It used to be easy to spot racism in the Deep South: burning crosses, fire hoses, swimming pools filled in rather than integrated.
But there’s a new language, one that is not as direct but still understood — and we heard it throughout the gubernatorial campaign, says Albert Samuels, a political science professor at Southern University.
“Unless you do overt egregious things, it’s not racism,” or, at least it’s not considered so, Samuels said while talking about the recent election, in which Democrat John Bel Edwards unexpectedly and soundly beat Republican David Vitter.
“You can come right up to that line and if you can justify it any other way, you have plausible deniability,” Samuels said. “It’s not about race; it’s about crime and security.”
The terminology is subtle and if taken one way is clearly not racial. But taken in context, the racial component is understood by all, he said. “It has been, unfortunately, a staple of Louisiana politics,” Samuels said.
He sees the numbers that show the key factor in Edwards’ victory was his ability to reap white Republican-leaning voters who had been alienated by Vitter’s scorched-earth style. But equally important to Samuels is how African-American voters heard the rhetoric Vitter used to try to energize his splintered GOP base.
A prime example was Vitter’s “thug” ad.
The spot showed black and white images of an over-dosed addict, of drug dealers partying and of a fearful white woman. An announcer warned that Edwards was so enthralled by President Barack Obama that he would willingly free 5,500 predators from prison.
The 5,500 number came from Jimmy LeBlanc, the head of Gov. Bobby Jindal’s prison system, and he was referring to how many more inmates Louisiana has than Mississippi.
Edwards, and, actually, Vitter too, repeatedly had made the point at various venues that Louisiana needs to do something about its prison population. The tracker hired by a group backing Vitter had videotaped each of those speeches, but chose to quote Edwards at the historically black Southern University.
“I could make that speech, I heard it so many times,” said Democratic Baton Rouge Rep. Ted James, a Southern alum. “That Vitter tried to tie that to Southern University, a lot of students and alumni took that as a sign of disrespect.”
Vitter came to Southern near the end of the campaign and argued that the spot wasn’t racist. Look up the word “thug” in the dictionary, he said, it applies to whites too.
While the advertisement sparked a lot of conversation, James said aggressive get-out-the-vote efforts by African-American elected officials and ministers had far more impact on the increased turnout in favor of Edwards.
If nothing else, the talk about Vitter’s attack ads helped black ministers around the state mobilize their flocks to go vote, said Theron Jackson, pastor of the Morning Star Missionary Baptist Church in Shreveport. Ministers set a goal of getting 5,000 of their Caddo Parish congregants to vote early. They got about 4,700.
“The fact that David Vitter took that route just underscored that he was not on our team, he didn’t believe in the issues that were important to us,” such as Medicaid expansion, Jackson said.
Going into the primary, just about everybody assumed the governor’s race would end like all the others had: Democrat Edwin Edwards gets in the runoff, Republican Garret Graves wins the congressional seat; Democrat Mary Landrieu wins a spot in the runoff, Republican Bill Cassidy wins the U.S. Senate seat.
But Edwards beat Vitter by 12 percent of the vote.
The official numbers are not yet in. But Edward E. Chervenak, a political scientist at the University of New Orleans, looked at turnout in the heavily non-white precincts and the nearly all-white precincts. He calculated that black turnout increased by 3 percentage points over the primary, while white turnout decreased by 2 percentage points.
The black community was excited coming out of the primary, said Rep. Regina Barrow after she led a group to vote early on Nov. 14. Edwards’ unexpectedly strong showing in the primary, followed by Republican Lt. Gov. Jay Dardenne crossing party lines to endorse the Democrat, gave hope to voters who had been pretty much ignored for the past eight years, she said.
What the outcome really showed is that the division politics practiced nationally didn’t work here, for a change. “David Vitter didn’t get the memo that this was a race for governor for Louisiana,” Samuels said.
Mark Ballard is editor of The Advocate Capitol news bureau. His email address is firstname.lastname@example.org.