As our neighbors in the Florida panhandle stepped out from hiding and assessed their homes and cities battered by Hurricane Michael, the former mayor of New Orleans, Mitch Landrieu, called an audience of over 200 people to consider and prepare for a storm of a different kind.
Landrieu addressed the Suncoast Tiger Bay Club’s 40th Anniversary Dinner Thursday night at the University of South Florida – St. Petersburg. Tiger Bay, a non-partisan political club, aspires to be a kind of civic commons, where people of all political ideologies can gather, share discourse, and build a stronger democracy. Landrieu took the opportunity to warn of an ideological storm, brewing out of the divisive political climate of America today:
“It would be as though I as the mayor of New Orleans saw a storm coming, and I knew what the impact was going to be but I never told you about it. I saw a storm coming and I knew what the impact was going to be because I knew that the wall of water was going to be high but I never asked you to evacuate. I saw a storm coming and I knew that the wind was going to be between 120-150 [mph] and I never bothered to tell you that you better build stronger and you better build higher, although I knew it was going to happen. And I never asked anybody to actually think about it and get themselves ready. And when I did tell you about it, you said I’m just going to ignore it, or I’m going to try to run away from it, or that wall of water is something that I can push back as opposed to manage.”
Citing the inevitable demographic changes sweeping our country, when the white majority will no longer be, Landrieu warned of the storm that could overtake it in the coming years if Americans fail to recognize that “the future of the world and the future of this county is in reaching out, not closing in.”
“In 2040, when this nation is majority minority that is going to be the moment when, if we’re not ready for it and we don’t prepare for it, we’re not going to be in the place of resilience and trust that we need to be in order to be a productive society,” said Landrieu.
In the face of objective markers of success like increasing collective wealth, military strength, geopolitical position, economic growth and a strong job market, Landrieu argued that America remains a “special kind of broken” where people of every political stripe feel alienated, disenfranchised and unimportant.
“There is no country in the world that approximates the bounty that we have in the United States of America,” Landrieu argued. “And yet if you watch Fox or you watch CNN, MSNBC, or CBS – pick your poison – you would think that we hate each other.
“Everybody is doing a good job of convincing everybody that we don’t have anything in common.”
According to Landrieu, the divisive nature of politics today is reversing the course of progress set in the Civil Rights era, encouraging white supremacy, and setting a dangerous course for our future.
It is that divisiveness that has contributed to increasing racial violence, from the mass shooting in Charleston, to the Charlottesville protest murder, to the death threats that Landrieu received when he advocated for the removal of four Confederate statues from the grounds of the city of New Orleans.
The former mayor, whose term ended this year, came to national prominence for the speech he gave to the people of New Orleans to explain why it was time for those statues to come down, and to explain the tedious task of making a crooked history straight.
“Our national motto is e pluribus unum, out of many we are one. That’s not an accident,” Landrieu explained. “The founding fathers designed this miracle that we have as a way for people who do not like each other, who are not alike, who think differently, to get along peacefully while respecting each other’s differences.
“The United States of America is a mosaic. We’re not trying to be black and white and put it together and make grey,” Landrieu explained. “Every person, irrespective of race, creed, color, national origin, sexual orientation, be the best that you can possibly be. Shine as brightly as you possibly can shine.”
Landrieu implored his audience to step out of the political climate, out of the macro experience of race and politics, and step into the micro, their own personal experiences.
“Contrary to what you might be hearing from some elected officials on the left and the right, you should actually believe what you see and believe what you hear and be able to testify to what you know based on your own personal experience,” Landrieu implored. “And then speak to the truth of what that is.”
He asked white Americans in the yacht clubs, the locker rooms, and the parts of life that let in insidious voices of casual racism, to stand up and say, “that is not my experience, that is not how I view the world.”
This, Landrieu argued, is how communities weather storms – both physical and ideological. Communities that are connected, those that build bridges of trust between groups of different races thrive. “Threading together the world from the ground up, neighbor to neighbor, community to community … that’s called resilience,” he explained.
“No matter what kind of storm hits you, whether it’s a hurricane, a tornado … If you know each other and you care for each other, those communities in the world have always been the ones that have bounced back fast, because their existence was born out of trust.”