Mayor C. Ray Nagin said Monday that the hurricanes that devastated this city last summer were a sign that “God is mad at America” and at African Americans in particular, remarks that appear to have hit the weary populace like a lead weight and may cast a further cloud over his reelection prospects.
During a Martin Luther King Jr. Day celebration, Nagin gave a meandering speech in which he imagined himself talking to the late civil rights leader.
He also spoke of New Orleans becoming “chocolate” again -- an apparent reference to “Chocolate City,” the 1970s funk recording by Parliament that called on blacks to fill the urban void left by white flight.
At one point, Nagin joked that he might be suffering from “post-Katrina stress disorder.”
But it was the mayor’s remark likening the damage done by hurricanes Katrina and Rita to the wrath of God that drew comparisons to extreme statements by controversial televangelist Pat Robertson and became the talk of political New Orleans.
(Robertson suggested after Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon suffered a stroke this month that Sharon was being punished for “dividing God’s land.” Robertson later apologized.)
“As we think about rebuilding New Orleans, surely God is mad at America,” Nagin said. “He’s sending hurricane after hurricane after hurricane. And it’s destroying, it’s putting stress on this country.
“Surely, he’s not approval [sic] of us being in Iraq under false pretenses. But surely he’s upset at black America also. We’re not taking care of ourselves. We’re not taking care of our women. And we’re not taking care of our children.”
The remarks by the mayor, who is black, appeared to be an attempt to foster racial unity and appeal to disgruntled African American voters. Black activists and community leaders have criticized a rebuilding plan, proposed by a mayoral commission last week, that would give residents of badly flooded New Orleans neighborhoods just four months to prove the viability of their areas before possibly being forced to sell to the government.
Asked by a television reporter afterward whether his vision of a “chocolate” city might be racially divisive, Nagin explained that he hoped for a racially diverse New Orleans.
“Do you know anything about chocolate?” the mayor said. “How do you make chocolate? You take dark chocolate, you mix it with white milk, and it becomes a delicious drink. That’s the chocolate I’m talking about.”
Nagin’s statements came a day after a traditional parade in the city was disrupted by gunfire that wounded three people. The parade was attended by many black evacuees who had made their way back for the occasion. Police say they do not have any suspects or motive in the shootings.
As part of his imaginary conversation with King on the state of New Orleans, Nagin called the suspected shooters “knuckleheads” and demanded an end to black-on-black violence.
Edward F. Renwick, a political science professor at Loyola University in New Orleans who specializes in city politics, said Monday was not the first time that some of the mayor’s remarks had caused a stir.
“Nagin is always saying controversial things. He’s not what you would call a disciplined orator. He shoots from the hip,” Renwick said. “Obviously, no one knows whether God called for the hurricane. Tomorrow, Nagin will probably contradict himself and say something completely different.”
Whether Monday’s remarks will hurt the mayor’s chances of reelection in what is expected to be a wide-open contest this year remains to be seen, but they probably won’t help, Renwick said.
“I think he was already in trouble,” he said. “But when he ran the first time, nobody gave him much of a chance, so you have to be careful about underestimating Nagin.”
If an unscientific survey by New Orleans’ NBC affiliate, WDSU, is any indication, Nagin may have some explaining to do: 94% of the more than 12,000 respondents early Monday evening said they did not think his comments were appropriate.