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Monumental Rubbish: With the Statues Torn Down, What Next for New Orleans?

New Orleans is better for being rid of the monuments that commemorated the mythology and actual history of slavery and segregation. But elites still govern. The politics of representation dovetails with the reigning discourse of diversity and a local political economy based on marketing "cultural authenticity. To the extent that antiracism centers of pursuit of recognition rather than altering patterns of distribution it will remain trapped in neoliberal inequakity.

A protester holds a Conferderate flag across the street from the Jefferson Davis monument on May 4, 2017 in New Orleans, Loiusiana. ,Justin Sullivan/Getty Images

I’ve been in New Orleans since May 1. I came to visit my mother, who died on May 4, five months shy of her 95th birthday and was buried on May 10. That means I’ve been here through much of this latest round of public cavil over the city’s decision to remove the four most conspicuous monuments to the Confederate insurrection, 1861-1865. Mayor Mitch Landrieu, the first mayor to have received a majority of black and white votes at least since the 1965 Voting Rights Act, proposed removing them not long after South Carolina Governor Nikki Haley announced the removal of the Confederate battle flag from the statehouse grounds in Columbia—which itself had been the source of a long-running controversy—in the wake of Dylan Roof’s white supremacist spree killing in a black church in Charleston. Mayor Landrieu proposed an ordinance mandating removal, which the City Council passed in December, 2015, with a 6-1 vote, the one dissent coming from a post-Katrina white politician who has built her career largely on catering to Uptown, upper-status whites by demonstrating her combativeness toward black interests.

The first and most openly noxious of the four, the so-called Liberty Monument, finally was removed on April 24, a week before I got here. That monument was erected in 1891 to commemorate the uprising perpetrated fourteen years earlier by the explicitly white supremacist Crescent City White League against the interracial Metropolitan police force of the Reconstruction government.  The White League, which included many of the most prominent nominally white New Orleanians, including future Chief Justice of the US Supreme Court Edward Douglass White, represented itself as defenders of a “hereditary civilization and Christianity menaced by a stupid Africanization." It’s worth noting that for decades many Italian-Americans also were affronted by the monument, which they associated with the lynching, in the year it was erected, of eleven Sicilians by White League veterans who invoked the spirit of September 14, the date of the original insurrection, in their bloodlust.  In 1932 the city added inscriptions to the obelisk that lauded the insurrection for having installed a government elected "by the white people" and praised the 1876 election that “recognized white supremacy in the South and gave us our state." For nearly a century that monument was located at the base of Canal Street, the metaphorical entry point to the city from the port. From the 1940s to the end of the 1980s it was, after the Algiers ferry landing and a seedy tattoo parlor, the first thing one saw on entering the city. Its removal had been the source of earlier controversies in the mid 1970s and early 1990s, when it was eventually relocated from its prominent position and secluded between railroad tracks and power lines behind a hotel and the aquarium. The other monuments targeted for removal were a statue of Jefferson Davis, former president of the so-called Confederate States of America, erected in 1911; one of Robert E. Lee, commander of the insurrectionist army, erected in 1884; and one of P. G. T. Beauregard, another Confederate general, albeit with ties to New Orleans, erected in 1915, seven years before my mother was born. The Davis statue was removed in the wee hours of the morning on May 11, the day after my mother’s funeral.  The Beauregard monument, positioned on Bayou St. John at the entrance to City Park, was closest to my mother’s house; I have passed it every day that I’m here on the way to my walk through the park, a long block past her parish church and the cemetery where she is now buried, along with much of my family.  

Each of the monuments has been “guarded” by ragtag bands of self-styled defenders of “heritage.” They are by and large a motley crew, mainly from out of town and outside the state. The group at the Beauregard monument was anchored by a small squad who were living in the park out of a camper on the back of a pickup truck that advertises a Florida pet grooming business with a license plate reading PET KARE. A bumper sticker under the Confederate battle flag in a camper window sports the familiar canard “heritage not hate.” The group’s apparent leader, or at least its Energizer Bunny, is a hardscrabble middle-aged woman whose generally animated performance suggests either crack or meth enthusiasm. Watching her engage with critics brings to mind the style of persuasion by intimidation practiced by the Black Hebrew Israelites who populate street corners in New York, Philadelphia and Chicago. She frequently marched around the statue waving the Bonnie Blue original flag of the Confederacy, wearing a bush hat, halter top, shorts and sneakers, with what looks like a pistol butt protruding from the top of her shorts. Their posters link “heritage art,” praise for veterans and, incongruously, love of Israel. One reads “First Davis, Then Jesus;” another proclaims “Wake Up Amerika, Marxism Is Here.” As I passed them, I overheard a woman waving a Don’t Tread On Me flag mention to a fellow protester that she had to get something from her pastor.

The Jefferson Davis monument drew larger crowds of defenders, more heavily armed and boisterous, and including a man-bites-dog smattering of nonwhites, including among them a young black man wearing a hoodie that covered his face in the heat of the day, but also largely from out of town. They were usually doubled or more in size by supporters of taking the monuments down. For all their posturing and enacting professional wrestling cum "Red Dawn" cosplay fantasies, they melted away from the police presence at the moment of removal. Some of them then moved over to reinforce the crew at the Beauregard statue. The Lee statue was atop a ninety-foot pedestal at what was formerly Tivoli Circle or Place du Tivoli, a key node in the city, renamed Lee Circle, and soon to become Tricentennial Circle. It has also been a site of clashes between the largely out-of-towner “heritage” protesters and their opponents. As I wrote on my mother’s porch six days after her funeral, the Beauregard statue was being taken down, and Lee followed two and half days after. The performance should be over except the occasional hiccup, and the city will be rid of those public celebrations of slavery and white supremacy that I’m hardly alone in having detested all my life.

I got involved in a neighborhood chat group discussion of the issue that began with complaints that taking down the Davis monument, which was on a busy thoroughfare, interfered with some commuters’ route to work. Of course, that complaint was quickly revealed as sanitizing garnish on the real objection, which was that the city should not have removed any of the monuments. Soon enough, the back and forth descended into all the predictable canards from the “heritage” crowd. (During the early 1990s fight over the Liberty Monument, historic preservationists and Klansmen—including David Duke—formed a tight bloc, often hiding behind bogus assertions of the monument’s architectural significance.) Defenders resort to sophistries and dizzyingly self-contradictory turns away from historical facts to feelings and a reactionary multiculturalism:

  • The monuments are part of our history and therefore shouldn’t be tampered with
  • They don’t commemorate slavery or racism, just an abstract southern heritage;
  • The Civil War wasn’t about slavery but about states’ rights and an abstract “way of life;”
  • Removing them only stirs up animosities, and we should let bygones be bygones;
  • Blacks celebrate their history; whites should be able to celebrate theirs;
  • No one really cares about the monuments except opportunistic politicians;
  • Older black New Orleanians don’t care about the monuments; only young militants and agitators do;
  • Only older blacks scarred by racism in the past care about the monuments; younger blacks want to put the past behind us all and live as equals, not to keep fighting long-dead slaveholders;
  • The monuments have aesthetic significance as distinctive representations of the architectural styles of their period;
  • Removing them is a diversion of public resources that would be better devoted to addressing more pressing municipal problems.

What’s striking about this discussion, as has been the case with all others like it I’ve read or participated in, is the absolute and intransigent refusal of defenders of Confederate commemoration to confront brute, unambiguous historical facts, beginning with the reasons for the treasonous rebellion. It’s almost Freudian that many Confederate denialists refer to the criminal insurrection as the “War of Northern Aggression,” although it was secessionists who rose in arms against the United States government and Confederate troops who initiated hostilities at Ft. Sumter. Beyond that, the most preposterous denial—either clinical, dishonest, ignorant, or some combination of the three—is the claim that the insurrection had any motivation apart from defense of slavery. Alexander Stephens, former Whig congressman from Georgia and Vice-President of the Confederacy, made clear in his famous 1861 “Cornerstone Speech” that “The new [i.e., Confederate] constitution has put at rest, forever, all the agitating questions relating to our peculiar institution—African slavery as it exists amongst us—the proper status of the negro in our form of civilization. This was the immediate cause of the late rupture and present revolution.”

He went on to say “Our new government is founded upon exactly the opposite idea [from the Founders’ presumption that all men are equal]; its foundations are laid, its cornerstone rests, upon the great truth that the negro is not equal to the white man; that slavery—subordination to the superior race—is his natural and normal condition. This, our new government, is the first, in the history of the world, based upon this great physical, philosophical, and moral truth.”

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South Carolina’s Declaration of the Immediate Causes Which Induce and Justify the Secession of South Carolina from the Federal Union (December 1860) made clear that

Those [non-slaveholding] States have assumed the right of deciding upon the propriety of our domestic institutions; and have denied the rights of property established in fifteen of the States and recognized by the Constitution; they have denounced as sinful the institution of slavery; they have permitted open establishment among them of societies, whose avowed object is to disturb the peace and to eloign the property of the citizens of other States. They have encouraged and assisted thousands of our slaves to leave their homes; and those who remain, have been incited by emissaries, books and pictures to servile insurrection. For twenty-five years this agitation has been steadily increasing, until it has now secured to its aid the power of the common Government. Observing the forms of the Constitution, a sectional party has found within that Article establishing the Executive Department, the means of subverting the Constitution itself. A geographical line has been drawn across the Union, and all the States north of that line have united in the election of a man to the high office of President of the United States, whose opinions and purposes are hostile to slavery. He is to be entrusted with the administration of the common Government, because he has declared that that ‘Government cannot endure permanently half slave, half free,’ and that the public mind must rest in the belief that slavery is in the course of ultimate extinction. This sectional combination for the submersion of the Constitution, has been aided in some of the States by elevating to citizenship, persons who, by the supreme law of the land, are incapable of becoming citizens; and their votes have been used to inaugurate a new policy, hostile to the South, and destructive of its beliefs and safety. On the 4th day of March next, this party will take possession of the Government. It has announced that the South shall be excluded from the common territory [that is, the territories acquired from Mexico in 1848] that the judicial tribunals shall be made sectional, and that a war must be waged against slavery until it shall cease throughout the United States. The guaranties of the Constitution will then no longer exist; the equal rights of the States will be lost. The slaveholding States will no longer have the power of self-government, or self-protection, and the Federal Government will have become their enemy.

Each rebellious state’s Ordinance of Secession made clear that the key characteristic uniting their confederation was commitment to slavery; all referred to their collectivity as “the slaveholding states.” Most declared explicitly that the immediate precipitant for their action was Abraham Lincoln’s election to the presidency, which they took as a provocation because of his and the Republicans’ open opposition to slavery.  And they were correct to feel provoked.

As James Oakes argues brilliantly in The Scorpion’s Sting: Antislavery and the Coming of the Civil War (W. W. Norton, 2015), Lincoln and other Republicans embraced a tradition of antislavery constitutionalism that reached back decades. That view held that the United States was founded on the principle that all men were free, based on the Law of Nations and affirmed by the 1772 British Somerset case. Adherents to antislavery constitutionalism accepted slavery as protected by the Constitution where it existed at the Founding. However, they insisted that its further expansion was not constitutionally protected and would violate the fundamental principle of universal freedom and thus the Constitution.  They hoped, naively it would turn out, that the border states, where plantation production was relatively minor—Delaware, Maryland, Kentucky, and Missouri—could be induced by the superiority of free labor to abolish slavery on their own.  Their strategy for abolition was to restrict the institution to the plantation states, where, the theory went, it would wither and die—thus the common metaphor at the time of the cornered scorpion that stings itself to death. That strategy was what underlay the South Carolina Declaration’s assertion that Lincoln desired to put slavery “in the course of ultimate extinction.”  From the antislavery constitutionalist standpoint, the only basis for direct federal interference with slavery in the states where the institution was protected was “military emancipation,” which Republicans repeatedly threatened to use to suppress a proslavery rebellion. Ironically, secessionists provided the opportunity to do just that.

Fastforward to the Current Controversy

Some advocates of leaving the statues in place contend that each of the three men is politically and historically significant for other reasons. In response to a suggestion that the monuments could remain if accompanied by curatorial statements that indicate the unsanitized truth about the insurrection and its objectives, which are repugnant to values of equality, justice, and democracy, one contributor to the neighborhood chat group discussion proposed that plaques should acknowledge “the roles of the Generals and President BEFORE, DURING, and AFTER the Civil War, with the BEFORE and AFTER as significant as the DURING,” as though running an insurance company, holding office in antebellum congresses, owning plantations, being a career soldier, college president, or railroad executive were equivalent to rising in treasonous insurrection for the sole purpose of protecting slavery and thus throwing the nation into its deadliest war. (And, yes, Lee may have expelled some white students for assaulting blacks—after he lost the war to keep them enslaved.) Yet each statue identifies its subject only with the Confederate insurrection, and Beauregard and Lee are depicted in their military uniforms. And that is as it should be because that is their sole distinctive place in history. Can we imagine a statue honoring Hermann Göring for his exploits as a World War I aviator?

However, the monuments’ deeper historical significance is not that they celebrate the Confederacy. It is more meaningful that they were erected between 1884 and 1915, the precise period when the city’s governing elites disfranchised blacks and imposed a violent white supremacist social and political order, including the Jim Crow segregationist regime that persisted well into the 1960s and which, with considerable local white reluctance, was undone only in the face of other federal interventions. That timing is significant because it coincides with the construction and propagation of Lost Cause ideology across the region in concert with the program of restoration of unmitigated upper-class dominance in the South after the defeat of Reconstruction and the Populist movement. Mass disfranchisement, not only of nearly all blacks—more than 104,000 blacks voted in Louisiana in the 1896 election; fewer than 1,000 voted in 1904, and fewer than 400 in a total black population of more than 100,000 were registered to vote in New Orleans as late as 1940—but also many poor whites, was a key element of that program, along with imposition of the apartheid regime. Blacks were the principal targets of the white supremacist juggernaut, of course, but removing them from political life also deprived working-class whites of potential allies for challenging ruling-class prerogatives. Erection of those monuments was an element in the consolidation of that order. The monuments were intended to memorialize the myth of a distinctive (white) southern identity and tradition then being invented and imposed by force and legitimized by ideology.

New Orleans is a useful point of reference regarding the historical specificity of the segregationist order. When I was a teen during the last years of codified segregation, there were some neighborhoods in the city I carefully avoided and felt most uncomfortable in—if not actively fearful—when I couldn’t avoid them. I still don’t know my way around them very well. Only decades later, on reading Thomas Hanchett’s Sorting Out the New South City: Race, Class, and Urban Development in Charlotte, 1875-1975 (UNC, 1998), which shows that neighborhood segregation in Charlotte, NC was a twentieth century phenomenon, did it crystallize in my head that all those neighborhoods that raised the hair on my neck were post-World War I developments. As in other southern cities, older neighborhoods were likely to be mixed in one form or another—alternating blocks, opposite sides of the street, sections of blocks. My own family neighborhood was mixed in that way until it became nearly all black in a matter of months during the 1960-61 school desegregation crisis. That is not to suggest that such neighborhoods were models of racial comity; there was no shortage of petty bigotry expressed in them, as well as an unarticulated racial etiquette that established firm social and physical boundaries, and no doubt most whites, in the abstract at least, accepted the premises of racial hierarchy. Even so, some interracial quotidian life necessarily existed within them.

The point is that systematic residential segregation wasn’t part of an organic “way of life.” It was a product of the confluence of nascent city planning and marketized real estate development that invented the idea of the neighborhood, homogenous by race and class, as an ideal and a statement of one’s place in the social order. In the urban South those processes of residential segmentation played out within the framework of consolidating class power under the rubric of white supremacy and strict racial separation. That is why the most rigidly segregated neighborhoods were among those developed between the early twentieth century and the early 1960s. In the mid-1950s, in response to black New Orleanians’ pressure for expanded housing options, upper-class local philanthropists, with support from public officials, funded development of Pontchartrain Park, an early class-segmented subdivision for blacks. That was an expression of the “moderate” segregationist regime—hinged on increasing opportunities for blacks within Jim Crow—improvised in the city during the postwar years until it succumbed to the combination of increasing black militancy from below and federal intervention from above.

Similarly, segregated public transportation, so prominent in the popular iconography of Jim Crow apartheid, wasn’t a natural condition of what would become known as “race relations.” Charles A. Lofgren in The Plessy Case: A Legal-Historical Interpretation(Oxford, 1988) demonstrates that from Emancipation until the 1890s states and localities varied widely in racial regulation of public transportation, sometimes segregating some modes of transit but not others and often going back and forth—in a way that doesn’t comport with a neat progression toward apartheid—between segregating and desegregating them. In the background to the case that would ensue in the landmark Supreme Court ruling affirming Jim Crow, the Louisiana legislature in 1890 passed a Separate Car Act that mandated racial segregation, including separate cars, in railroad transportation. Homer Adolph Plessy and the interracial Comité de Citoyens, with the support of the East Louisiana Railroad which did not want to incur the expense of providing additional cars, set out to challenge the law in a test case that ultimately failed, with Crescent City White League veteran Justice White casting one of the votes against Plessy.               

Lost Cause ideology and the mythology of the Solid South were cudgels employed to demand political conformity among whites and to stifle dissent from ruling-class agendas as well as to suppress blacks. In his definitive study of disfranchisement, The Shaping of Southern Politics: Suffrage Restriction and the Establishment of the One-Party South, 1880-1910 (Yale, 1974), J. Morgan Kousser quotes North Carolina Governor Charles B. Aycock, who made the point succinctly, writing several years after a violent 1898 Democratic putsch ousted the interracial Populist-Republican-Fusion government that had won consecutive statewide elections: “the Democratic party is alone sufficient. We need a united people. We need the combined effort of every North Carolinian. We need the strength which comes from believing alike." Segregation was enforced on whites as well as blacks.

That reality is obscured in a contemporary discourse that flattens out history and context into a Manichaean polarity of racism/antiracism and reduces politics to an unchanging contest of black and white. That discourse compresses historical and institutional distinctions between slavery and Jim Crow and ignores the generation of struggle, often enough biracial and interracial, against ruling class power over defining the political and economic character of the post-Emancipation South, as well as ongoing struggle against and within the new order as it consolidated. In 1892, for example, black and white workers in New Orleans conducted a largely successful general strike in the face of the opposition’s attempts to incite racial division among the strikers. In Waterfront Workers of New Orleans: Race, Class, and Politics, 1863-1923 (Illinois, 1994), Eric Arnesen documents a complex history of interracial and biracial solidarity and tensions among the city’s strong dock unions even during the high period of ruling class revanchism and codification of apartheid. And New Orleans was hardly unique in that regard.

Such popular support as there is today among whites for Confederate nostalgia is in part the product of that regime’s success and its ideological hegemony for a century or more. Lost Cause ideology was propagated aggressively, nationally as well as regionally, as part of a crusade to advocate “sectional reconciliation” on white supremacist terms that would undermine enforcement of black southerners’ constitutional rights and give the southern ruling class a free hand in establishing and maintaining its new order. (It is worth recalling that that was a high watermark for racialist and anti-egalitarian ideology nationally as well.) It was a cornerstone of the “New South” discourse associated with Atlanta journalist Henry Grady and others, and it was propounded as historical fact by prominent intellectuals like Columbia University historian William A. Dunning and Princeton historian, political scientist and president, New Jersey governor, and eventual US President Woodrow Wilson, who, incidentally, elevated New Orleans’s Edward White to Chief Justice.

It was projected through popular culture in films like D.W. Griffith’s 1915 Birth of a Nation, fiction like the novels of President Wilson’s former Johns Hopkins classmate and friend Thomas Dixon, from whose scurrilously racist volume, The Clansman, Griffith’s film was adapted, and through state historical societies created for that purpose throughout the South in the years before World War I. Interestingly, novelist Margaret Mitchell’s father, Eugene, a wealthy attorney, was president of the Atlanta Historical Society, and young Margaret was an avid reader of Dixon’s screed and even produced and acted in a neighborhood play she adapted from another novel in his trilogy romanticizing the Ku Klux Klan. Patricia Storace notes in “Look Away, Dixie Land” in The New York Review of Books (December 19, 1991) that on Gone With The Wind’s publication Dixon sent her a fan letter, raving "’You have not only written the greatest story of the South ever put down on paper, you have given the world the Great American Novel.’  Mitchell replied with thanks, ‘I was practically raised on your books and love them very much.’” Small wonder, therefore, that the famous film is essentially an update of Birth of a Nation for the talkie era and perhaps more influential than any other cultural product in disseminating and perpetuating the Lost Cause fantasy.

Challenging that ideology, which, as the monument controversy illustrates, remains common sense truth for many white southerners, can make an important contribution in the actual cultural battle that confronts us: the struggle to de-naturalize sharply asymmetrical class power that, except when a few moments of popular insurgency have threatened to break the thrall, has been cloaked and displaced into a discourse of race/ethnicity and other just-so narratives that cast groups of intrinsically different moral worth as the crucial units of political competition.

"Demystifying Lost Cause ideology should be part of efforts to cut through the bogus political ontology the right depends on to obscure its fundamental commitment to unrestrained capitalist class power."

The extent to which the most prominent nodes on the nominal left also embrace such groupism and reject critiques of capitalist class power has enabled the right to mobilize around a faux populist, reactionary multiculturalist relativism, including via neo-Confederate sophistries—thus the “blacks celebrate their history, so whites should be able to celebrate theirs” canard. To wit, one of the defenders of the Beauregard monument sported a banner reading “PRESIDENT TRUMP, MAKE AMERICA GREAT AGAIN.” The need to challenge that ideological program is, or should be, one of the lessons of the 2016 election. Demystifying Lost Cause ideology should be part of efforts to cut through the bogus political ontology the right depends on to obscure its fundamental commitment to unrestrained capitalist class power.  That, in addition to the value of historical accuracy, is why it was important to remove those monuments.

That is also a reason Gary Ross’s remarkable film, Free State of Jones, should be shown annually to every grade in every school in the South, if not the entire country. It underscores the reality that there was no organic (white) southern culture grounded on support for slavery or Jim Crow, that the treasonous insurrection was entirely a slaveholders’ rebellion and that, even within a hegemonic white supremacy, many white southerners were prepared to work in concert with blacks, through Reconstruction and Populism and beyond, in pursuit of a more egalitarian order.

The 'Lost Cause' Lives On

There is additional layer of complexity surrounding the monuments controversy. Just as they were erected in service to specific historical objectives, the campaign for their removal memorializes its time and context and affirms the current social and cultural order. Repudiation of Confederate mythology and Lost Cause ideology, perhaps especially because it is so long overdue, celebrates the present regime of class and social power. Mayor Landrieu’s eloquent and heartfelt address hours before the last one was taken down, while even quoting Stephens’s “Cornerstone Speech” to drive home what the statues actually commemorated, drew an instructive contrast between then and now:

The historic record is clear: the Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, and P.G.T. Beauregard statues were not erected just to honor these men, but as part of the movement which became known as The Cult of the Lost Cause. This ‘cult’ had one goal — through monuments and through other means—to rewrite history to hide the truth, which is that the Confederacy was on the wrong side of humanity…

This is, however, about showing the whole world that we as a city and as a people are able to acknowledge, understand, reconcile and, most importantly, choose a better future for ourselves, making straight what has been crooked and making right what was wrong.

At the same time that the Mayor and City Council acted courageously and progressively in ridding the city of those monuments to a loathsome past, the new regime that removal celebrates, as some skeptics on the left note, is defined by perhaps the most radical dynamics of neoliberalization at work in any American city. Those processes had been evolving since the early 1970s and the administration of Mayor Landrieu’s father, Moon, the last white mayor before him and, like his son, a sincere civil rights liberal. (Moon also has been a good friend of my uncle since they were in law school together in the 1950s, during Loyola University’s early years of desegregation.) As in other cities, neoliberalization—as retraction of the public sector, privatization of public goods and services, and elevation of support for private, rent-intensifying redevelopment, unhelpfully characterized by critics too ambiguously with the term “gentrification,” as a central focus of government action—coincided with emergence of black public officialdom in and after the elder Landrieu’s administration and continued unabated through the thirty-two years of black-led local government between the two Landrieus.

The crisis produced in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina’s aftermath, itself a consequence of decades of bipartisan neoliberal priorities at every level of government, created an opportunity to accelerate the pace of neoliberalization and fueled the ambitions of neoliberalizers.  Almost immediately after the city filled with water, the state took over the public school system, usurping the elected Orleans Parish School Board; that was an opening salvo in a blitzkrieg that has made New Orleans the first city in the country to convert its public schools nearly one hundred percent to charters and thus to be a “model” for charterizers elsewhere. A little more than a month after the storm, it was Ray Nagin, the city’s fourth consecutive black mayor, who laid off nearly half the municipal workforce at a time when many were displaced and in dire need of income. Then the Housing Authority of New Orleans (HANO) and George W. Bush’s Department of Housing and Urban Development (HUD) announced plans, in the midst of the city’s worst affordable housing shortage, to raze four of New Orleans’s five remaining low-income public housing projects, which were for the most part not seriously damaged. The fifth housing project, adjacent to the Vieux Carré, was razed in 2013 as a component of a massive upscaling redevelopment initiative led by the same developer who had engineered destruction of yet another low-income project, on the edges of the trendy Lower Garden District and Coliseum Square, in the early 2000s. That earlier demolition was the culmination of a thirty-year campaign, spearheaded by the district’s successive black City Councilmembers in concert with interested developers, to remove the housing project as an impediment to rent-intensification in the area.

A generally unrecognized feature of the post-Katrina political landscape is that the city’s governing class is now more seamlessly interracial than ever. From one perspective that should be a predictable outcome forty years after racial transition in local government and the emergence and consolidation of a strong black political and business class increasingly well incorporated into the structures of governing. It has been encouraged as well by the city’s commitment to cultural and heritage tourism, which as comes through in the mayor’s remarks, is anchored to a discourse of multiculturalism and diversity. And generational succession has brought to prominence cohorts among black and white elites who have attended the same schools, participated in the same voluntary institutions, share cultural and consumer tastes, worldviews, and political and economic priorities. Neighborhoods that are largely homogenous racially remain, but on closer examination class defines them at least as much as race. My reflex to flinch in them is more a reflection of vestiges of the past than of current realities.

Signs of the interracial homogenization of the city’s governing class were visible before Katrina. For that reason antiracist pundits and academics were naïve in their doomsday predictions that Mitch Landrieu’s election in 2010 along with a temporarily white Council majority augured the displacement of black political power and a return to the racial status quo ante. Despite some whites’ random expressions of fantasies of “taking back the city,” the de facto ruling class made clear right away that it had no desire to break decisively from the interracial or biracial regime that had governed the city for decades. Among other indications, support for Xavier University President Norman Francis’s appointment as founding chair of the Louisiana Recovery Authority and for Nagin’s appointment of black, former UC-Berkeley and Milano School urban planner Edward Blakely as local recovery “czar” affirmed dominant elites’ commitment to the regime, which has become only more solid and fluidly interracial and more hegemonically neoliberal in the years since.

Misplaced anxieties about the 2010 election do expose the essential faultiness of antiracism as a politics. It is not fanciful to assume that some elements of the de facto ruling class still find black-led government distasteful, though there is no apparent advantage they would gain from expending effort to displace it, especially none that would outweigh the disruption and instability attempting to do so would create. After all, things have been working quite comfortably for white political and economic elites as well as for black ones. It is preposterous, however, to presume that loss of a black electoral majority would ensue in a return to the political and civic exclusion that defined the Jim Crow era—unless one assumes as well that white racism is ontological and unchanging. And, as I have argued since 2005, critiques based on that assumption have proven incapable of effectively interpreting or grounding strategic responses to the evolving patterns of inequality dominant in the post-Katrina city.

Despite what the monuments have symbolized, politics in New Orleans cannot be reduced to an unbroken arc of racial subordination continuous from the segregation era, the Civil War, or much less, as Clint Smith suggests in a recent New Republic article (“The Young Black Activists Targeting New Orleans’s Confederate Monuments,” May 18, 2017), to an 1811 slave rebellion that, for that matter, began in the sugarcane Parishes on the German Coast and never advanced much beyond halfway to the city. That past, or more accurately those pasts, while testament to the brutality and horrors of earlier systems of exploitation, are not the deeper Truth of contemporary inequalities, not even those that are most conspicuously racialized. Allegory might be rhetorically powerful, but it is not adequate as analysis or explanation. In this case it can also be a dodge that sidesteps confronting the mechanisms that actually reproduce inequality in the present.   

As obnoxious as the monuments are, removing them is ultimately a rearguard undertaking and one entirely compatible with the dominant neoliberal ideal of social and racial justice as celebration of “rich multicultural heritage” and equal opportunity to benefit from the logic of accumulation by dispossession.  And for reasons that have less to do with an abstraction like white supremacy than with the dynamics of a political and economic regime that concentrates benefits at the top at the expense of everyone else, black New Orleanians are disproportionately—but by no means entirely or exclusively—likely to occupy the ranks of the dispossessed under that regime. Some antiracist activists believe that struggle over symbolic residues of an obnoxious past can fuel or condense challenges to inequalities in the present. But that view is plausible only if one assumes that “white supremacy” is the source of injustice in the past and present, and the effort’s compatibility with neoliberal priorities underscores that it’s just not possible to get there from here.

Belief in this struggle’s potential to galvanize a broader, present-centered egalitarian movement rests on an understanding of history and its relation to contemporary life equally flawed as that embraced by the monuments’ defenders, including the premise that recognition of the past exists mainly as a source for inspiration and group validation in the present. Indeed, it proceeds from the same view as the defenders,’ only with a reverse inflection. The monuments were about legitimizing a social order by displacing its political-economic foundation and imperatives onto a celebratory narrative of white racial-cultural heritage. Antiracist critics accept that narrative, that order’s ideological halo, on its own terms and demand only that its nonwhite victims and opponents be acknowledged and celebrated instead in the interest of righting past wrongs at the level of symbolic recognition.   

The White Supremacy of then and the antiracist politics of now

In a recent critique of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ontological—and therefore ahistorical—understanding of racism, R. L. Stephens (The Birthmark of Damnation: Ta-Nehisi Coates and the Black BodyViewpoint, May 17, 2017) argues that Coates’s brand of antiracism is apocalyptic and thus profoundly pessimistic; in naturalizing white supremacy as a transhistorical force, it forecloses the possibility of meaningful political intervention.

“I do not believe that we can stop them… because they must ultimately stop themselves,” Ta-Nehisi Coates says of white racists in the final paragraph of his bestseller, Between the World and Me... Coates describes racism as galactic, a physical law of the universe, “a tenacious gravity” and a “cosmic injustice.” When a cop kills a Black man, the police officer is “a force of nature, the helpless agent of our world’s physical laws.” Society is equally helpless against the natural order. “The earthquake cannot be subpoenaed,” says Coates.

What we find all too often in Coates’s narrative universe are bodies without life and a racism without people. To imbue race with an ontological meaning, to make it a reality all its own, is to drain it of its place in history and its indelible roots in discrete human action. To deny the role of life and people—of politics—is to also foreclose the possibility of liberation.

Coates’s dismissiveness toward political action may help to explain his appeal among some liberal whites. If racial inequality stems from (most? many? all but the righteous few?) whites’ ontological commitment to white supremacy, then one might realize a twofer: the Protestant thrill of professing one’s intrinsic sinfulness and the relief of not having to do much else about it. It could even be exhilarating to perform righteousness by “checking privilege” of others and vying for position within the ranks of antiracist familiars to the Oppressed. Coates’s belletristic scolding no doubt adds an aesthetic quality to the quietistic self-indulgence and empty gestures of atonement. Yet the view that whites’ ontological racism inevitably preempts popular interracial solidarity is substantively that of the Crescent City White League and Victorian racists’ notions of “natural aversions.”

Stephens’s critique sheds light on how even a militantly ideological antiracism can nest naturally within a neoliberalizing political and economic order. If racism is ontological and cannot be overcome by changing political relations and institutions but only through the equivalent of epiphany and conversion, or Baptism, then what takes the place of political action is exposé and demands for recognition of the oppressed and symbolic displays of atonement. But how are recognition and atonement to be expressed? Through giving space to the voices and perspectives of the oppressed, that is, as a pragmatic matter, accepting the interpretive authority of those who purport to speak for them and their interests. And who does the recognizing and accepting? It is the elites who govern and make the rules of the regime who have the power to ratify claims to speak for the oppressed groups. In New Orleans that politics of representation dovetails conveniently with both the reigning discourse that touts cultural heritage and diversity and a local political economy based on redevelopment and marketing-through-invention of cultural authenticity—it’s no accident that the city now boasts a “traditional” festival nearly every weekend and a second line every day—and shaped through competition over recognition and standing for grants and contracts.

No matter how elaborately adorned with nostalgic trappings of 1960s and 1970s black militancy or rhetorical evocations of mass struggle, this antiracism is a petition politics that accepts the governing framework and is limited in its vision to defining and pursuing objectives within it. It depends on moral suasion buttressed by the pageantry of protest, and it can work only to the extent that it operates within a moral economy that reduces the ideal of equality to racial parity in the distribution of goods and bads, costs and benefits within a system grounded on transfer from the many to the few. To the extent that it centers on pursuit of recognition and representation—a “seat at the table”—rather than altering patterns of regressive redistribution this race politics is a class politics pegged to the perspectives and interests of strata either embedded in or aspiring to niches within that moral economy articulated through management of groupist diversity within neoliberal inequality. 

The city is unquestionably better for having been ridden of the monuments and public commemoration of both the mythology and the actual history they validate. The Mayor and City Council, as well as all New Orleanians who supported their removal, are to be commended for that accomplishment. That said, although it would have been better if the victory were the product of a broader coalition and deeper political education—for example, with more attention to the reality that Lost Cause ideology and Jim Crow were imposed on whites as well as blacks—we seldom win such victories on ideal terms. The struggle and its success have repudiated an anachronistic discourse of legitimation of an anachronistic regime of class power. Ideally, this could provide a template for challenging the right’s ability to mobilize around that mythology to camouflage its class program in the present. We should celebrate the victory and move on energetically and aggressively to support objectives like expanding unionization of the city’s hospitality sector, which will do more to improve the lives of New Orleanians of whatever race, identity and claimed heritage than removal of all the objectionable statuary, rededication of all the objectionable street names, and all the celebrations diversity in the city combined. 

Adolph Reed Jr. is professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania. For the March 2014 issue of Harper's magazine, he wrote, "Nothing Left: The Long, Slow Surrender of American Liberals." And more recently, along with Mark Dudzic, he wrote the essay, "The Crisis of Labour and the Left in the United States," which appeared in the Socialist Register