for New Orleans would be to announce he’s withdrawing from the mayor’s race. Instead, he makes racist appeals and then pretends he didn’t mean what he said. When asked about his comments by a local reporter Nagin said, "Do you know anything about chocolate? How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That’s the chocolate I’m talking about." Yes, and vanilla comes from a brown bean, but no one would believe that a mayor who talked about making sure his city stayed "vanilla" was promoting racial integration.