If there is a vast white conspiracy to keep poor blacks who have been displaced by Hurricane Katrina from moving back to the city, it could not have a better front man than Clarence R. Nagin, mayor of New Orleans.
Nagin's mindless, self-serving utterances, combined with his singular failure to devise and implement a recovery plan, virtually guarantee that the rest of America will abandon us, which means that those without means, left to fend for themselves, will be left behind -- or left out completely. As clueless as he is, the mayor surely must know this.
That Nagin should secretly champion the very conspiracy he so publicly attacks only adds to the deftness with which he advances the cause. Indeed, he makes the perfect double-agent: He holds the most powerful position in town, yet he stands in front of an impoverished crowd in the Lower Ninth Ward railing against unnamed "powers that be" who allegedly want to grab their land, even though no one else has wanted that land since Bienville first planted a flag hereabouts in 1718; and all the while his "free market" policy of doing nothing that resembles leadership or boldness discourages investment of both public and private capital in the hardest-hit areas, thereby increasing the chances that poor neighborhoods will lie fallow for years to come. If the "powers that be" have any designs on the Lower Nine, it's to keep it fallow, not buy it up.
Perhaps to add insult to injury, he tells Lower Nine residents to build their "mansions" high up this time around to avoid the next flood. It almost leads one to wonder: does he chuckle to himself at the irony of his comments when he climbs back into his mayoral pimpmobile and heads home to his own, very real mansion on Park Island?
Demagoguery taken to its vilest extreme has nowhere else to end but with hypocrisy, and Clarence R. Nagin has made that an art form, passing off inaction as a "plan" and then peddling it to the poorest and least educated New Orleanians as a balm for wounded racial pride.
The election ended May 20, but Clarence R. has only begun to play the race card. By continuing to play it, he will ensure that New Orleans remains divided. (Remember his billboards: "Re-elect our mayor -- reunite our city"?) And as long as New Orleans remains divided, is there any hope that those with resources will come to the aid of those who need a hand? His race baiting thus becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy -- and it will continue to give him a convenient bogeyman if anyone should wonder why there's no plan and no recovery.
For good measure -- and perhaps to distract the media and everyone else from the depth and breadth of his failure to lead -- Clarence R. can be counted on to create a sideshow every few weeks by saying something so outrageous that it is bound to offend. The national and international media, ever starved for good copy and a convenient Louisiana foil, will dutifully play it up, feeding Clarence R.'s monumental ego with network interviews and taking everyone's attention off the fact that he has no recovery plan, no vision of what the city could be, and no clue how to run a city even in the best of times. And, when criticized by the media, he will cite the criticism as proof that the white devils are in league against him.
Meanwhile, and largely as a consequence of his inaction, violent crime has returned with a bloody vengeance to the city's marginally recovering neighborhoods, looting continues unabated in sparsely populated areas, and Clarence R.'s failure to lead further delays the delivery of billions in federal aid.
When cornered, he will shamelessly blame others -- the feds, the state, the "powers that be," racism, classism ... anyone but himself. If really pressed, he'll either play the race card again or set off some other rhetorical stink bomb to divert attention momentarily away from his obvious shortcomings. It's a vicious cycle, and he's got the routine down pat.
This column originally appeared in Gambit Weekly in New Orleans. Reprinted with permission. Copyright 2006, Gambit Communications, Inc.