By Manuel Roig-Franzia
Washington Post Saff Writer
Wednesday, January 18, 2006
NEW ORLEANS, Jan. 17 -- An avalanche of criticism, stoked by heated talk-radio rants, forced Mayor C. Ray Nagin to apologize Tuesday for declaring that God wants New Orleans to be a "chocolate city."
Nagin, who is black, had said during a Martin Luther King Jr. Day speech that "this city will be an African American majority city. It's the way God wants it to be." He also said "God is mad at America" and "is sending hurricane after hurricane" because He disapproves of the United States invading Iraq "under false pretenses."
Nagin's remarks drew a furious reaction from white and black leaders, as well as residents, in New Orleans, prompting him to tell reporters Tuesday that the comments were "totally inappropriate." The dustup is the latest in a series of controversies over remarks made by the mayor, a former cable television executive elected in 2002 without experience in elected office.
Nagin was lambasted by Hispanic leaders last fall for asking a business group, during a speech, what he could do to prevent New Orleans from being "overrun by Mexican workers." He also was criticized for saying shortly after Hurricane Katrina that 10,000 people had probably been killed in the city, and that there were rampant rapes and murders taking place at the Louisiana Superdome, where thousands had sought shelter after the storm. The actual death toll for the state was closer to 2,000, and journalists and law enforcement officials have criticized the initial reports of rapes and murders as grossly exaggerated.
"I think he should speak less," Loyola University political analyst Ed Renwick said Tuesday. "He has a reputation of saying the first thing that comes into his head without thinking it through."
The pitched reaction to Nagin's remarks reflected tensions in a city struggling to rebuild. Many of the most deeply flooded, and now uninhabitable, neighborhoods are predominantly black, leading to predictions that there will be a huge drop in the black population of a city that was 67 percent black before the storm.
Nagin did a round of interviews Tuesday, attempting to defuse the controversy, which spurred cable television polls and hours of talk radio debates. "How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That is the chocolate I am talking about," he told CNN affiliate WDSU-TV in New Orleans. "New Orleans was a chocolate city before Katrina. It is going to be a chocolate city after. How is that divisive?"
Nagin, in his King Day speech, took African Americans to task, saying God is surely upset because "we're not taking care of our children when you have a community where 70 percent of its children are being born to one parent."
In his remarks, the mayor urged black New Orleans to come together. He implied that white neighborhoods such as Uptown were saying that blacks would not return but told his predominantly black audience that "this city will be chocolate at the end of the day."
Renwick said Nagin may have been trying to shore up support with black voters. Nagin was elected largely because of support from white residents, collecting 90 percent of the white vote, while losing in nearly all predominantly black neighborhoods. But, Renwick said, it is unclear whether Nagin's remarks were the result of rhetorical clumsiness or a calculated political move.
"He's had so many of these . . . I used to think it wasn't calculating, but now I don't know," Renwick said. "People tend to think it's another Nagin-ism."