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The Civil War Returns to New Orleans

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History Lesson 1

Cultures do evolve, particularly those aspects driven by technology. However, social attitudes and behaviors often have remarkable stability. This suggests that America’s essentially racist culture cannot be wholly overcome in, say, the years since the 1965 Voting Rights Act – particularly when the effort to fight against American racism has always been half-hearted.

Why would this be so? In an analysis entitled Civil Rights Takes a Hit, posted on 5 March 2013, I made the following relevant observations:

— A culture of racism shaped the American way of life  since before the founding of the United States. This culture became particularly deep rooted in the southern colonies/states, where slavery became not only an economic institution but one that marked the South’s social character.

— In the South the culture of racism was briefly interrupted when, following the Civil War, a short period of “Reconstruction” (1865 to 1877) took place. During this time a U.S. military occupation of the conquered Confederacy suppressed racist laws.

— However, after 1877 and the withdrawal of the U.S. army, the southern states almost immediately reverted to a racially dictated way of life, replacing slavery with a regime of laws legitimizing segregation and discrimination against black Americans.

— This state of affairs lasted close to another one hundred years, until the 1960s, when a massive movement of civil disobedience known as the Civil Rights Movement, finally led to the outlawing of such racist practices within the public sphere. I emphasize the public sphere because, at the time of the passage of national civil rights legislation, little was done to change racist perceptions and behavior within the private sphere. For instance, no effort was made to mandate the teaching of tolerance in the schools so as to better erode private racist perceptions. The private sphere was left to itself.

Thus, until 1965, with only a hiatus of 12 years following the Civil War, U.S. law validated racial discrimination and segregation as a guide to the citizen’s behavior.

History Lesson 2

Against the history outlined above we now have 51 years wherein civil rights laws have guided behavior in the public sphere of the United States. However, given the protracted period the opposite laws were allowed to work on the American mind, it can be argued that this is certainly not enough time for the message that racial prejudice is wrong to be fully assimilated in the private lives of citizens. As a result there has developed an unbalanced scenario wherein most white Americans are accepting of racial mixing in public spaces: hotels, bars, schools, shopping centers, the workplace and the like. Privately, however, they are less tolerant and continue to resist such levels of intimacy as racially mixed friendship circles, neighborhoods, or intermarriage.

This continuing divide becomes even more complicated in the U.S. south. A quarter of the U.S. white population identifies themselves as southerners and of those a significant subgroup, perhaps as many as 40%, have never truly reconciled to the notion of colorblind civil rights. Since 1965 they have harbored a simmering resentment of government efforts to force cultural change upon them, even in the public sphere. In order to give a historical underpinning to their resentment they have maintained a sentimental loyalty to Confederate Civil War heroes and symbols (the Confederate flag, for instance). These have become signs of resistance to federal hegemony and emblems of identity which, in some cases, are stronger than those representing the U.S. as a nation.

This brings us to the current struggle in the city of New Orleans. The city, also known as Orleans Parish, has an African American majority of 58.8%. The city council also has a black majority although the mayor is white. Yet, within the city, there are many monuments to those Confederate Civil War heroes so important to the white minority mentioned above. Then, back in December of 2015, the council, at the mayor’s request, voted 6 to 1 to remove the three most prominent of these monuments (honoring Jefferson Davis, Robert E. Lee and P.G.T. Beauregard), from their outdoor public sites.

This move soon generated a backlash on the part of those local white southerners who never evolved beyond their historical racist orientation. Their reaction against local government efforts to deracialize the city’s public spaces was characterized by angry feels leading to violence. Employees of the contractor hired by the city to prepare the monuments for removal were threatened and the owner of the contracting business had his car destroyed. In the face of this intimidation the contractor withdrew from his deal with the city. Similar threats have been made to companies that might replace the original contractor. Protestors have also sued the city in an effort to keep the monuments in place. All these actions have momentarily halted the removal effort.

It is significant that the effort to prevent the removal of the New Orleans monuments involved violence in tandem with efforts in the courts. That is a tip-off as to the nature of this resistance movement. In response, the reaction of the state of Louisiana has been non-existent, and those respectively of the federal government and the city itself seem subdued. It is likely that the efforts in the courts to prevent removal will lose, and then, if and when New Orleans pushes ahead with its plans, there will be a return to intimidation and violence. At some point government officials will have to have to confront those reacting in this way.

Conclusion

Things do change, but at the level of culture they do so slowly. How slow? Well, one could consider the 21st century’s creeping demise of Confederate symbols as a belated chapter in a continuing process set in motion by the 1960s Civil Rights Movement.

Unfortunately, these symbols and monuments may well go out with a bang rather than a whimper. They are identity markers for those who once were dominant but are now on the losing side of history. The public display of their heroes and symbols constitutes their eroding toe-hold in the public sphere. Another way of assessing this process is to note that these white supremacists are being pushed, irrevocably, back into their tribal private space where resentment and anger have long been the emotional glue that holds them together. Violence on their part is probable.

That probability is a warning that the status and quality of our nation’s private space should concern us all. There are times when progressive changes in the public sphere, like that brought about by the Civil Rights Movement, call for purposeful, if temperate, intervention into the private sphere. I mentioned the teaching of tolerance in the public schools as one example. If you ignore this side of things you make more likely the violent resistance we now witness in New Orleans.

So, as we grapple with the need to regulate banks and pharmaceutical companies, greenhouse emissions and guns, let us give some thought to the regulating of racism and other hateful attitudes through the judicious use of those public institutions that help shape attitudes from generation to generation. Our legal system and its laws are major players here, but there are other venues, such as the public schools. Maybe we should begin this process in the city of New Orleans and the state of Louisiana.

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Lawrence Davidson is professor of history at West Chester University in West Chester, PA.

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