Political Horizons: Racial divide still shapes La. politics

A couple of weeks ago, U.S. Senate candidate Rob Maness told a room of Baton Rouge Republicans that racism and prejudice was pretty much over.

“I believe our society is very close to becoming color blind,” Maness told the overwhelmingly white audience.

Not to pick on Maness. He is a career military man who worked for an employer, the federal government, which imposed equality on its employees, as well as provided them with access to low-cost housing, quality health insurance and personal incentives to improve education and training.

Maness is quoting a stance widely embraced by many whites — from those who think blacks were happier before the Civil Rights era to those who see increasing numbers of African-American executives and interracial couples on television and feel “enough already” about discrimination.

On the other side of that equation, says Southern University Professor Albert Samuels, many African-Americans are just as impatient that some whites don’t acknowledge racism despite what they see as overwhelming evidence.

“I tell my students: The problem is worse than you imagine. It’s not that they see and won’t accept it. The problem is they actually believe what they are saying,” Samuels said. “Once you start from that premise, there really is no basis for dialogue. You automatically believe your assumptions don’t have to be explained and so you will quickly come to the conclusion that the other side either must be stupid or dishonest.”

It’s this inability to articulate that will keep the camps from negotiating, and that represents the biggest problem facing Louisiana politics, he said. None of the candidates in the 2014 and 2015 elections, which will elect the state’s leadership for the coming years, is doing much to bridge the two sides of the racial divide and attack the problems that impact all of society, Samuels said.

The fights so far have been bitter. Expansion of the federal Affordable Care Act is one example, Samuels said. Another, even angrier donnybrook, is over vouchers for paying tuition to attend private schools, he said.

Professor William P. Quigley, director of the Loyola Law Clinic and the Gillis Long Poverty Law Center in New Orleans, wrote recently that the face of crime, for many, is African-American. The criminal justice system targets and punishes blacks in a much more aggressive way than whites. He pointed out that blacks comprise 14 percent of the drug users, but 37 percent of the people arrested for drug offenses.

“If you scratch just below the surface on any issue, it’s there,” said state Rep. Sam Jones, of Franklin and one of the few white, male Democrats left in the Louisiana Legislature. Efforts to improve job training, which is expected to dominate the 2014 General Session of the Louisiana Legislature, need to reflect on an unemployment rate, which hovered around 6 to 7 percent in 2012 for the entire state and 21.7 percent for black men aged 20 to 24, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.

“You can say ‘Pull yourself up by your own boot straps’ all day long. And you do have to work hard. But the rest of the equation is left out,” Jones said. “There’s no question that if you’re a young, black male, you’re more likely to be unemployed than anybody. Why is that? What should we do about that? Let’s talk policies that address those problems. … That’s what we’re missing.”

Right now, candidates have little incentive to stray from extreme, nonnegotiable positions, because those voters are enough to decide who gets into runoff elections.

But in the end, it’s all numbers, said G. Pearson Cross, who as the head of the Political Science Department at the University of Louisiana at Lafayette studies them fairly closely.

With minorities making up a third of the state’s population — 21 percent of the state’s 2.9 million registered voters are blacks registered as Democrats — that’s a sizable percentage, Cross says. Eventually, probably sooner rather than later, Louisiana’s politics will drift back toward moderation.

That could provide the motivation for politicians to reach out with new ideas, rather than reinforce existing prejudices.

Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is mballard@theadvocate.com.