Katrina, Duke, and Reporting on Louisiana’s History
S1: Hi, I’m chatty and welcome to this week’s episode season for Sloper. She’s covering the political rise of white nationalist DVD.
S2: From 1989 to 1981 and these bonus episodes, I’ll be traveling with host Josh Levine and producer Christopher Johnson about the making of the series. And we’ll have some exclusive or extended interviews that didn’t make the cut and that deeper into this season subject. Today, we have a special interview recorded specifically for Slate plus with writer Clint Smith and Van Newkirk, the host of the Aesthetics podcast about Hurricane Katrina called Flip Minds. They talked about the connections between Duke and Hurricane Katrina and about how to write and record history as it happens. But first, let’s talk to Josh and Christopher. Hello there. Hey, Joe. Hey, Joe. So I like to hear a little bit more about the behind the scenes of getting Edwin Edwards to come on to the podcast.
S3: So basically, we try to couple of different roads and we found our way to someone who is a friend of the governor and helped us connect with him. And then, of course, because of his age, what are the decisions? Just take a step back. One of the decisions that we made with this podcast was that we wanted to set ourselves up to jump on recordings as soon as possible. The logistics for some people of getting them to record themselves from home. It’s not always feasible for everybody. And so, you know, with some of these recordings, we accept that it’s going to be a phone call. And certainly with someone like Governor Edwards, it was worth it to just make sure that we get that interview. And so we essentially recorded a phone call with him. But of course, it wasn’t just him. It was with his wife, Trina, who was fantastic in relaying Joshes questions back and forth between Josh and the governor. And it just also allow for her to be very present in the call. You know, they have a history of performing together and they have their routine down and they’re very charming together.
S4: And so that added a nice bit of flavor to the call.
S5: Yeah, I’m a big Trena fan. I found that to be a particularly memorable experience of this season as being on that phone call with them and growing up in Louisiana when Edwards is a legendary figure, a towering figure in the history of the state and in Louisiana politics. And so it was just kind of a pinch me sort of moment to be on the phone with them in the first place. But just there’s so many kind of hilarious moments, and I think we included most of them and the episode. I’m curious to hear how people respond to it and if they found it to be as charming as we did. But yeah, we recorded the phone call. I think it actually sounds pretty good. I don’t think it’s too jarring to the year. And obviously, as Christopher said, he’s a voice that we wanted to have on the show. And we’re really grateful that he was willing to talk to us and that we were able to, you know, have his memories and expertise. And, you know, he’s about to be 93, but he can definitely tell you about, you know, when he was on the city council and Crowley in the 1950s. It’s like he’s he’s into it.
S4: Yeah. I mean, his his here, he may not be great, but his memory is incredible. His sort of recall of Louisiana politics is pretty remarkable. And so even for myself, I’m not from Louisiana. And I found it fascinating to listen to him kind of recount this moment as he experienced it.
S2: Yeah. He seemed pretty open overall about talking about the past. Were you surprised by that?
S5: He’s somebody who’s always been open and he’s been asked every question by every media member on Earth. I don’t mean to imply that we’re getting kind of like wrote stuff from him. I just mean, you’re not going to throw hammered, fluster him or ask something that he is not going to be willing to answer. And so, you know, I think once we got him, then I was pretty confident that it was gonna be a good conversation. And he obviously has his versions of events. And one thing that’s interesting about him is that, know, he was convicted and went to federal prison for eight years around this reeking of casino licenses. That happens after that. The main timeline that we’re dealing with on the show, if you ask him about that or any of the other legal entanglements he had, he’s not somebody who’s going to be, you know, like, oh, yeah, I made a mistake and I’m contrite about that. He feels like he was railroaded in all these cases. And so when he looks back, he is sort of reflective. But I don’t want to say that he’s not self reflective, but he certainly has a narrative around who he is, what he’s done and what was done to him. And you’re not going to. Move him off that spot. So I don’t think that’s what our goal was, is just to get his perspective, since he is at the center of a lot of the story we’re telling in these last two episodes.
S4: Yeah, there’s a point in the interview and it’s in the story as well, where Josh asks him about regrets. And, you know, he’s asking by way of Trena and Trena sort of steps in and says, I don’t. Chuckling I don’t think that he regrets anything he’s ever done.
S5: But I’ll ask him anyway. That was an amazing moment. You know, as a reporter, you don’t want somebody to be mediating between you and the subject in terms of asking questions. I mean, the worst version of this is when you’re on a call and there’s a PR person on the call for whatever reason, and that’s just never an ideal situation. And so there’s a version of this where having Trina, there could have been a negative, but it turned out actually a wildly positive, in my view, both because she did sort of faithfully pass along anything that we asked, but also just her reactions in real time, I think were great. And I hope that listeners agree.
S2: Yeah. So this governor’s race that you covered in the episode really had quite the set of character. Who’s in it? You mentioned that Edwards had six grand jury investigations during his first term. And, of course, he went on to continue governing the state after that. Why do you think that Louisianians chose to ignore this sort of scandal?
S5: I don’t know if I would say ignore, but I think compartmentalize because the 70s were just a wildly successful period for Edwards and for the state. And we mention the change in to how crude oil was taxed, which seems like a kind of esoteric. So, I mean, maybe it doesn’t. I don’t want to assume, but maybe some people think, oh, that seems like kind of an esoteric subject. But it actually had a remarkable effect on the state and the budget. And what was able to be accomplished? I think ultimately the state’s reliance on oil and gas, you know, it came back around and that’s partly what took Edwards down and in the 80s and also hurt Buddy Roemer when he got into office. But, you know, in the 70s, times were so good and things were so flush that Edwards was seen, you know, and I think rightfully as a person who was partially responsible for that and also just the person who was in office while it was happening. And so he wasn’t gonna get punished. You know, people in the state aren’t going to punish themselves by kicking him out out of office, which I think was that perception. And then just another really important factor here is that he made promises to black people in Louisiana before he got elected and he kept those promises, which is incredibly rare, I think, for a white politician in the south in his era. You know, he was responsible for this constitutional convention in the state and the constitution banned discrimination and they’re welcoming black people into state government and all these different ways. And so I think that was incredibly important as far as establishing him as a politician that would have support from a large percentage of people in the state. So essentially, he just stuck to his word. Right. You know, in certain ways he did. And I think in other ways, maybe he didn’t. He’s a complicated figure. But I don’t think you can look at him and just say he was crooked. Full stop. And that’s the story of Edwin Edwards. That’s not a fair or fuller complete picture.
S2: Right. Why do you think that the Louisiana Republican Party chose not to endorse. Buddy Roemer in this race?
S5: Well, I think that there are a couple different reasons. Roemer was a conservative Democrat and it was a coup for Republicans to get him to switch parties. This was kind of an era of party switching as we have this political realignment in the country and in the south in particular. And so it was seen as a big triumph for the party to get Roemer, who is a rising star in the Democratic Party at that time and seen as a potential president on down the line, which did not happen, as I think we all now. But he was somebody who, you know, it wasn’t necessarily trusted by Republicans in the state and in part because of his ideology, his political views. And we didn’t get into it on the episode. But he vetoed, I think it was three very harsh anti choice bills around this time. And so he was seen as not being, you know, pro-life enough for a lot of Republicans in the state. And then there was just his personal kind of affect and behavior. He was not the most conciliatory person, you know, in the campaign spot we hear in this episode. He says, you know, it’s a line, you know, it’s a campaign kind of propaganda. But he says, I love Louisiana enough to make people angry. Well, he did make a lot of people angry in the state Republican Party and and elsewhere. He was better at communicating to a mass audience, say, through television, than, for instance, Edwin Edwards was politicking behind the scenes with the legislature and winning people over. That was not Roemer’s strength and I think was ultimately his downfall in a lot of ways.
S2: And so looking back now, how bad was Romer’s term like? Did it have a lasting effect on a state?
S5: Well, I think it’s sort of like Edwards got booted out in 87 because the economy was really bad. And, you know, Romer ends up getting the boot in 91. I think there’s a lot of different factors. But I think a recovery hadn’t really kicked in yet and he wasn’t able to really accomplish that much. And I think people just had really high expectations for him. And there’s this the section in the podcast where we go back through some kind of Louisiana political history and that he’s sort of really position himself as a reformer and somebody who was going to change the state in this pretty fundamental way. And so measuring him against the standard that he set for himself, he was a colossal failure. But, you know, Christopher, I’m curious for your thoughts on, you know, the the Louisiana political history aspect of this, because there is just this cliche about Louisiana politics and it being dirty and corrupt. And we get into some of that, both in terms of the history and then maybe how that played out in the time period we’re talking about, too.
S4: Yeah, I mean, I suppose that for me, I don’t claim to be a sort of political historian. And so alongside that, I’m pretty cynical about politics locally and nationally. And so both of those things incline me to say that that Louisiana is not unique in whatever sort of imagination might take place kind of in backrooms. And I just think it’s probably like same shit, different states and different counties. But, you know, Louisiana has a reputation, of course, a national reputation for being particularly kind of political in its politics. And one of the things that even Marc Morial says not about corruption per say, but one of things he says about about Edwards is that whenever he called him or whenever someone called him and needed something, he would have a conversation with him. It is a very kind of direct, hand-to-hand sort of political maneuvering on his part. And I think that that probably goes hand-in-hand then to say with Edwards, but in general with deals being made. But I just think that I just suspect that that’s politics. And again, I’m just very cynical about politics. So I’m not Nesser the person to ask to up?
S5: No, I think that’s I think that’s right. I mean, I think that the nature of politics more broadly is can explain a lot of, you know, what we talk about in this episode. But, you know, I consider this out of, you know, the episodes in the series that this is kind of the Louisiana episode that we were focused more on New Orleans and the New Orleans area earlier on as that was Duke’s starting point and seat of power. And, you know, there’s episode more about his past and the Klan. And you see him sort of launching his statewide campaign for the Senate and an episode four. But in this one, I think we get a fuller picture of the state and its history. And so that was fun and interesting for me. And we hear, you know, Marc Morial and the beginning of this episode talking about Cajun’s and blacks being a uniquely Louisiana coalition. They’re a bunch of different explanations that I’ve read for. Why Louisiana politics is like it is. I think around the world you see that oil money can be corrupting and lots of places where there’s oil. But you also just have this kind of fractionalization in the state. Oftentimes there’s like a north Louisiana versus south Louisiana versus New Orleans aspect to Louisiana politics. There’s also like a I don’t know if this will end up being in any of our episodes, but, you know, Edwards talking about how one third of voters were for him, one third against him, and they’re always fighting for that last kind of third, which I think is interesting. I mean, maybe that’s something we could get into an episode six. But, yeah, I think there’s just this, like, general kind of sense that this is like American politics and some fits, like purest, most political form. But with like Louisiana overlay on it, which I find interesting just because of my, you know, familiarity with it and growing up in it.
S3: One of the things that I’m curious about and I’m genuinely curious to maybe do similar research on my own is how much to the extent that Louisiana politics are really unique, even sort of in the context of 48 other states. How much of that is tied to the way that Louisiana kind of came to be in the national story and how, you know, with Louisiana Purchase and all of that sort of stuff like and that expansion of territories and whatnot, like how the kind of cultural nature and Louisiana is coming along and this particular arc of colonialism, I just wonder how much that fact for Louisiana shapes the way that politics move there. But that’s for another podcasting research project.
S2: It’s an interesting question. Yeah. Josh, I’m wondering if there was like a moment when you realized, like, having been Anita. Like when you realized that Louisiana politics did seem a little bit different maybe than in other states. It was unique in some way.
S5: Well, you know, growing up in a place, I think you don’t understand how different it is, a New Orleans is a very different sort of place. And it was only upon leaving and being in the northeast and places that, you know, I think it’s the stereotype and it’s often true. And you can vouch for this child as being from the West Coast is that people on the East Coast think that they’re like the normative sort of experience. And so anything that deviates from that is unusual. And so, you know, coming up here and being from New Orleans, you know, I think it’s mostly a positive thing. You’re like, oh, that’s so interesting and weird that someone is from New Orleans. Let me dig into that. So I think it was more like hearing from other people that it was interesting that I, you know, not having traveled that much or been around that much, that I I recognized that it was a special and unique place. But as far as the Louisiana aspect of it, the politics goes, you know, as I’ve said before, the Duke races were really the first time that I really paid attention to politics and the Duke Edwards race there. We’re talking about in this episode and in our final episode next week, you know, to be the kind of formative political experience you have in your life. Like that was one of the most crazy and memorable and talked about elections in modern American history. And so I don’t know if I thought that every race was going to be like that going forward or if I recognized that this was kind of once in a lifetime, you know, in some ways, hopefully once in a lifetime experience. But that would definitely be the moment when I recognized that Louisiana politics was what it was.
S2: Yeah. So let’s talk about these rumored secret alliances that happened in this race. So do you know of these rumors existed back then? Where are people talking about it back then?
S5: So we hear a lot from Raymond Strother in this episode, the political consultant. And I really get a kick out of him because I think he told us he was a consultant on more than 320 campaigns. And he has this very kind of seen it all sort of attitude because he probably has. And so he was definitely talking about it, you know, as he tells us and observed this idea that Duke and Edwards were, you know, secretly playing on on the same team. That was something that was being talked about. And I think, you know, and John McGinniss’s book, which was written not long or published not long after the election was over. He writes about the rumors being out there about Duke and Edwards. And I think, you know, I don’t want to get too much ahead of ourselves, but you know how body language experts and all that stuff. I think at least in the very beginning of the runoff, people were like, why don’t they seem angrier with each other? Like, why don’t they seem to hate each other more? And. So they were trying to kind of analyze that and assess that. So it was definitely out there. I don’t know to the extent that it was out there, though. Like, I don’t know if it was something that like, quote unquote, everybody was talking about. But I think people who, like, kind of fancy themselves or style themselves as insiders and people who are cynical, like Christopher Johnson were were definitely kind of scratching their Chens and their heads about it.
S2: And then when did you hear about it enough that you felt like you wanted to start digging into it?
S5: Just in talking to sources for the podcast, people mentioned it as a, you know, just a thing that they heard or thought about or speculated about. I did read the McGinniss book and so was out there. And it’s interesting. And Christopher and I talked about this with the rest of the team that I have a reporting background. I’m really interested in publishing things that have not been out there before. So there’s this kind of mode that you get into in slow burn where the original reporting that we do is mostly through interviews and presenting new reflections from people who were on the scene and these these events. And it’s less often, I think, in the show or shows like this where you’re trying to report things that have never been reported before. You might find people who are on the fringes of a story and have never been interviewed extensively. You might find people who are willing to say things now that they weren’t willing to say 30 years ago. And that is certainly original reporting. But actually like trying to chase down a lead like this and try to see if you can pin down a rumor was actually kind of a fun mode to switch to for me and to be able to incorporate that in the podcast. It’s great when you feel like you’re giving people something that they hadn’t heard before. Even people that were maybe following the story. So that’s kind of what my motivation was.
S2: Yeah. Christopher, as a cynic, do you believe these rumors, these alliances existed?
S5: Yes, I really liked thinking about how to relay this information while also contextualizing it and not overstating it. I believe there is a sentence in there that’s like I don’t want to make you think this is more right than it actually is, because I don’t know if you feel this way, Christopher. But anytime you say that something is leaked or a secret, people are going to think that it’s more important just because it’s oh, they didn’t want us to know about this. This must be the most important thing that’s ever happened in the history of the world like we do. I think just as humans tend to maybe overstate the importance of private information and understate the value of public information. It’s like all this Trump stuff. It’s like, oh, he says this in private. Will we, like, know absolutely everything we need to know about Donald Trump? Based on his public persona and just what he says, it’s like the private Trump has exactly the same as the public trump.
S6: That’s one of the lessons that I think one could get from the arc of David Duke story in this series is that, you know, he was part of the Klu Klux Klan, which has a history, of course, of a secretiveness, if not under Duke. Definitely history of being secretive, clandestine, clandestine. You know, thanks. And we get to this with the last episode that he made it pretty plain, his position on things. If you look at like the decades of his public presentation of himself, even though he changes the way that he presents that message, the message is still pretty out there and pretty clear where he stands on things. And so it’s like that is also true with what we’re talking about in this episode, that a lot of the things that we were presenting as like these are kind of backroom deals. OK. But we don’t want to overstate them. There’s plenty of stuff that’s happening in plain sight that’s worthy of concern.
S5: I hadn’t really thought about it before. But there are a bunch of secret meetings and events that play a pretty significant role in our series. You know, Evelin Rich didn’t record Duke and Secret. He knew he was being recorded, but those tapes were hidden for a while. The meeting that Beth Rickey goes to, the populist convention where she sneaks into the meeting with the tape recorder. And I think you’re right, actually, that the stuff that was on those tapes, it doesn’t necessarily change what we know about David Duke. But there in. Stood with this kind of importance because it’s and I think rightly so, seen as Duke being honest because he doesn’t think that he’s being watched and listened to. And so there can be no mistaking that this is what he actually believes. And so, yeah, I think it’s really fascinating how kind of secrets and revelations play out around him.
S2: So today’s Minus Content is an interview with writer Empire Clint Smith and senior editor at The Atlantic. Ben Newkirk. Josh, can you talk about why you wanted to talk to them?
S5: Yeah, well, first of all, Clint and Van are two of my favorite journalists. And so anytime I can talk to them, that’s a great day. And Clint is from New Orleans. We went to the same high school, although. He’s younger than me, so I didn’t meet him until we were both in D.C.. And Fan is the host of this podcast, Flood Lines for the Atlantic on Hurricane Katrina, which is just so fantastic. And it gets at Katrina and the way I think we’ve been trying to get at David Duke and looking back at the official story, peeling it back, understanding what really happened and understanding why the official story diverges from the actual story and so many different ways. And so they’re both Louisiana stories. They both involve race and racism and institutional failures. And so I just thought talking about Duke and Katrina and parallel, we could learn something about each of them by looking at the differences and similarities. And also, honestly, I just really like the podcast. And I really like both of those guys. And I just thought we would have a really good conversation.
S4: Yeah. Here, here. It’s a fantastic podcast and I think a really great treatment of the Hurricane Katrina experience in Louisiana, New Orleans. And so I don’t know. I also think that, you know, there are these ways that different states in the union pop in to the national imagination and even the international imagination. And so, you know, Katrina is one of them. David Duke may be another one for Louisiana, for the state of Louisiana. And they are probably a couple of others, a few others that really, really sort of stick out Katrina for sure. And so it also is just a really nice way to meet that thinking probably for a lot of people. Right. Like who don’t maybe. No. Like myself, the nuances of Louisiana political and cultural life.
S3: But these are two things that definitely stick out in my brain when I think about Louisiana.
S5: David Duke and Hurricane Katrina, I also liked that we were able to get really broad and talk about history and how we think about, you know, living through a moment right now that’s going to get this kind of treatment and 20 or 30 years. And you know what we’ve learned from the kind of reporting and thinking we’ve done about the past and how it can inform how we report on and think about the present. I thought they both had really smart things to say about that.
S2: Yeah, I agree. It was a really great interview. So let’s listen to it.
S7: Van Newkirk, a senior editor at The Atlantic and host of the podcast Floodlight.
S8: My name is Clint Smith. I’m a writer, teacher and poet, author of the poetry collection Counting Descent and the forthcoming nonfiction book, How the Word Is Passed.
S9: Van, you in the first episode of Flood Bloodlines by saying that Hurricane Katrina was not the disaster and the disaster was what happened after. What you show really powerfully in the series is that the disaster is also what happened before. It’s the stuff that Katrina revealed that had been around for generations. And I think that’s true about David Duke, too, that he exposed and inflamed what was already there. So I’d love to get your thoughts on learning about and spooling out this work of history where the prehistory is also so important.
S10: Well, one thing that I’ve come to appreciate about researching Katrina and also thinking about folks like David Duke about modern moments in white supremacy and racism is we have a tendency towards this disaster. Thinking that like that thinks of catastrophes is saying that just sort of happened. Right. Oh, my God. This is this is a wild thing that’s that’s occurring. But we’re not really good at institutionally as a country, as commentators, often at understanding how disasters are less, you know, new things that come out of nowhere than exclamation marks at the end of the sentence. Now, that is true of Hurricane Katrina. It was clear to people who were watching in New Orleans that a hurricane could and would at some point cause untold devastation in the city. And that was just something that lots of people knew, but not not all people did a whole lot of stuff about before it came. It’s understood that poverty and concentrated poverty and racism are things that will always contribute to disasters. But nobody really seems to think about those things until it actually happens. And that’s one thing we hopefully shed some light on with flood lines. Is that deep history? We keep saying history repeats itself. That’s only because we allow it to.
S9: Clint, you grew up in New Orleans like me. We went to the same high school, shout out, shout out to Ben Franklin. You’re eight years younger than me. So I was between eight and eleven during Dukes Rise to Power. You are too young. I’m guessing to remember that time. And I was twenty five and living in DC when Katrina hit. You were in high school. So I’m curious how you think about these events as being in your past and present and in Louisiana’s past and present, given how they’ve intersected with your life.
S8: So for Katrina specifically, I was 17 years old when the storm arrived and I was three days into my senior high school. And so my family and I evacuated. Our home was destroyed. You know, eight, nine feet of water. I finished high school in Houston living with my aunt and uncle in a suburb of Houston in Missouri City, Texas. And and it’s been this interesting thing for me in which I’ve only begun to understand the sort of emotional and psychological implications that Katrina had on my own life. As I’ve gotten older. I’m 31 years old now, and I think I’m only beginning the process of engaging with the sort of trauma. And in many ways, that that moment enacted and in, you know, in my life and obviously in the lives of so many other people. But I think for a long time I sort of swept it aside because I was like, why wasn’t in the Superdome or I wasn’t in the convention center. Like, we were so much more fortunate than so many others with, which is true. But I think as a result, I minimized the impact that it had on my own life and tried to make it seem as if it didn’t have an impact. When I think being uprooted from the only home I had ever lived in, at what was, you know, I had imagined as many seniors do, would be the combination of your, you know, your childhood with all of the people who you spent it with. And so, you know, even going back home to New Orleans for me now is a strange sort of cognitive dissonance in the sense that I go back home to a home that I’ve never lived in as a child. We’re back in New Orleans, but live in a different part of the city now. Different house and so much of the landscape of my childhood looks different than it did. Like so many, the homes on my block didn’t look like Katrina hit a month ago, much less 14 years ago, you know. And so it is a sort of interesting thing to go back to a place that is my home, but that in many ways feels so distant from the home that I knew as a kid. And then, you know, the politics of David Duke. I think we can talk about this more sort of animated my childhood in a way that has similarly I didn’t fully understand when I was a kid. And then looking back, I was like, oh, this was the same sort of sentiment that made it so that David Duke won with 60 percent of the white vote in 1990 when he ran for Senate and 55 percent of white vote when he ran for governor in ninety one. Those same sort of animating features were all around me, you know, in school or when I played soccer in so many of the spaces that I was a part of in ways that I looking back sort of retrospectively, I’m able to identify in ways that I wasn’t able to as a kid.
S9: Yeah, I mean, that, you know, resonates with me really deeply and thinking about how the Duke story stayed with me in ways I didn’t really fully understand until I started taking on this project. And it stuck with me more in the realm of kind of emotion and feeling that in specific events, like I can remember feeling scared and confused more than I can remember. And what happened specifically during the governor’s race or during the Senate race. And I’m wondering with you, Van. One of the things that I really wanted to convey and the season of Slow Burn was that kind of sense of feeling and emotion along with the kind of plot. And so how did you think about that as you were working on your series?
S11: So I think it became clear really early on. No one that like, you know, we like to think of ourselves going in the projects. A lot of projects is tabula rasa. I know this is probably not true for you on this project, and it definitely didn’t end up being true for me on this project, although, you know, I only watched Hurricane Katrina on TV.
S12: The reason I was interested in the project in the first place is the flood destroyed my old hometown. In 1999, Hurricane Floyd hit eastern North Carolina. And so I brought with me my own emotional context, subtext. What did you want to call it? And it was very clear to me when I was kind of resonating with people who I was talking to when, you know, Clint just had a great rumination on the Stoljar and how. This kind of disaster really disrupts it in a real way and how it can also amplifies it and also like in the act of destroying sacred spaces and meeting places, can really short circuit the comfort places of our brains. And so when people got to talking about stuff like that, about how I mean, we took Leon back to her old neighborhood where now it’s seen them mostly folks who don’t look like her anymore, who make a lot more money live there. Now, that moment, that emotion. I never know what you describe that emotion as. This is mix of longing and feeling sort of swept aside. We want wanted that to be the bad of the show. And it was interesting because I could not have written an article that portrayed that emotions. I don’t know what to call it. I don’t know how to describe them clearly. I’m clearly struggling right now, but it’s something I think comes through.
S9: So I want to talk about the similarities that I see between these stories and big ways and then maybe in a couple specific ways. So the parallels, I think, are pretty obvious. Some of them and that they’re both, I think, fundamentally about racism and anti blackness and the potency of that, about institutional failures, about, you know, individual heroism and a lot of different ways. But there are just some specifics that are so striking to me. Van, you talk about the ways in which Katrina was spun, that the victims were made into the perpetrators and the powerless were demonized. And that’s what David Duke was trying to do.
S13: Yeah, I was one of the, you know, the sources that we were looking at in terms of the ways the more legitimate media spin and mischaracterization of looting and things like that in the city, how those affected real people was David to explore. And, you know, at the time, he was like using those reports from news or on the ground to say that New Orleans was in the middle of a race war. He was telling white folks to pick up arms and actually I think there is actually some evidence that folks like the people out in Algiers Point who were going and arming themselves and shooting black passers by may have at least had some of that information coming back towards them from those sources.
S9: Yeah, I mentioned the barricade, the barricades. You know, I think in the first episode of Slow Burn about Jefferson Parish building this barricade in nineteen eighty seven to keep black people from New Orleans out. And it got torn down. The city of New Orleans tore it down, but it was there. That was the impulse. And during Katrina, which is this extraordinary time and moment, there wasn’t anybody there to tear that barricade down. It just went up and it stayed up.
S13: Yeah. I think you look at the underpinnings of barricades, you know, the impetus to put one up of what I think David Duke knew was a kind of latent fear. I mean, it’s not just it’s not specific to Louisiana and the communities surrounding New Orleans. I think you see some myself and, you know, Atlanta, Georgia, where the name of the city becomes almost a dog whistle before certain things. Right. To people in the suburbs, the people who are living outside don’t want those folks coming to where they live.
S14: I mean, of course, you know, like David Duke comes along with the layers of white flight in the middle of the, you know, the heyday of white flight. That’s his his introduction to the scene. Right. So, like, I think these are not separate stories at all.
S9: And you wrote a piece, Clennon in 2015, about what it was like to go back to your flooded house after Katrina and how you found it so difficult to capture what you saw that day and words. And you also wrote in that piece about the psychological toll exacted on black journalists who are constantly forced to report on black death at the hands of police and who find themselves writing the same story merely with different victims. And that last phrase really stuck with me, the same story merely with different victims. And it made me think, you know. The context in which you wrote that was about the burden of that and the feeling, I think, of where writing these stories, you know, black journalists like yourselves are writing these stories and there’s anything changing as anything is making a difference. And so in talking about these stories, these two very big stories where so many commonalities are there and makes me wonder about the efficacy of telling these stories and about, you know, why we’re able to accomplish what we’re trying to accomplish.
S8: Yeah, it’s tricky, you know. I mean, I think that we are in a moment now that certainly to me feels like something very different than certainly than I’ve experienced my my adult life or my entire life. And certainly feels like a potential inflection point in the history of how this country reckons with its relationship to the history of race and racism that brought us to this moment. I think it remains to be seen what sort of momentum exists moving forward. I think it remains to be seen to what extent it is a moment versus an ongoing reckoning. And, you know, it’s interesting because this is a conversation Van and I and other friends have had around, you know, the anti-racist reading list or the anti-racist podcast lists or the anti-racist, you name it list. And what are the potential benefits and what are the potential limits of that sort of phenomenon? And for me, I you know, and Van can happen here and share what he thinks. But I think for me, I think the I’ve been thinking differently about the language of humanizing, because in my own writing of this book about slavery, I, I was really struck by an essay written by Walter Johnson and the way he talks about how we, you know, our efforts to talk about it. Slavery being dehumanizing, actually rejects the notion that the institution of slavery was inherently something that relied on the humanity of enslaved people. And I think, you know, it’s not to say slavery is the same as Katrina. But I think that that sentiment is relevant in the way that we think about historically marginalized communities and the way that stories lift up the sort of granular aspects of what it means to be a person. And you know what? What does it mean to call it humanizing versus to, you know, to think that it is that a process that has to happen? Are these. Have they already always been human?
S15: I mean, just like that point you raised about the function of storytelling and what people know this story or that humanize people? I really think, you know, hopefully we were successful in doing this. There’s a bit of a savior complex in storytelling that I don’t enjoy. And I really believe the best way to use audio storytelling, to use the written word in the service of people, of toppling systems of power, etc., is to amplify the document, collect, curate, amplify. And that’s what we try to do with flood lines. That’s why we have a voice like the end. All right. She carries so many things, assessing many things. And the key to the show is just letting her say.
S8: And I think that the point around amplification is important because I think that amplification creates a level of proximity. Like, I think that that’s something unique to audio for me. Is the I think about, for example, here also the podcast from San Quentin Prison. And I think for many people, that is the first time they have heard the voices of people who are currently incarcerated for flood lines. I think it might be the first time that a lot of people have heard the story directly from the mouths of people who were impacted by Katrina at all or in a specific way that is shaped and animated by by poverty. Right. Because, you know, what is also true is that like my Katrina story and Joshes Katrina story is different than Liane’s Katrina story. Right. And they all reflect a very real set of experiences. But I think the stories that people are more likely to have heard are from those who maybe they share a socioeconomic background with or approximate to and a different sort of way because of their profession, because of their education. You know, there are limits to proximity as well. Right. Like, you can go on and on about a history of people who were proximate to other people, then still did terrible things to them, maybe did terrible things to them because of their proximity. But I do think at its best, proximity can be a catalyst for empathy. Right. And thinking differently or more holistically or reconsidering some of the ways that you might have thought about a phenomenon and the people entrenched in that phenomenon. And for me, that’s what flatlines did. Even as someone who who was from New Orleans, your white.
S9: It is about a fear of what’s going to happen, right? And it’s about why people trying to distance themselves so that whatever they fear won’t happen. And then once you create that distance, then that doesn’t actually make the fear dissipate. It actually makes you more afraid in some ways that you’re not going to be able to maintain that distance. And I think that’s why you see in the district where David Duke won in 1989, this ninety nine point six percent white district. And that’s something that I didn’t understand growing up. You know, partly I think because of growing up white in New Orleans, partly because of being a kid. But I’m curious for you, Clance. When did you recognize and understand that what happened during Katrina was a political story in addition to being a personal one? Was it something that you realized from the very beginning or is it something that dawned on you more gradually or maybe it hit you in a burst, but later?
S8: So I think it was always a conversation that I was. Part of your proximity to, I guess, to continuing using that language, I mean, you know, I was in a home full a full of black folks in Houston, you know, from the day this happened, who talked about like this would never happen if New Orleans was a city full of white people. Right. Like, I mean, the politics of that were very clear from the beginning. And I think you hear things when you’re younger and maybe don’t have the sort of larger systemic or structural analysis and frame with which to place it. And so I knew that everyone around me was saying that what happened in New Orleans would not have happened if it was a majority white city. What happened? The negligence, the disregard, the very conditions that allowed such a horrific thing to manifest itself in the way that it did. Right. Like the decades of poverty that created the conditions that made Katrina as terrible as it was, would not have even been there in the first place if it had been a different demographic of folks there. So now that was always clear to me, even when I didn’t know the next step in the analysis. Right. Like, I was like, oh, this is true because everyone around me is saying that is true. But I don’t I wouldn’t have known when I was 17. How to you know, I didn’t understand the sort of history, the socio political nature of black housing segregation in New Orleans. I didn’t understand the history of enslavement and how that shaped the contemporary landscape of the city. And, you know, the list goes on and on. But the more time I spent learning about the different manifestations of white supremacy and racial inequality throughout the country, the more I was able to bring a specific sort of lens to my own city. And then I was kind of like, oh, like this is why, like, you know, even I remember being my mid twenties and reading something about public housing in Detroit and reading that I was like, oh, this is why the projects in New Orleans looked like that or existed in this way or. And so I think I was able to. There were a lot of different entry points around the sort of broader American inequality that then I was able to bring to a sort of more granular New Orleans specific framework and understand the way that these sort of macro phenomena has shaped what was happening in my city as a kid and gave me a different language and framework to understand so much of what I didn’t when I was a kid. Like I remember, you know, the thing shaping all of this is that, like, I kind of, you know, move between worlds, so to speak. Like I. So I lived in a black community, but went to pretty racially diverse schools, were played soccer with mostly white kids from the suburbs like Kenner and Metairie and Slidell and all these places who I now can look back and say like, oh, the politics of those kids parents. And like so many comments that I was hearing, like at the you know, the Biloxi soccer tournament on the weekends were laden with so much racism in ways that I wasn’t able to fully name when I was, you know, a 12 year old kid on the soccer team. I mean, so much of my childhood, I think, and this is probably shapes what I think about and write about and read about and do. The work that I do today was just animated by a really profound sense of paralysis and just sort of like emotional paralysis, because I felt like I was always being told that the reason the people who looked like me in my city live the way that we did was our fault. And I just I was I was told that in so many different ways, explicitly and implicitly, that the reason one part of New Orleans is one way and the reason another part of New Orleans looks the other way is because of the people in those communities. And no one was having any conversation about the things that had been done to those communities generation after generation after generation after generation. So, for example, I remember there was a person who had been killed by police. I can’t remember specifically what year this was, but this was before the era of camera phones, you know, capturing things in the way that they do now. But someone to McGill about police, people in the community said he was unarmed, it was unjust. Their people were upset and were marching. And I remember one of my teammates on the soccer team was like, Clint, I don’t know why black people are so upset about this police officer. When my black people kill other black people all the time and nobody ever says anything. And when you’re like 12 years old, I just remember feeling. Angry and not knowing what to say back. And I remember that anger then becoming confusion because this is how like internalized racism and white supremacy works and this is the insidiousness of it, that then I started being like. Oh, well, like maybe he’s right, maybe we are just really like you and you start to because you don’t have the tools or the framework with which to understand something different. And because so much of the message you’ve gotten from so many spaces is telling you things that are aligned with that sentiment. It creates a strange, again, for me, paralysis. I was like I felt angry and confused. I was like, this is wrong. But I don’t know how to say this is wrong. Right. Like, I wasn’t able to talk about the myriad of ways that black people engage in, like antiviolence work within their community. At that point, my life, I wasn’t able to talk about how the history of housing segregation in cities throughout the country makes it so that people of different demographics live in proximity to people who look like them. And so intra-community crime happens. You people commit crime against people who they live in pretty close proximity to. And because of the history of housing segregation, people live in proximity to people who look like them. I wasn’t able to talk about, like, you know, the fact that the majority of white people are killed by the white people. But you never hear anybody say, why don’t why crime rate and all of these things that like, you know, I didn’t have any FBI statistics to point to when I was a twelve or thirteen year old. So what I think about a lot now and this is you know, this is not only tangential, but I think a lot about what kind of conversations that we’re having with young people, both black and white and everything else, to help them understand the reason that a city like New Orleans looks the way it does and that it didn’t just end up that way. Right. That the reason uptown looks a certain way or the reason that the 7th Ward looks a certain way or the reason that the Ninth Ward looks a certain way wasn’t it’s not just coincidence. And it wasn’t because of the people in those places. It was because of what’s been done to people in those places for so long.
S14: You almost said the ways in which I almost got. I know you have you can’t do it in front of the most efficient use of language is the phrase the ways in which I spent six years in academia. And so I’m trying to unlearn it, to say how the ways that what I teach.
S9: As I say, back on the subject at hand fan, I think one thing that you capture really well is that during Katrina, there’s this moment when people who we might and can’t I’m conscious of what you were saying before about about humanity. And I think that’s where it falls now to just this idea of people being voiceless. That notion there’s this moment when people whose story is that you’re amplifying now and that people whose testimony we should be hearing in the moment, they are cut off from communication with the world. And so, you know, all we get are the second hand, third hand stories from people who are not disposed to look upon, you know, poor black people in New Orleans. Not I look on them kindlier or charitably. And so that’s something that really struck me in what clima saying and what you did on the show.
S14: Yeah. I mean, I think like we’re having this, you know, internal debate over the uses of, you know, whether an unbiased perspective is possible on the news, what the role of the news in terms of like bias is, but what role the media is. And I think it’s just such a it’s a wrongheaded conversation because it’s so divorced from the actual content of thinking about bias. You know, we’ve tacked onto this like political two sides. Both sides debate. But really, the whole purpose of the original critique of bias and news was the fact that people in media are often the only conduits for information from the ground, especially in disasters like this. And you have to examine yourself and see what it is that you are bringing to that story.
S16: You know, if the goal here is to pass the mike, you’ve got to think about your own biases as interference within the mike. Right. There’s things that are going to change or distort the sound that’s coming into the mike. And I think, you know, we’re on the media. We all we ought to think about this, what we are adding or taking away from in the stories we cover, especially the stories of low income people of color, black folks in cities, in black cities, you know, like like Katrina thing. Any story about racism in America for so long has been thoroughly impeded by the internal biases of media. And that’s the strongest point we make in the show. I think it’s clear when I’m listening to Slover talking about David Duke and how he was and wasn’t covered and how people how media kind of wanted it both ways, right?
S14: They wanted him as a villain, but in order to make him a villain, it had to give him a platform in the first place. They had to build them up in a way he was able to. Get away with pretty blatant, fabulous ism because people wanted this big bag Klansman in Louisiana to look big and bad. I think those are the things I think about every night and how I am to do my job better.
S9: So, you know, Van, we’re living through this moment right now that, you know, whether it’s in 10 or 15 or 20 years, people are going to be doing the same kind of storytelling that we’ve been doing. And so as we’re living through this moment. How do you think about just being kind of conscious of the fact that we’re living through quote unquote history and sort of being conscious of the things that we’ve been talking about in the Duke story? And in the course, Trena, story that we’re pointing out now, maybe folks should have been conscious of at the time.
S7: Yeah, it’s really difficult. And this is, you know, another thing I think I want to always give leeway on. It’s really difficult in the moment to understand exactly how well you were doing, what you are deficient in in terms of chronicling really big historical moments and movements and thinking about what the things you are leaving out that are left on the table that you aren’t paying enough attention to. And right now, especially, it seems the moment is so much bigger than our current ability to grapple with it, to think about it, you know, leave in the middle of a unprecedented pandemic, in the middle of some of the biggest the biggest national protest movement maybe in America’s history. We do not have the language or the tools for taking all of it in our arms as media, as storytellers, as chroniclers and distilling it. And so I think the principles that guide me and, you know, I’m open to them to discovering one day that they aren’t the right principles. But the principles that I’m using now are always making sure that I’m thinking about folks who have less power in a situation and how the situation is shaping them. Thinking about how all this is looking to folks in neighborhoods like where I where I grew up, you know, like that’s always a guy postma journalism generally and also just getting out in reporting. I think a lot of this a lot of our instincts, especially in age of social media, in the age of punditry, are geared towards stepping back, injecting ourselves in the story. But really, like I think this is all going to be aided by rolling up our sleeves, getting our microphones out, getting our pens and pads and talking to people about how they feel. And it’s our duty really to create that record, regardless of whether it is really sexy journalism that gets a lot of people are eyes on it today. This is how history is going to remember the moment. And we have to step up to it.
S8: Yeah. And I’ll just add onto that that I think that point about considering that the nature of power dynamics is really important. You know, I come from an academic background and as a qualitative researcher, you know, I am always thinking about my own position, Naledi, and like, what are the assumptions that I’m bringing? What are the experiences that I’m bringing? How does that shape the way that a person is having a conversation with me? How does that shape the way that I my sort of preconceived notions of the way I’m approaching a conversation or story or a person? And in terms of this moment, it is impossible to know what a moment will look like when you’re in it. You know, but something I’m always thinking about is that the language that people use of this came out of nowhere or that’s just how it happened so quickly or this just happened overnight, that, like all the teams are going to change their names and the statues are coming down in the street, names are changing and, you know, on and on and on. And I think what that sentiment, even though it is genuine and, you know, to many people, it feels like change is happening overnight, quote unquote. It is always important to remember for me that what we see happening now, the statues we see coming down, the team, names we see changing the people, reckoning with their own complicity in white supremacy structures, that it is only possible that this moment is happening now because of work that, like activists and organizers and writers and journalists and scholars have been doing for years and years and generations and generations. And it’s a cumulative effort. The example I always give, and I know Van thinks by a lot is, you know, enslavement. Enslavement existed for 250 years in this country and millions and millions of people who fought for freedom never got to see it. They never got to experience it. They never they weren’t there in 1865 when abolition happened. And so does that mean that their work is for nothing? Does that mean that because they didn’t see the fruits of their labor, that their work toward a sort of abolitionist future was irrelevant? No, it what it did was chip away at this sort of proverbial wall of the metaphorical wall and kept chipping and chipping and chipping. And you just never know. None of us know where the other side of the wall is. Right. And you never know when there’s gonna be an opening that allows for light to come through that. That is only possible because of all the people who have been chipping away at that wall before you. So so I think about that moment. And, you know, and there will continue to be, as we know, many more walls and many people chipping away and many people who pass away before they ever get to see what’s on the other side of that wall. But that’s that’s how it’s always been. That’s the lineage that we are a part of. And I think social change. A long, ongoing intergenerational process.
S7: I never think about slavery. That was wrong.
S4: Never. Never on your mind.
S1: Thanks to both of you guys for the work that you do and for the conversation. Thank you. Appreciate it.