Confronting the History of Racism

September 4, 2018

Responding to In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History by Mitch Landrieu (New York: Viking, 2018)

Mitch Landrieu, the mayor of New Orleans,tells two stories in this memoir. One gives the book its title—the removal of four monuments in New Orleans that were erected some years after the Civil War ended to perpetuate false understandings of that war and the racist culture that had made it necessary. The second story contains key passages in Landrieu’s life that formed his character and led him to remove these civil war statues as the culminating action near the end of his eight years as mayor.

He describes his boyhood in New Orleans, education in Catholic schools, and political career in Louisiana prior to becoming mayor of his home city. Landrieu devotes a chapter to David Duke’s brief political career in Louisiana, pointing to the similarities between Duke’s techniques and those of Donald Trump.

The context for two chapters is Katrina and its devastating, lingering impact upon New Orleans. During the storm itself, Landrieu was lieutenant governor of Louisiana and, more than anyone else, responsible for managing rescue and relief activities and the rebuilding of the city. During the storm and its immediate aftermath, “the nation suddenly found a mirror, and we did not like what we saw. How could there still be such poverty and desperation—in America the superpower?” Clearly visible were the results of the century that “had passed between the Civil War and the civil rights movement, a century of disenfranchisement, political and economic” (p. 111).

Although Katrina had impacted people of all classes and colors, those least able to respond were the poor, and most of the poor were black. He concludes the Katrina chapter with a statement of what he and the nation learned during that time of distress. “Katrina taught us that while we had come a long way in civil rights, the inequities that still existed were a result of the lingering shadow of Jim Crow. Race was an issue we’d have to confront directly if we were ever going to move our city and country forward” (p. 123).

In a chapter entitled “Rebuilding and Mourning in NOLA,” Landrieu describes his work during two terms as mayor of the city. He began his time in that office during the disaster caused by the explosion of an oil rig in the Gulf and Mexico. He inherited a city government in shambles, much in debt, and in desperate need of reform in order to undertake the radical reconstruction of the city that had to take place if it were to resume its well-being. His primary challenge, he writes, “was to rebuild public trust, to restore credibility, and to heal a city that was broken—economically, spiritually, racially” (p. 135).

Landrieu devotes nearly half of this chapter to what he calls “the shadow story of my city’s stirring comeback”—”the horrific loss of human life through gun violence, most of which erupts in the poorest parts of town” (p. 143). These pages, perhaps the most heart-rending of the book, bear directly upon Landrieu’s decision to remove the Civil War monuments. Some of the people opposing his intention to remove the monuments insisted that he should focus on stopping the murders rather than upon the statues. None of them, however, helped him in his fights against murder, and his “record on murder reduction is unlike any other administration” (149). His conclusion leads inexorably to the climax of the book.

“Murder and violence are the poisonous fruit grown from the soil of injustice, racism, and inequality—fertilized by guns, drugs, alcohol, and disintegrated families. Hope fades, hate grows, people feel they have nothing to lose. To those who say it has always been this way, I answer: We made this problem by neglect; we can be proactive and fix it. All of this happens in the shadows of statues whose message has always been, as Terence Blanchard said: ‘African Americans are less than’” (pp. 153-4). Read more. . . In the Shadow of Statues