A Louisiana district attorney testified in a voting rights case that he “bend[s] over backwards” to try to help local African-Americans because he understands they have a lot of “issues…in their culture.”
Lawyers for the NAACP Legal Defense Fund (LDF) say the comments are additional evidence of racist attitudes in the area, where one recently retired white judge was re-elected even after being suspended for wearing black-face as part of a racist parody Halloween costume.
At issue in the case is the system used by rural Terrebonne Parish, Louisiana for electing its judges. Lawyers for the plaintiffs say the election system was designed to make it all but impossible for black voters to elect their preferred candidates, violating the Voting Rights Act’s ban on racial discrimination in voting.
The state of Louisiana denies that the system is racially discriminatory. In an effort to show that black voters aren’t shut out of power, lawyers for the state last month called Terrebonne Parish District Attorney Joe Waitz to testify, and asked him whether he might have been supported by some black voters when he first was elected in 1996.
“I would say I would have to have been,” replied Waitz, who is white. “I’m very close to the black community. I am very involved with the black community. And I feel like I bend over backwards to try to help them because I understand there’s a lot of issues that they have in their culture, and I try to do my best to help them.”
Lawyers for the NAACP LDF publicized Waitz’s comments Monday, saying they—as well as testimony from other witnesses that could be seen as racially insensitive—demonstrate both that racism continues to exist in the area and that the parish’s “at-large” system for electing judicial candidates is helping to perpetuate it.
Waitz didn’t immediately respond to The Daily Democracy’s request for comment.
Terrebonne Parish, a rural area on the Louisiana bayou about 60 miles southwest of New Orleans, implemented its at-large election system in 1968, three years after the passage of the Voting Rights Act appeared to empower black votes across the south. Under the system, all five seats on the bench are elected by all Terrebonne voters. Whites make up about three quarters of the parish’s population, and they rarely vote for black candidates.
The plaintiffs say that’s why the parish had never elected a black judicial candidate until Juan Pickett in 2014. And even Pickett, a former prosecutor who ran unopposed, may not have been the choice of black voters. Rather, the plaintiffs contend, his candidacy was encouraged and supported by white conservatives with whom he was allied and was aimed at rendering moot the NAACP LDF’s lawsuit, which had been filed earlier that year.
At-large election systems are a common tactic used to reduce minority voting power. Earlier this year, a federal court found that Pasadena, Texas violated the Voting Rights Act when it switched to an at-large system for its city council not long after its Hispanic population soared. Numerous other at-large voting systems also have been struck down as racially discriminatory over several decades.
The plaintiffs in the Terrebonne Parish case want the state to require the parish to adopt a district-based system. Both the council and school board use district based systems, and each has two have majority-black districts.
Waitz’s comments are hardly the first evidence to emerge that the men charged with administering justice in Terrebonne Parish likely aren’t winning any prizes for racial sensitivity.
In 2003, Timothy Ellender, then a Terrebonne Parish judge, dressed for a Halloween party in black-face makeup, an Afro wig, handcuffs, and an orange jumpsuit, in an apparent attempt to mock African-American prison inmates. A state panel suspended him for six months but rejected calls for his dismissal. In 2008, Ellender was re-elected, before taking mandatory retirement in 2014.
The trial resumes April 26.