Friday, January 29, 2010

Race, Representation, and Recovery in the New Orleans Mayor's Race, by Katherine Cecil

As we enter the final week before New Orleans' historic municipal elections, Louisiana Justice Institute presents excerpts from Race, Representation, and Recovery: Documenting the 2006 New Orleans Mayoral Elections, by Katherine Cecil. This important paper formed the basis of much of Cecil’s research in completing her soon-to-released documentary RACE, on the same subject. We believe her analysis of the 2006 elections forms an important basis for understanding the current election.

In 2002, Ray Nagin was elected mayor of New Orleans with 86 percent of the white vote, and 38% of the African-American vote. In 2006, Mayor Nagin was re-elected with 83.3 percent of the African-American vote and just 20 percent of the white vote.

Race, Representation and Recovery explores the rhetorical and visual manifestations of race as they figured in the months prior to and within the 2006 New Orleans mayoral election discourses.


Since the end of Maurice “Moon” Landrieu’s term in May 1978, New Orleans had seen black leadership in City Hall, but suddenly, this pattern looked set to change. In the run up to the qualifying period for the 2006 mayoral elections, it had become apparent that the city's 484,674 population had been reduced to perhaps a third of this with citizens displaced all over the United States. The pre-Katrina racial demographic percentages of 66.6% African-American and 26.6% white, had now changed to a more even balance between the races. In the 2006 primary election there was a 15.8 percent decline in black registered voters since the 2002 mayoral runoff in contrast to a 5.1 percent decline in the number of white registered voters. Academic studies have shown that in cities where the racial makeup of voters is “racially competitive,” or at more even levels, racially divided or “block voting” is at its most pronounced. New Orleans mayoral election observers witnessed this factor in 2006, but other dynamics came into play to make this election more complex.

A large number of displaced and returned residents thought that a mayoral election should not even take place until enough people could return home, and that holding one at this time violated the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which stated that no practice or procedure could deny or abridge the right to vote on account of race or color. To these concerned citizens, the election was therefore illegal. Other factors arose in 2006 that were to draw historical comparisons with direct disenfranchisement techniques such as the poll tax or literacy tests that were used in the past by white officials to minimize African-American voter participation in the South. There was also convincing evidence that the lack of sufficient government funding to assist the Secretary of State in reaching out to displaced voters violated the international Convention on Civil and Political Rights. In a historically racially polarized environment made worse by the horrors of Katrina, how would the rhetorical and visual manifestations of race factor into these historic elections?

As a result of the Federal levee failures, hundreds of thousands of citizens had become evacuees scattered throughout nearly every state of the Union, and as the re-manned pumping stations drained the water from within Orleans Parish, Americans witnessed bickering and finger pointing between leaders at city, state, federal, and presidential levels. To add to this, the deplorable situation so many citizens found themselves in during the immediate aftermath of the storm exacerbated an already racially polarized city, opening up old wounds of suspicion and distrust. After the evacuation of many flood survivors, New Orleanians were then stranded outside of Louisiana in the hundreds of thousands, many separated from their jobs, identification, mailboxes, or permanent addresses.

Furthermore, prior to Hurricane Katrina, a vast number of New Orleans citizens had been living well below the national poverty line, which meant that a significant number of evacuees did not have the benefit of a savings account, transportation, e-mail, or internet access, and many slept on air mattresses waiting for FEMA hurricane relief checks in order to secure a rental for themselves and their children. These citizens, who were the worst off after the storm, were overwhelmingly African-American.

The post-disaster difficulties experienced by those in involuntary exile during the early months following the storm and their struggles in recreating the necessities vital to the recreation of a healthy environment for themselves and their loved ones cannot be overstated. The extensive flooding that resulted from the levee failures had devastated hundreds of thousands of lives and homes. It disrupted the basic functions of the city from the rule of law to the normal school day. It had also destroyed hundreds of polling stations and voting machines, and less than six months after the chaos of the immediate aftermath of the Hurricane, and just over two months following the presentation of a controversial plan advocating the shrinking of the city’s geographical footprint, New Orleans entered into the 2006 Mayoral election cycle. Numerous national and international news outlets maintained the correspondents they had put in place following Katrina, and this local election captured national and even international audiences.

(A second excerpt from this essay will be posted tomorrow. You can read the complete essay online here.)

Born in the UK, and living in New Orleans since 2001, Katherine Cecil began her film career as a researcher and field producer. Cecil has worked on programs and news shows for PBS, Louisiana Public Broadcasting, National Geographic, Associated Press, Greek public television, and Democracy Now!, and was Field Producer and Associate Producer on the documentary “LINDY BOGGS: STEEL & VELVET.” She formed her small company CecilFilm Productions shortly after Hurricane Katrina, and is currently working as a co-producer on a documentary looking into recent changes to the New Orleans public school system. Cecil is a member of the National Press Photographers Association, the Louisiana Association of Broadcasters, and the Press Club of New Orleans, and holds degrees from City and Guilds of London Art School, University College London, Tulane University, and the University of New Orleans.

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