The Limits of Power: New Orleans

men holding and raising their hands, including Morial and Jesse Jackson

Monte Piliawsky

Magazine cover with "Elections" in blue text against white background, and "grassroots strategies for change" in black text

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 12 No. 1, "Elections: Grassroots Strategies for Change." Find more from that issue here.

Black mayors now govern 20 cities with populations over 100,000, including four of the six largest cities in the nation — Chicago, Los Angeles, Philadelphia, and Detroit — and some of the largest cities in the Southeast — Atlanta, Birmingham, New Orleans, and Charlotte. In all, there are 229 black mayors across the nation, up from 48 in 1973.

A host of studies have recently asked what difference a black mayor makes for the masses of black urban dwellers.* While they generally point to increased social and political benefits, most studies highlight a number of institutional constraints that shape how these benefits are distributed and how well black mayors improve the economic plight of their black constituency.

Since May 1977, Ernest "Dutch" Morial has been mayor of New Orleans, the seventh largest city now run by a black. His administration dramatizes four trends in contemporary urban politics:

• The severe legal and economic limitations on black mayors, exacerbated by President Reagan's "New Federalism";

• increasing alliances between black mayors and white corporate elites in economic development programs;

• different social and economic effects of policies on the black middle class and the black underclass; and

• the adaptation of "civil rights" rhetoric by black mayors to stress individual self-help and to strengthen support for their policies within the black community.


Poverty and Parades

In many ways, New Orleans is a unique city which illustrates the serious difficulties confronting urban America in general. According to the 1980 census, New Orleans is the third largest city in the Southeast, with 557,761 people of whom 55.3 percent are black. Tourism, oil, and shipping pump billions of dollars through its economy each year, but a whopping 26.4 percent of its residents live below the poverty level, making New Orleans the third poorest large city in the U.S. One-third of the city's blacks lived in poverty in 1980, and the gap in median family income between blacks and whites ($7,598 versus $ 14,898) is greater in New Orleans than in any other major U.S. city.

This widening economic gap is paralleled by increasing stratification within the black community. While the middle class has expanded from 5 percent of the black community in 1960 to about 25 percent today, the black underclass is also growing. A 1982 survey by sociologist Daniel C. Thompson found that nearly a third of New Orleans's black labor force was unemployed or underemployed. "A black underclass that includes 15 percent of the black community has remained virtually untouched by New Orleans's economic boom," says Thompson. "The economic boom has not provided them jobs or training or the hope of either."

Many new jobs will continue to be filled by people from out of town until vast improvement occurs in the New Orleans public school system, which now spends about half what other major U.S. cities spend per pupil. More New Orleans blacks attend college today than in the past, but over half do not graduate from high school; the average black resident has less than an eighth grade education. Louisiana has the highest illiteracy rate in the nation, and in 1982, students in New Orleans public schools (85 percent of whom are black) scored the lowest on standardized tests among the state's 64 counties.

To a large extent, these statistics result from the fact that wealth and political power in New Orleans are concentrated in a tiny oligarchy which, while tolerant of social deviance, unduly influences the direction of economic development and public policy. The crowning symbol of this ruling class, of course, is Mardi Gras, a celebration featuring 50 parades in which the aristocrats of New Orleans stand masked on floats and toss beads and fake coins to throngs of begging spectators. The carnival atmosphere which engulfs the city's political culture perpetuates a castelike social system based on tradition and secrecy, as well as a tolerance for decadence and cavalier lifestyles among the masses (the "Big Easy").

"Ernest 'Dutch' Morial may have the toughest mayor's job in the U.S.," argues Bette Woody of Wellesley University, because New Orleans probably has the most stratified social system of any city its size in the nation:


New Orleans is not as large in terms of population as Detroit or Los Angeles, not as physically distressed as Newark, but the forces shaping the fiscal crisis in the city were far more related to the intricate, parochial politics of a distant past than in other stressed cities. It was the inflexibility of its political-cultural tradition, with racial tensions, complex social rules, and sleepy and insulated economic structure which conditioned the smallest kind of change in government.


After five years as mayor, Morial has not changed New Orleans's "parochial politics" and "insulated economic structures" enough to improve the statistical profile of the chronically poor; but the city has certainly felt the impact of his personal ambition and political determination. The first black graduate of Louisiana State University's law school, he went on to become the first black elected to the state legislature since Reconstruction, the first black to serve on the juvenile court, and the first black elected to the state appeals court. As the head of the New Orleans branch of the NAACP during the '60s, he led some of the largest peaceful demonstrations of the period and expanded the organization's membership from 2,000 to 12,000. Well before his election as mayor, he had achieved a leading role in both black and white New Orleans society, as symbolized by a position on Tulane University's board of trustees and by invitations to the most elite of the Mardi Gras balls.

An indefatigable man who thrives on 15-hour workdays, Morial also cultivates the role of a political maverick. His independence at least partly derives from the fact that as a Creole he is not immediately identified with either black or white leaders. In his first campaign for mayor, the then 47-year-old Morial straddled the race issue and bucked both the white political establishment and the traditional black political organizations, which he accused of routinely endorsing whichever white candidate paid the most money.

Indeed, in the 1977 mayoral primary, the major black political groups — SOUL, COUP, OPPVL, and ROOTS — endorsed one of his white opponents. Morial received only 58 percent of the black vote in the primary, but his campaign staff was learning valuable lessons in how to bypass the traditional networks to appeal directly to poor, black voters with such lines as, "Believe us, Brothers and Sisters, Dutch may look white, but he lives and breathes BLACK."


Financial Limits

With the help of such rhetoric and a staff of 125 on the city's payroll, the mayor can now mobilize almost unanimous support among poor black voters for himself or his chosen candidate, as we will see later. But in his first year of office, Morial faced an uphill battle as he attacked the city's fiscal crisis. Keeping taxes low is so dear to the ruling elite of New Orleans that normal channels for raising public money have literally been blocked by law. The Louisiana state constitution prohibits a city income or earnings tax and provides for a homestead exemption for owner-occupied homes assessed at under $75,000; only 5 percent of New Orleans homeowners pay any property tax.

When Morial took office in May, 1978, the city depended on federal and state funds for an incredible 57 percent of its $214 million annual operating budget. With the advent of Reagan, federal funds coming to New Orleans were drastically cut from $123 million in 1980 to $65 million in 1982, so federal and state aid now accounts for only 30 percent of the city's budget. Anticipating the dilemma of growing demands for shrinking resources, Morial proposed five revenue-producing measures during 1978, including a progressive property tax based upon the size of a house, and an earnings tax to generate revenue from people who work in New Orleans but live in adjacent counties. Not one business leader, union official, academician, or religious leader stood with the mayor.

Despite constant badgering from Morial, the city council refused to accept any of his revenue proposals until 1980, when it finally approved the two most regressive (that is, they put the heaviest burden on those with the least wealth): a flat $100 tax on property and a $50 tax on automobiles. The public outcry against these "service charges" was so deafening, however, that Morial was forced to offer the voters another option.

With the city council and economic elite flatly opposed to a progressive tax on income or assets, Morial urged voters to approve a half-cent hike in the sales tax to seven cents. On November 4, 1980, New Orleans blacks rallied behind the mayor to give the regressive sales tax hike its narrow 105-vote margin of victory. In exchange, the city council repealed the unpopular property and road use service charges, and more significantly, agreed to take any new tax proposal to the voters in public referenda.

Early in his administration, Morial obtained $32.5 million in federal funds to purchase 244 new transit buses, replacing others that were more than 15 years old. But with the advent of New Federalism, New Orleans's transit service faced an imminent $19 million shortfall. During the 1982 mayoral runoff campaign, Morial reluctantly proposed that a referendum be held for a one-cent sales tax increase to avert a shutdown of the entire transit operation. New Orleans's poor blacks faced a cruel predicament: Should they raise the sales tax to 8 percent — matching New York City for the highest in the entire country — or should they do without bus service?

On May 13, 1982, the second sales tax increase in less than two years passed by 1,700 votes, with blacks supporting the tax by a six-to-one margin, while whites opposed the measure three-to-one. Virtually the same coalition of blacks and a small number of upper-income whites that had twice elected Morial mayor again provided the margin of victory to keep the city's buses running.

The sales tax was a stopgap solution to the city's financial crisis, however. Over the mayor's objections, the city council had placed a one-year time limit on the tax. To alleviate the situation, Morial convinced the state legislature to authorize a referendum on a state constitutional amendment that would lift the homestead exemption for property taxes in New Orleans. To become law, the proposed amendment required the approval of voters in the city and statewide. With Morial campaigning vigorously outside the city, the amendment passed very narrowly, but it was defeated by a margin of 78-to-22 percent in New Orleans.

In 1983, Morial again proposed a city "earnings" tax, which the city council quickly rejected. The state legislature also voted down the mayor's plan for a constitutional amendment to create a state lottery which would benefit local governments. Finally, the city council proposed renewing the one-cent sales tax, earmarked for transit service. This time Morial remained neutral, refusing to back a measure he considered a bandaid approach to the city's fiscal problems. Nevertheless, on March 26, New Orleans voters approved a two-year extension of the 8 percent sales tax. Because of this inordinate reliance on a regressive sales tax, the average New Orleans homeowner contributes a lower portion of his or her income for city and state taxes than homeowners in any other major U.S. city (2 percent versus the national average of 5.7 percent, says the federal Advisory Commission on Intergovernmental Relations).


Corporate Alliance

Mayor Morial has earned favorable reviews from the white business community of New Orleans for his heroic attempts to improve city finances and his willingness to accept regressive tax structure as a solution. He has won even higher marks for his collaboration in charting the city's economic development plans.

Black mayors like Maynard Jackson, Coleman Young, and Kenneth Gibson have made corporate investment the keystone to their urban development strategies. (In his first year as mayor of Atlanta, Andrew Young has emphasized seeking private capital for the city's economy and, with support from poor blacks, pushed through a 1 percent increase in the local sales tax, accompanied by a dollar-for-dollar reduction in property taxes, a relief for corporations and homeowners). But, as Black Enterprise magazine wrote in 1980, "No black mayor in the country is more committed to black economic ambitions through alliance with corporate capital than Ernest Morial, in New Orleans."

Upon taking office, Mayor Morial developed a comprehensive New Orleans Economic Development Strategy to end the city's dependence on low-wage service jobs. The "basic premise" underlying the plan "is that the expansion of the private sector employment opportunities for central city residents, particularly for residents of the city's low and moderate income neighborhoods, is a necessary — though perhaps not sufficient — prerequisite for reducing both the incidence and the effects of poverty, unemployment, and subemployment."

Some critics contend this "trickle down" concept offers little hope for the black underclass; or, as one city official said in 1980, "The mayor is delegitimizing the old strategy of black advancement through reliance on government." Black mayors, however, point out that they are experimenting with private economic development out of necessity, given the cutoff of federal aid, the legal restrictions on local financing of profit-making enterprises, and the reluctance of taxpayers to accept new burdens.

Under Morial's direction, New Orleans's booming economy has reached its peak level in this century. Among the highlights are nearly $2 billion in investment in the central business district, including 21 new hotels and office buildings; construction of a $93 million exhibition hall; planning the 1984 New Orleans World's Fair; revitalization of the river front; and development of a 7,000-acre industrial district on previously neglected land in New Orleans East. By objective assessment, the mayor has developed the best economic master plan seen in New Orleans for short-term growth as a regional corporate headquarters and tourism center, while laying the groundwork for long-term industrial development.

The dividends to the white business community from the construction and tourism boom the mayor has nurtured are immediate. But the pay-off for the large black underclass in New Orleans, without whose support Morial could not have won re-election, is slow in coming. One major success story illustrates the ideal mechanics of the mayor's development plan. In 1984, SFE Technologies, a California-based manufacturer of computer parts, will open a $9 million plant with a $7.7 million annual payroll. To lure the plant to New Orleans, the city issued $7.8 million in tax-exempt industrial revenue bonds (purchased mainly by a local bank) and agreed to exempt SFE for five years from a broad array of taxes. In return, SFE has agreed to hire at least 35 percent of its future employees from the poverty-stricken Ninth Ward where it will be located.

Unfortunately, the SFE case is the exception rather than the rule. Recent studies suggest that financial incentives to private companies have limited impact on their location decisions and even less effect on generating sustained economic growth. At best, these incentives encourage businesses already planning to expand or relocate to shop around for the highest public subsidy available. The companies attracted to these marginal incentives are often low-wage manufacturers (like SFE) which may move to another state — or country — as fast as they arrived.

The U.S. Civil Rights Commission recently found that employment disparities between white men, on the one hand, and minorities and women, on the other, persist in expanding industries and communities as well as in those on the decline. A study of firms receiving industrial revenue bond financing in Milwaukee showed that minorities and women were underutilized by 75 percent and that one fourth of the firms have been cited for violations of federal equal employment requirements. One can hardly expect private investment decisions to cure the black unemployment problem; indeed, private investment decision-making is itself the very cause of the recent loss of millions of jobs and one of the primary forces leading to the decline of urban America.


Benefits and Brutality

Putting public dollars directly into minority communities through municipal contracts and jobs has a more immediate benefit, especially for the black middle class. Under Atlanta's Maynard Jackson, blacks received 40 percent of the contracts for building the new airport. Birmingham's Mayor Richard Arrington, elected in 1979, boasted in 1983: "My administration has given more work to minority businesses than Birmingham had done in all the other years of its 112-year history."

During Mayor Morial's first four-year term, more than $79 million in city funds went to minority contractors. Many of these contractors are too small to bid on the typical downtown project, but the mayor achieved a major breakthrough by negotiating a "set aside" provision in the plans for a new city convention center. It requires that 35 percent of the construction work be handled by minority businesses, at least through subcontracting. In December 1983 he announced "The Mayor's Job Equity Plan," which requires all new city-funded construction projects to have a workforce of at least 25 percent minority and 10 percent female workers. Despite his extensive contacts within the white business community, Morial has failed to win similar commitments from the privately controlled authority supervising the 1984 World's Fair. "We have no control over private activities," he says emphatically.

Black mayors can, and do, exercise great influence over the hiring practices of public agencies in their cities. A recent study of 40 cities by Peter Eisenger shows that between 1973 and 1980 "the only cities where jobs [for blacks in city government] grew faster than the black population were the ones with the black mayors." During Morial's first term, the number of blacks in municipal jobs increased by 11 percent, despite budget tightening that cut 1,500 positions. Black executives now head five of City Hall's 12 departments.

Perhaps the most far-reaching achievement of the Morial administration in the area of affirmative action is the 1983 settlement of a 10-year-old discrimination suit against the New Orleans Police Department. As late as 1982, only seven of the 283 supervisors in the department were black. The consent decree stipulates that one black officer must be promoted for each white promoted until half of the department's supervisory positions are held by blacks. (In another example of the legal problems Morial faces, the U.S. Justice Department has delayed implementation of the consent decree approved by a panel of judges on the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals by requesting a rehearing before the full court.)

Even under a black mayor, public jobs and contracts go mostly to the middle class; and, as we have seen, the black underclass is left on public welfare with little hope of escape. The police play a key role in controlling this underclass, regardless of the mayor's color. And in New Orleans, their excessive use of force has drawn even more attention than their discriminatory hiring and promotion practices. Between 1980 and '82, the FBI investigated more complaints of police brutality in New Orleans than in any other city. Between 1975 and '79, New Orleans police killed more civilians per police officer than any other urban U.S. police force, according to the International Association of Chiefs of Police. (The rate was 5.5 times that of New York City and 9.5 times the rate in Newark.)

Mayor Morial's failure to stop police violence contrasts sharply with his success in confronting the absence of black officers in supervisory jobs. To some observers, this priority reveals an underlying allegiance to upper-income economic interests that worry less about justice than about protection to pursue private fortunes. "New Orleans Mayor Morial, and most other American mayors of color, are faced with the classic dilemma of neo-colonialism," says Kalamu ya Salaam, editor-at-large of the New Orleans-based Black Collegian magazine. "Their material interest is with a status quo that conducts and/or condones violent repression of our people."

The outcry over police brutality reached new intensity in November 1980, with the notorious Algiers murders. On November 8, a white policeman was found shot to death in his patrol car in the predominantly black, low-income part of the Algiers section of New Orleans. For the next five days, police staged mass roundups of young blacks in the Algiers-Fisher Housing Project, and allegedly used beatings, physical intimidation, even covering people's heads with plastic bags, to extract information. Finally, in a predawn raid on November 13, seven white policemen shot and killed three black Algiers residents, including two considered suspects in the slaying of the white officer.

The killings brought New Orleans perilously close to a riot. Community leaders threatened a boycott of central business district merchants, and a series of marches and demonstrations galvanized blacks as never before around the issue of police violence. The resignation of Superintendent of Police James Parsons helped defuse an explosive situation, and Morial finally established the Office of Municipal Investigation "to investigate and inquire into any alleged misconduct of any city employee."

Many grassroots black leaders remain critical of the mayor's action — or inaction — following the Algiers killings. William J. Jefferson, one of two black members of the state senate, asserts: "Mayor Morial ran in 1977 on the theme that he would end police brutality, but since he was elected, Morial has acted as though police brutality doesn't exist. After Algiers, the mayor hid behind grand juries rather than conducting his own investigation."


Civil-Rights Rhetoric

Jefferson, a 34-year-old graduate of Harvard Law School, also believed the Algiers killings and mayor's inability to enact a progressive tax system made Morial vulnerable in his 1982 bid for re-election, especially among poor, black voters. So he ran a vigorous campaign against Morial. Yet Jefferson polled only 7 percent of the total votes, and actually received more votes from whites than from blacks. He did force Morial into a run-off with a conservative white opponent, whom the mayor defeated with 14 percent of the white vote and an astonishing 99 percent of the black vote. In a poll conducted by Rose-Stekler Associates in Octoberl983, 80 percent of the black respondents gave Morial "excellent" or "good" job ratings, while only 10 percent found him doing a "fair" or "poor" job.

How has Morial achieved such popularity, despite the lack of material improvements for poor blacks?

Morial's tenure as mayor generally conforms to the experience of other black mayors: despite excellent intentions and sometimes heroic efforts, economic and political pressures severely limited what he "delivered" to his black constituents. Yet, like other black mayors, his administration has accelerated the advance of the city's black middle class, and he personally has succeeded in providing an array of symbolic benefits to the larger black community. According to James Button, these benefits generally include articulating black interests, encouraging other blacks to become more politically effective, modifying racial stereotypes, and serving as a role model.

Morial has especially excelled in adapting what can be termed "civil-rights" rhetoric both to exhort blacks to seek upward mobility and greater self-esteem, as well as to attack white institutions that threaten his definition of black interests. Charges of racism are often well founded, but civil-rights rhetoric can also be strategically used by a politician like Morial to reinforce and consolidate his support within the black community. Says Manning Marable, "the black elite employs race as an ideological and cultural tool to maintain and extend its own influence, its hegemony, over the bulk of working-class black society."

Dutch Morial has repeatedly endeared himself to the black community, for example, by deliberate displays of temper against the New Orleans media, especially the Times-Picayune, which he claims has used racist tactics to distort his positions and portray him as a combative, ineffective mayor who lacks direction or a guiding philosophy.

While it is difficult to assess Morial's charges against the local newspaper, his belief that "racial undertones" were involved in the state legislature's efforts to "erode the power of the black mayor" seem quite plausible. In the 1983 session, the legislature reduced Morial's appointment power over the New Orleans Aviation Board and stripped him of his power to appoint the members of the New Orleans Audubon Park Commission and the Sewerage & Water Board.

As the alleged victim of a conspiracy by the white establishment, Mayor Morial has gained credibility in the black community for his rhetoric and even stronger voter loyalty. As Joan Crockett, a volunteer community worker in the Algiers-Fisher Housing Project, explains, "The edge Morial has with low-income blacks is that he knows how to be a grassroots person. He says it like it is; he sounds like he's one of us. . . . The black community does not believe that Morial has done much for it, but he does care. He is very limited in what he can do."

A second form of civil-rights rhetoric calls on blacks to advance themselves through self-help and self-reliance. As liberal support fades for black advancement through government assistance, more black leaders are emphasizing individual responsibility as the key to upward mobility. Morial's public pronouncements on the importance of the work ethic and self-determination began early in his first term, when a group of black youths stormed City Hall and demanded more summer jobs. Rather than promising government-funded work, Morial advised the protestors to seek jobs in private industry. "Get up early, put on a clean white shirt, and go out looking for jobs," he said. "And if you don't get one, go back the next day."

For five years, Morial has carried this message into neighborhoods and public schools, winning praise from parents and voters, the poor and middle class. During a town meeting in August 1983, black residents of the extremely poor Desire-Florida section of New Orleans criticized Morial for not creating new jobs in the area. The mayor was cheered as he proceeded to lecture the standing-room crowd:


"You've got to get up early in the morning, look at the classified section in the newspaper, roll out of bed, and go out and look for a job. You can't hoot and howl with the owls at night and soar with the eagles in the morning. "


In addition to preaching the gospel of self-reliance, Morial has pushed blacks to take greater charge of their fate by becoming more involved in the city's politics. Since becoming mayor, blacks have registered in record numbers and often turned out for elections at higher rates than white voters. Morial is given credit for almost singlehandedly developing a strong political consciousness among black voters. And through these voters, he is turning his popularity into increasing political power for himself.

In the November 1983, elections, Morial used his support among poor blacks to campaign for three candidates challenging black incumbents representing the New Orleans area in the state legislature. All his candidates won, and even though he lost a city charter amendment that would have allowed him to run for unlimited terms for mayor, he demonstrated the electoral strength to name his successor.

As Morial builds a more effective political machine of his own, the question of what material benefits a black mayor can deliver for poor blacks will remain. For the danger of an ambitious politician forsaking his constituents' real interests is no less real for a black elected official than for a white. As Kalamu ya Salaam observes:


Most black elected officials of whatever office find themselves powerless within the status quo. Faced with the choice of fighting a seemingly losing battle against an apparently invincible system as opposed to individual advancement secured by going along with the system, most politicians have succumbed to the pleasure principle.


The challenge for Morial and for the voters of New Orleans will be to turn a new political force into a tool strong enough to reshape the legal, political, and economic system that now poses a formidable barrier to ending poverty in New Orleans.


* For example, see James Button, "Southern Black Elected Officials: Impact on Socioeconomic Change" in The Review of Black Political Economy (Fall 1982); Peter Eisenger, Black Employment in City Government, 1973-1980 (Joint Center for Political Studies, 1983); Walter Leavy, "Can Black Mayors Stop Crime" in Ebony (December 1983); Louis H. Masotti and Robert L. Lineberry, The New Urban Politics (Ballinger, 1976); William Nelson and Philip J. Meranto, Electing Black Mayors: Political Action in the Black Community (OSU Press, 1977); Edmund Newton, "Taking Over City Hall" in Black Enterprise (June 1983); Phil W. Petrie, "Do Black Mayors Make a Difference?" in Black Enterprise (July 1979); and Michael B. Preston, Lenneal J. Henderson, Jr. and Paul Puryear, The New Black Politics: The Search for Political Power (Longman, 1982).