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New Orleans opinion columnist used racial slur in city council

Danae Columbus, a columnist for New Orleans-based news site Uptown Messenger, was fired from her job as City Council spokeswoman in 2006 after using a racial slur in council chambers. Columbus, who is white, “used the term ‘n*****-rigged’ to refer to the council chamber’s shoddily constructed light fixtures,” according to a December, 2006 Times-Picayune article on the incident.

Elton Jones, director of New Orleans Access Television, was among several African-Americans present at the time, according to the Times-Picayune report. “I was so shocked I stood up and said, ‘What did you say? “‘ said Jones. ‘She replied ‘You heard me.’ Jones added that the comment was ‘almost unbelievable, even more so since it came from the official spokesperson for the council.’”

Columbus’ poorly written columns in Uptown Messenger have continued to trade in racial bias, as well as undisclosed conflicts of interest and poor fact checking. In a December 2016 article, she uncritically backed up then-President-Elect Trump’s false assertions on crime, writing in clichéd, alarmist prose, “Criminals are stalking the streets of America and killing innocent victims at unprecedented rates.” The article goes on to uncritically support Trump’s support of expanding mass incarceration, and implies that “African-Americans and Latinos who live in poor urban neighborhoods” would agree.

Columbus, who also was caught using ethically dubious tactics in a 2012 city council race against LaToya Cantrell, writes for the Messenger while maintaining her job as a publicist for local politicians, and her columns read more like press releases than political analysis. A March, 2017 column about Stacy Head, a client of Columbus, is an uncritical list of Head’s accomplishments. Columbus describes Head as a popular candidate who “soundly defeated” her opponents.

It would be more accurate to say that Head, one of the city’s most racially divisive figures, is popular among white voters and deeply unpopular among Black voters. In her first election, Head likely only defeated Black incumbent Renee Gill Pratt because most Black residents of the district were still displaced after Hurricane Katrina. Pratt, who was under federal investigation at the time, was still more popular than Head among the Black residents of the district. Head won her 2010 election in that same district with 98 percent of the white vote and 30 percent of the Black vote. In Head’s 2012 primary race for the city council at-large seat, Head received 96% of the white vote and 5% of the Black vote.

Columbus’ June 9 column should offend every New Orleanian concerned about fairness. She spends most of her space attacking Norris Henderson, a national figure in criminal justice reform who spent 27 years in prison for a crime he did not commit. Columbus believes that if Henderson was convicted, he must be guilty. Her thinking conveniently ignores the fact that Louisiana is fourth in the nation for death row prisoner exonerations, while New Orleans leads the nation in exonerations for all crimes per capita.

Columbus framed her attack on Henderson as a defense of City Council president Jason Williams, referring to Henderson’s “dark side” while describing his testimony to city council against expansion of Orleans Parish Prison. However, in a statement this week, the Council President rejects Columbus’ depiction. “Given our city’s history and propensity to jail large numbers of poor people for petty crimes, I completely understand their position,” Williams said, in reference to Henderson and his allies. “His commitment to a right sized constitutional jail is a national best practice.”

Williams also rejects Columbus’ focus on Henderson’s past conviction. “The matter of Norris Henderson’s legal journey is a red herring,” says Williams. “The real issue is government’s historical over reliance on outdated, stale and unfair policies.” Williams adds that anyone familiar with this city’s justice system should expect a high rate of false convictions. “In 1997, the year I was sworn in to the bar, over 6,000 people were in our parish jail and the system convicted countless defendants in one and two day trials based on reports and investigations that were opened and closed in 48 hours.”

It is perhaps not coincidental that Columbus’ article comes as Henderson has achieved some of his greatest successes. Henderson was a leader in passing an historic package of criminal justice reforms signed into law this week by Louisiana Governor Edwards. Henderson has also taken leadership in the current campaign against the abuse of power by New Orleans DA Leon Cannizzaro. The DA is another of Columbus’ clients, although she has not disclosed that conflict of interest when she has written uncritically about him. Since Columbus writes her columns to promote the interests of her clients, will she disclose which one asked for an attack on Henderson?

A quick call to some of the advertisers listed on the Uptown Messenger site found that they were not aware of Columbus’ history of racial bias and undisclosed conflicts of interest, and several were quick to distance themselves from the Messenger. Jay Forman, owner of Gracious Bakery + Cafe, said that although he is quoted on the Messenger site as a satisfied advertiser, he was not a current advertiser. Forman added that he “would take that information into account” in any future advertising. Zeus’ Place owner Michelle Ingram also expressed concern, adding that “Of course, I stand against against that sort of language.”

Will Uptown Messenger continue to give a platform to Danae Columbus’ unethical behavior?

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Jordan Flaherty is a filmmaker and journalist based in New Orleans. You can see more of his work at jordanflaherty.org.

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