“It’s time for us to rebuild New Orleans — the one that should be a chocolate New Orleans. This city will be a majority African-American city. It’s the way God wants it to be. You can’t have New Orleans no other way.” —Mayor Ray Nagin, commemorating MLK day 2006.
Will that last American liberal to abandon the civil rights movement please turn out the light?
Dr. King’s dream is now officially dead. If the American Left still has a dream regarding race in America, it is that conservatives like me will stop repeating the phrase “content of their character” every January. And we might as well. Democrats are never going to let go of their favorite part of that MLK quotation: “color of their skin.”
For graduates of government schools, the quote goes “I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character.”
This year, New Orleans Mayor Ray Nagin “honored” the legacy of Dr. King by sharing his own dream: That whitey will stay out of New Orleans.
One can almost hear Mayor Nagin’s version of “The Dream” speech:
“I have a dream that the voters of New Orleans will completely forget how I botched the evacuation of their city, abandoning the poorest among us to their own devices while I arranged comfortable housing for my own family in Texas … that the spiritual descendants of Rosa Parks will ignore the fact that she at least had a bus to sit in the back of, when my brilliant leadership left buses idle in flooded municipal parking lots while desperate families waited in rising waters for a rescue that never came … that the legacy of racial conflict, fed by irrational claims of exploding levies and Red Cross klansmen, will mean that George W. Bush is blamed for the New Orleans nightmare, and not me — I have a dream today.”
Mayor Nagin’s racist screed about how “we” (i.e. “black people”) need to build a “chocolate” city where white citizens have no part in God’s plan is insulting both to Dr. King and Dr. John — the patron saint of New Orleans. It’s a blatant slap in the face to MLK’s vision of integration, an America where “little black boys and black girls will be able to join hands with little white boys and white girls as sisters and brothers,” as he put it.
But it’s also a rejection of the entire history of New Orleans. In the 18th century, New Orleans was perhaps the most cosmopolitan city in the world, with residents from every known continent living together on the banks of the Mississippi. French, Spanish, English, Indian, African, Creole, Latin — the city was so international that it took three years for the locals to notice the French had ceded the city to Spain in 1763. Even then, it didn’t make much difference.
It took another 300 years for a political leader to claim the Big Easy in the name of a single ethnic group, abandoning “Crescent City” for “Chocolate City,” and replacing integration with identity politics: All black public invited.
Crackers need not apply.
It’s hard to imagine how Mayor Nagin, hands covered in blood he’s still trying to wipe on the White House linens, could call for anything more offensive on MLK Day. What — the return of segregated water fountains? The end to integrated public schools?
Dr. King believed that rejectionism and separation were neither acceptable nor possible. He understood that America needed its black citizens just as black Americans needed the opportunity America represented. The idea of two separate Americas — one chocolate, the other vanilla, but both prosperous, healthy, and just — was simply impossible.
Integration was the dream. But few black Americans are even dreaming it anymore.
Wait. That’s not true. Most black Americans, like their white counterparts, are living in integrated communities or working at integrated job sites or attending integrated schools. It’s the political “leaders” (for lack of a more accurate term) like Al Sharpton, Jesse Jackson and the infamous Mr. Nagin who are trapped in the cul-de-sac of racial politics. Jesse Jackson’s dream is of lots of rich, white corporations pursued by black plaintiffs looking for big payoffs. Ray Nagin’s looking for a group of voters of any color dumb enough to re-elect him, and he thinks his best shot is among disaffected black voters. Al Sharpton is looking for anyone who will take him seriously.
Either that, or a sitcom deal.
In the hours that followed Mayor Nagin’s offensive echo of southern segregationism, I waited in vain for a prominent black American to rebut him, to chastise him, to express even a hint of outrage. Wasn’t there even one civil rights leader who would step forward and defend Dr. King’s legacy?
As of press time, the answer was “no.”
Racial politics a la Nagin, Sharpton, and Jackson has a payoff. One group wins, another group loses. Rejecting race means we all win or lose together. In New Orleans. In America. Everywhere.
As for a black American who will lead and represent such a vision? At the moment, that’s little more than a dream.