For almost a quarter century, New Orleans government reflected the racial makeup of the city. As such, the city council had an African-American majority.
Anyone looking for evidence of the extent of the racial reconfiguration that occurred after Hurricane Katrina hit in 2005 got it over the weekend. Run-off elections on Saturday reversed much of the political progress made by African-Americans in the decades since the civil rights movement opened avenues of advancement for people of color in the southern city.
For the first time since 1985, the New Orleans City Council has a white majority.
Both of the at-large seats on the council — which are elected by voters from throughout the city — are now held by whites. That last time that happened was in 1978.
In a citywide race for an Orleans Parish Criminal District Court judgeship that had been held by an African-American for many years, a white candidate won.
Special elections for open state legislative seats representing the city’s Uptown and Central City neighborhoods, which had for many years elected African-American representatives, were won by white candidates.
To be sure, many cities see individual positions shift back and forth from election to election between candidates of different races.
But the pattern of white contenders defeating and replacing African-American candidates in New Orleans was unmistakable on Saturday. In contest after contest, whites politicians defeated African-American competitors who in the past would have been likely winners.
There is no mystery about what has happened. For the first time in decades, it appears that predominantly white precincts are casting more ballots in New Orleans than predominantly African-American precincts. Officially, the voter rolls still show a black majority. But the rolls have not yet been purged of the names of Katrina’s victims. The names that will eventually be removed are, for the most part, expected to be those of African Americans.
Orleans Parish Registrar of Voters Sandra Wilson suggests that the vast majority of the more than 100,000 voters are on the rolls but are no longer living in New Orleans — either because they died in the aftermath of the storm or because they were displaced by it — are people of color.
“Katrina rearranged the political deck in New Orleans,” Silas Lee, the Xavier University pollster and sociologist who is an expert on New Orleans and Louisiana voting patterns, told the Times Picayune newspaper after Saturday’s election. “Symbolically what it shows is that we have a realignment politically, and that advances made by African-American elected officials and the African-American political structure over the last 30 years… right now are in neutral or being lost.”