The Rot of Racism

Vijay Prashad has just published an essay in Counterpunch on the recent election of Bobby Jindal as governor of Louisiana.  The entire article is worthy of your consideration, but I have only pasted the Jena-related portion below.  Prashad, a professor of South Asian History and Director of International Studies at Trinity College, Hartford, CT, relates Jena to Katrina, and both events to the emerging shape of post civil rights American politics. 

The Rot of Racism.

One reason Jindal did not defeat Blanco in 2003 is that he was unable to draw the full weight of the white vote. Many conservative whites preferred to vote for a white, Cajun (“native” Louisianan) Democrat than an Indian American (albeit one born in Louisiana) conservative Republican. It should be borne in mind that the leader of the virulently racist Ku Klux Klan, David Duke, won 44% of the Republican vote in a 1990 primary election (60% of the white vote); a year later, Duke repeated this feat, and bragged, “I won my constituency. I won 55 percent of the white vote.” Despite having the second largest African American population in the US (after neighboring Mississippi), Louisiana’s politics are structured around the ability of the state-wide candidate to draw in the white vote.

Racist vigilante violence marks the state’s history. After the Civil War ended in 1865, for example, some local legislators considered a change in the state’s constitution that might allow blacks the franchise. Recalcitrant citizens formed the White League, whose violent tactics succeeded in ending any talk of equality. It was in New Orleans that Homer Plessy, a light-skinned black man, was removed from a train in 1892 because he sat in a “whites only” section. The Plessy v. Ferguson case went to the US Supreme Court, which decided that blacks and whites should have separate facilities although these should be equal (the “separate but equal” statute). In New Orleans, as well, a black man, Oliver Bush, began a court case to get his son, Earl, into an all-white school. Eventually, in 1954, the US Supreme Court decided in Brown v. The Board of Education that segregation of this kind (known as Jim Crow) is illegal and should be abolished. Drawing energy from this decision, a young Martin Luther King, Jr., and his fellow liberal clergy formed the Southern Christian Leadership Conference in New Orleans in 1957. In response, the White Citizens’ Council, an organization of the landed white aristocracy of the region, announced, “Integration is the Southern expression of Communism.” King and others took the fight against racism to the doorstep of the enemy.

When Hurricane Katrina struck the Gulf Coast in August 2005, it revealed the rot of a racist, segregated society. King’s movement ended de jure segregation, but it did little against de facto segregation and inequality. Almost twenty percent of Louisiana’s residents live beneath the US poverty line, and a dramatic number of blacks live not only in poverty but also in jail. The incarceration rate in New Orleans, where most blacks in the state live, is twice that of the US rate: 1,480 prisoners per 100,000 residents of the city. Katrina tore through the city and state, exposing the inequality and shocking the nation. Bobby Jindal, then a Congressman, held his tongue. His main gripe was not against the Bush administration that had sent the bulk of the state’s National Guard to Iraq (and so away from their posts when the disaster struck), nor was it against the long history of inequality revealed by the aftermath. Jindal decided to speak out against the “red-tape” of the government response. Katrina, which had come to mean the racism of the federal and state government, provided the young Congressman with an opportunity to champion less government and more “faith-based” reconstruction solutions. No word about the dispossession of his fellow citizens, and little care that the white elites were now moving to grab the land which once housed a large black population. Scott Crow, who worked in the reconstruction of the city, recalls how white militias roamed the city after Katrina, making sure to run blacks out of town, “These white militias made it their jobs to secure law and order in the absence of the police. Their brand of justice was to intimidate any black person walking on the street alone, or in any number that was smaller than the militia.” Blanco’s inaction compromised her; Jindal’s silence on issues of racism enamored him to a section of the white voters.

As the election campaign heated up, a terrible incident in the town of Jena, Louisiana, brought national attention to the enduring racism in the state. When white students intimidated black students at Jena High School (by hanging nooses on a tree and by pointing shotguns at them), the school authorities blamed the black students for making trouble. The police joined the administration and in the course of an altercation arrested and jailed six black students. The case of the Jena 6 (all teenagers) angered the nation. On September 20, 2007, thousands of people converged on the town to demand the release the Jena 6. Bobby Jindal, in the thick of his election battle, took a strong stand against the demonstrations. “We certainly don’t need any outside agitators coming in here,” he said. The phrase “outside agitator” has a long lineage in the anti-Civil Rights movement and within the White Citizens Councils. Jindal’s heavy-handed code sent a strong message to the racist vote that he could be trusted not to “pander” to the black population. Jena is in LaSalle Parish, whose white voters overwhelmingly voted for David Duke in 1991. This time Jindal carried that vote, winning the parish with a handy 55% (his closest opponent, Walter Boasso won short of 15%). “Don’t let anyone talk bad about Louisiana,” Jindal said as he claimed his victory. In other words, don’t talk about racism. “Those days are officially over.”