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I was previously a constitutional law and civil rights litigator and am now a journalist. I am the author of three New York Times bestselling books -- "How Would a Patriot Act" (a critique of Bush executive power theories), "Tragic Legacy" (documenting the Bush legacy), and With Liberty and Justice for Some (critiquing America's two-tiered justice system and the collapse of the rule of law for its political and financial elites). My fifth book - No Place to Hide: Edward Snowden, the NSA and the US Surveillance State - will be released on April 29, 2014 by Holt/Metropolitan.

Sunday, May 21, 2006

Roll out the Chocolate and Marion Barry insults

There certainly does seem to be a substantial amount of interest in the blogosphere over the re-election of Ray Nagin as Mayor of New Orleans. Mayoral elections of mid-sized cities usually generate virtually no national attention. Obviously, both Nagin and New Orleans became topics of national interest as a result of Hurricane Katrina, but the anger in some circles over the decision of New Orleans residents to re-elect Nagin as their mayor seems far more intense than it ought to from a strictly rational perspective.

And it isn't just the anger over his re-election that is so notable but the way in which that anger is being expressed. Many pro-Bush bloggers who expressed anger about Nagin's re-election did so in overtly racial terms.

The most-cited post on this topic was this one by Paul "Deacon" Mirgenoff of Powerline, who, for some indiscernible reason, analogized Nagin to the multiple felon and crack addict Marion Barry, ex-Mayor of Washington, DC:

Having witnessed Marion Barry repeatedly elected mayor of Washington, D.C., I can't say I'm surprised at Nagin's success. Re-electing an unsuccessful or disgraced mayor apparently can become a source of civic pride, particularly when the racial politics are right.

Gateway Pundit has a post with the hilarious title "Chocolate City Keeps its Flavor," the very first line of which repeats the hilarity: "Ray Nagin was re-elected Mayor of Chocolate City yesterday." After assembling the list of Nagin's alleged acts of incompetence, GP finally comes out with it: "Or, maybe, it was really a simple black and white thing." He then cites to Deacon's Marion Barry analogy. Independent Conservative announces in the title of his post: "Now the Poverty Pimps Will Stop Crying About the New Orleans Election." The consensus is that the people of New Orleans are clearly just "stupid."

It is certainly true that Nagin made some race-based appeals as part of his re-election campaign, including comments like this:

"This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be," Nagin said. "You can't have it no other way. It wouldn't be New Orleans."

He also called New Orleans a "chocolate city" and pledged that it "will be chocolate at the end of the day." There are certainly legitimate grounds for criticizing comments like that, and many of his allies in New Orleans, including many who are black, did exactly that. That's all fair enough.

But this spewing of racially-tinged anger over Nagin's re-election is both childish and ugly. These bloggers having their fun with "chocolate" and "flavor" jokes think they have a built-in defense for speaking that way (namely, Nagin's use of those terms), and so, like an 8-year-old who discovers some excuse for using a bad word, they just revel in it over and over. The second they think there is an opportunity to spew all sorts of racially-tinged bile, they take it. And thus, a mayoral election is spoken of in terms of "poverty pimps" and "chocolate cities" and overt claims that he was only elected because he's black.

Beyond that, the comparisons to Marion Barry are as baseless as they are telling. Barry is known for all sorts of behaviors that have long been at the crux of ugly racist stereotypes -- he's a drug addict who has been caught on camera using crack with hookers in a downtown hotel, and he then encountered all sorts of allegations of financial impropriety in connection with his political office.

None of that is true for Nagin. Nagin and Barry have nothing in common other than that they are black Mayors. It would be like comparing every white Southern Governor to Lester Maddux, or every white evangelical Christian male to Jim Bakker or every white Southern male to David Duke. It's deliberately inflammatory, and it purposely seizes what they perceive is an opportunity to traffic in racial stereotypes which they normally are too afraid to voice.

The people commenting on this municipal election have no idea why Nagin was re-elected. There are all sorts of reasons why that might have happened. Perhaps the voters thought he was not to blame for what happened with Katrina. Perhaps they thought he was heroic in how he stood up to the Federal Government and pinned the blame where it belonged. Perhaps they thought he did the best he could and was satisfied with his governance in other areas. Perhaps they had no faith in his opponent that he could do better. Those who are claiming that he was re-elected by a bunch of stupid black voters strictly on racial grounds have no idea whether that's true and they don't care either.

All they know is that they excitedly see an opportunity where they think this sort of spiteful racial commentary -- which is normally beyond the bounds of what is acceptable -- is permissible here, and they can't pass up the chance to spew playground epithets about Ray Nagin's race and about the intellectual level of the voters who re-elected him. These ugly sentiments are never far from the surface in many people and it doesn't take much for it to come spewing forth.

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