ALEX CHADWICK, host:
In New Orleans at an event earlier this week honoring Dr. Martin Luther King, the city's mayor, Ray Nagin said this, welcoming residents back to a chocolate city.
Mr. RAY NAGIN (Mayor, New Orleans): This city will be chocolate at the end of the day. This city will be a majority African-American city. It's the way God wants it to be.
CHADWICK: Well, that turned out to excite a lot of comment. The mayor went on to actually apologize for his statement. But writer Jimi Izrael says that despite the furor, Mayor Nagin's remarks address a legitimate concern about what a rebuilt New Orleans will look like.
Mr. JIMI IZRAEL(Columnist, AOL Black Voices): Mayor Ray Nagin is not known for speaking diplomatically. And how this mayor of a sunken New Orleans finds time to assault every open mike is a mystery to me. Well, he was in rare form recently when he declared and then took back a promise that New Orleans would once again be a chocolate city. It didn't take long for white commentaries to figure out he was talking about returning New Orleans to its largely black population.
Nagin's good at ticking people off across the spectrum. Even some blacks were offended by all of Nagin's bad preaching about God's retribution against America. But it was the chocolate city comments that left a bad taste in the mouths of his white constituency, and made for tasty sound bite coast to coast. Nagin wasn't hinting at any black revolutionary takeover. New Orleans was 67 percent black before the hurricane. He was clearly addressing the unspoken presumption that the new face of the city is likely to be a little richer and a little whiter. But if Nagin truly believes that New Orleans will welcome back its mainly black, mainly poor citizens, he is indeed living in his own chocolate city, filled with peppermint trees and gumdrop rain.
His original statements spoke to well-founded concern in the black community, and the evidence of this is everywhere. The government didn't give round-trip tickets to the people escaping the Katrina floods; they were one way, all the way. Even to far flung places like Massachusetts and Utah. They put those folks on a plane and said, see ya. The Feds have been slow and stingy financing the rebuilding; and some from the mainly black Ninth Ward weren't allowed back to see their homes for months and are fighting the government for the right to retain their property. This is not the way you welcome people back. Black people were at the heart of the city's culture and character, and don't know how or if they will fit into any new plan. The answer is they won't; and Ray Nagin should know it.
So Nagin was right to speak to these concerns. Even right in some of his sentiments. But the Martin Luther King Day event was the wrong place and the wrong time. His backpedalling made it worse. Nagin's candyland shuffle proves he's indecisive, and if any city needs decisive leadership, it's New Orleans. It takes more than tough talk and bad preaching to address the concerns of black New Orleans. And he has to advocate for these largely voiceless folks, loudly and without apology, no matter how sour the reaction.
CHADWICK: Opinion from Jimi Izrael. He's a columnist at OLBlackVoices.com. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright National Public Radio.