The South will always be haunted by race, and there is no easy way to understand its history. When New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu announced to a crowd gathered in downtown New Orleans on May 19, 2017 that he was removing four Confederate monuments from public display, he addressed his city’s complex past.
“There’s a difference between remembrance of history and a reverence for it,” he said.
Landrieu made the right call to tear down statues honoring the wartime achievements of Confederate President Jefferson Davis, generals Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard, and trash a monument dedicated in 1891 to the attempts of the White League to overthrow Louisiana’s Reconstruction-era government. In removing these statues, the mayor said he hoped to tamp down the errant reverence often bestowed upon men like Lee and Beauregard (who were great men, but not because of their wartime achievements).
Of course — and Landrieu knew this would happen — his decision to quietly remove the statues under cover late at night polarized the public. Those in favor lauded the mayor, praising him for leading the charge against a legacy of systematic racism in the South. Those opposed to the decision criticized Landrieu for his methods: that while a noble gesture, taking down four statues swiftly and without public support might actually do more harm than help in a Southern city still recovering from the racial gulf ripped open by the aftermath of Hurricane Katrina in 2005.
There was (and still is) a third group: reactionaries who militantly opposed the statue removal, in New Orleans and anywhere in the South. Because Landrieu’s decision called into question the legitimacy of all Confederate memorials, movements such as the alt-right emerged from their parents’ basement and became an attractive force, and their suit ‘n’ tied leader Richard Spencer commanded a disproportionate amount of media attention. His mantra “We will not be replaced” splattered all over the internet, and dedicated groups of protesters gathered in front of Confederate memorials to save those ugly bits of American history.
The unrest culminated with bloodshed in Charlottesville, Virginia, just after the city decided that its own Lee statue must go to. A group of protesters led by Spencer got out of control, and an alt-righter in a car ran over and killed a woman. Spencer disavowed the bloodshed, but his rising star was squelched. He became untouchable. His followers’ violence unmasked the evil of the entire alt-right movement.
Acknowledging the Common Humanity
Now almost a year later, the statues are gone — probably draped in sheets somewhere in a big warehouse like the one at the end of Raiders of the Lost Ark. The New Orleans dust has settled in their place, and Landrieu has written a manifesto explaining and defending his decision. In The Shadow Of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History is an autobiographical polemic against racism as well as an apologia for New Orleans, praising the city for its ability to accommodate the coexistence of all races and peoples.
Like so many books by politicians, “Statues” suffers from a simultaneously condescending and naive tone that allows Landrieu to castigate his opponents while exonerating himself from any of his own failings in political office. However, he does make one important point: Before anything else, the debate over statues is about both respecting human dignity of black people living in New Orleans and properly remembering that the people who fought and died for the Confederacy were human, too.
“We can be proud of our ancestors who served the Confederacy as men who fought courageously for a cause larger than themselves,” he writes. “We can also recognize that in the context of history they were wrong. Which is to say they were human.”
The issue of how to treat the Civil War, its veterans and those formerly enslaved, is a tortuous affair, but acknowledging the common humanity of everyone involved helps approach the task in a nuanced and charitable manner. Southerners should be proud of the South and the gentlemanly virtues of its leaders. Lee knew how to surrender with honor. Beauregard became a proto-civil rights advocate after the war. Even Nathan Bedford Forrest, the founder of the Ku Klux Klan, disbanded the original incarnation of the organization after he saw the violence it was spreading. Anyone who reads more than a fourth grade textbook version of the Civil War will find that the Southern generals were neither angels nor demons; they were just as human as the rest of us.
At the same time, however, to memorialize the Confederacy in prominent public statuary is tantamount to canonizing slavery and encouraging continued oppression and racism. That doesn’t respect the dignity of black people. It continues the cycle of cultural repression, even if the laws on the books nominally respect the dignity of everyone.
Even before Landrieu’s debacle, addressing race relations was a delicate affair. In a 1999 interview with The Paris Review, the historian Shelby Foote (whose work served as the basis for Ken Burns’ “The Civil War” documentary) said that not only was the institution of slavery a stain on the South that will never be cleansed, but also that the way in which the slaves were emancipated is a stain on the North, nearly as bad as slavery itself.
“They told 4,500,000 people, ‘You are free, hit the road.’ And we’re still suffering from that. Three-quarters of them couldn’t read or write, not one tenth of them had a profession, except for farming, and yet they were turned loose and told, ‘Go your way,’” he said. “They were not prepared, and operated under horrible disadvantages once the army was withdrawn, and some of the consequences are very much with us today.”
The New Orleans statues represented the full horror of those disadvantages. Landrieu correctly points out that dismantling them symbolically lifts the yoke of oppression off the formerly enslaved. If only he had ended his book there.
Is There a Racist Subtext?
Instead, Landrieu turns the statue issue into a polemic against President Donald Trump. While explaining the history of racism in the New Orleans area, Landrieu references David Duke, who came perilously close to getting elected to national office on a political platform of barely concealed white supremacy. For Landrieu, these things are a parable. The mayor draws a straight line from Duke’s rhetoric to Trump’s political tactics in 2016.
“The parallels between David Duke and President Trump, as demagogues, are breathtaking. Duke shadowboxed with his past to suggest he wasn’t a hardened bigot; many white voters in the district liked him for ‘standing up’ to blacks — an issue that had little bearing on the needs of that suburban district,” Landrieu writes. “Trump has found a way to depict Mexicans and immigrants as rapists and criminals; urban cities as dark, crime-ridden places; black athletes as unpatriotic; refugees as welfare and government-assistance mongers.”
But it gets better. That now-ubiquitous slogan on all of those red hats? It has a racist subtext.
“‘Make America Great Again’ carries a coded mantra: make America white again,” Landrieu writes.
Landrieu doesn’t directly accuse Trump of being a white nationalist, but he does call the president a serial liar, willing to play upon the supposed deep-seated racism of poor rural voters to gain support for his white-centric agendas. Additionally, Landrieu connects Duke’s Rolodex-era antics to the rise of Trump and the bloodshed in Charlottesville, which is arguably the climax of the national debate over statues.
Trump-as-Duke is an odd claim, considering that Duke’s heir apparent Spencer, not the president of the United States, led the alt-right forces to bloodshed at Charlottesville. Pinning the uproar on Spencer would have made more sense. After all, Spencer is the guy who coined “alt-right,” who led the “We will not be replaced” movement, and who, at various times, has been banned from CPAC, Twitter, and Patreon for open racism.
The alt-right should be Landrieu’s true enemy. After CPAC last year, Spencer told me in an interview that he founded the alt-right because he is interested in “winning the battle of ideas — the battle for culture and civilization.” That’s a much more pernicious motive. When it succeeds, as it nearly did last summer, it should scare us much more than an addled president shouting things about border walls for the entertainment of a crowd.
Perhaps next time he writes a book about his city, Landrieu should turn to another New Orleanian, Walker Percy, for inspiration. Writing in about New Orleans in 1968, Percy shudders at the inequality and violence, but in the city he sees a place where communal events such as jazz music festivals and Carnival raucously intermix black, Creole, and white culture into a sometimes debaucherous, but more often beautiful culture.
“New Orleans’ people — black and white — may yet manage to get on the right road. The city may still yet detour hell but it will take some doing,” Percy writes. “Le craps was introduced to the New World by a Creole. Now the stakes are too high to let ride on the roll of the dice.”
Percy’s words are just as relevant as they were 50 years ago. Removing public symbols of racism is a step toward what’s right, but blaming the president for the inevitable backlash is risky roll of the dice.