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Questions of Race and Politics



Since when does integrity have a color? More specifically, when did ethics and honesty become matters that divide people along racial lines? Do not all human beings long to live in a society where people can expect honest, efficient government?

Maybe somewhere else, but apparently not in New Orleans.

I ask those questions and make that statement because I'm trying to make some sense out of the City Council's vote last week -- along racial lines -- to water down a long-sought ordinance establishing a city Office of Inspector General. Oh, sure, the amended ordinance passed unanimously, but I've been covering politics long enough to know that the "final vote" on something is rarely where the story lies. The dirty work always gets done in the preliminary votes, and that's where four City Council members, all of them African-American, voted to weaken the OIG ordinance.

Why? What do they fear?

The dilution came after some in the audience alleged that the whole idea of an inspector general was racially motivated. That allegation is so absurd that it hardly merits debate, but then again, in this surreal post-Katrina world, nothing is too absurd to be taken seriously. Hence the political carnival that passed for public discussion of what should have been one of the council's crowning achievements post-Katrina. Instead, we saw an angry, ignorant mob reducing Council member Shelley Midura, chief sponsor of the OIG ordinance, to tears by calling her a racist.

No one who is remotely familiar with Midura could possibly consider her racist, but truth is always the first casualty in politics and war.

To fully understand the insanity of the situation, one needs to get past people's emotions and look at the history of the OIG proposal.

The idea of a city ethics commission and a municipal inspector general appointed by that commission was first adopted 11 years ago during the first term of then-Mayor Marc Morial. The ethics board and the OIG were part of a sweeping set of amendments to the City Charter proposed by a blue-ribbon committee, the members of which were appointed by Morial.

The last time I checked, Marc Morial was black. So were many if not most members of his charter revision committee. So was a majority of the City Council, which voted to submit the proposed charter revisions to the city's voters in the autumn of 1995.

And so were more than 60 percent of the registered voters in New Orleans, who adopted the proposed amendments -- which mandated the ethics commission and authorized the City Council to establish the OIG -- by a margin of 68 percent to 32 percent. The referendum in which the charter revisions were approved coincided with the runoff for governor, and thus voter turnout was huge in black as well as white precincts.

So, if the city's black mayor and majority-black City Council first promoted this idea, and if the city's majority-black electorate voted more than two-to-one in favor of it, how did the idea suddenly become a racist conspiracy "designed to destroy our people," as one black critic of Midura's ordinance described it?

Another interesting question was posed by Michael Cowan, a Loyola University literacy educator, who repeated what others have asked him: "Why didn't white folks do this when they had power?"

No one in the Council Chamber had an answer to that question, but history tells us that this proposal has no color -- for its roots lie in the administration of Marc Morial, not some white do-gooder out to step on black toes.

Here are some additional historical tidbits that go to the heart of Cowan's question: The Association of Inspectors General was founded in 1996 -- one year after the notion of an inspector general was adopted in New Orleans. The IG concept is thus a recent phenomenon -- and IGs are not limited to cities with black majorities. In fact, the model for Midura's original ordinance is Miami, a multi-cultural city in which whites outnumber blacks by a three-to-one margin.

Cowan's question is therefore based on a false premise. That is, "white folks" didn't just suddenly decide to foist the OIG concept on black officials in New Orleans. The concept is international in scope and was first proposed in New Orleans 11 years ago by a black mayor and black-majority council.

The more interesting question, I submit, was never asked: Why did only black council members vote to weaken the proposal last week?

For that one, I have no answer.

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