By a vote of 6-1, the New Orleans City Council decided Thursday to remove symbols honoring the Confederate States of America, a domestic terrorist group that existed in this country 1860-1865, and one that is still revered by many white Americans who wax nostalgic about a time when the Old South still lived.
Though the United States government has never officially designated the Confederacy a terrorist entity, terror, by definition, “is the use of violence and threats to intimidate or coerce, especially for political purposes.”
What else, then, would one call a secessionist group of white supremacists whose express purpose was to maintain capitalist, racist and political control over black people through forced servitude, kidnapping, fear and violence that ranged from starvation and shackling to lashings, lynchings and rape?
Agreed? Agreed. Moving on.
The one, cowardly, opposing vote was cast by Councilwoman Stacey Head, who argued that the removal of the monuments—statues of Gen. Robert E. Lee, Gen. P.G.T. Beauregard and Confederate President Jefferson Davis, and an obelisk dedicated to the Battle of Liberty Place—would cause division. As if honoring slave owners is not divisive enough; as if removing the cloaks of white supremacy is the problem, not the reverence of white supremacy itself. And there are those who agree with her.
Four groups—the Louisiana Landmarks Society, the Foundation for Historical Louisiana, the Monumental Task Committee and Beauregard Camp No. 130—have filed a lawsuit to stop the removal of the monuments, claiming that the City Council “failed to comply with federal laws protecting sites on the National Register of Historic Places,” reports WDSU News. The irony of these groups citing anything to do with federal law as a logical basis for honoring the Confederacy is clear.
When I interviewed Rep. Keith Ellison (D-Minn.) about reparations a few years ago, he spoke about the allegiance that racists still pledge to Dixie and the romanticizing of traitorous acts being framed as Southern legacy. “You know, the neo-Confederacy, where they want to remember the South in a fond way, flying the rebel flag everywhere; these people took up arms against the United States and that’s called being a traitor," Ellison said.
“Jefferson Davis was a traitor,” he continued. “These people were traitors against the United States, and the fact that they could ever hold any honor, anywhere, is an outrage. What did they fight for? Did they fight for a noble cause? No, they fought to keep other human beings in bondage. They are totally disreputable, contemptible, and hold no value in the United States of America.”
No, they do not. There is no Gone With the Wind fantasy to protect, only the desperate need of racists to hold on to fond memories of mint juleps, mammies and black people as their property.
As reported by CNN, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu declared the City Council’s actions a “courageous decision to turn a page on our divisive past and chart the course for a more inclusive future.”
I would argue that it is not necessarily “courageous” to no longer bow to the dirty, blood-splattered feet of white supremacy, or at least not solely; it is a mandatory prerequisite for sincere and sustained progress.
This is not to say that the City Council (minus one) should not be recognized for the historic move, particularly in a political climate where GOP presidential front-runner Donald Trump has whipped the conservative base into a Third Reich frenzy and white hate groups are crawling all over the United States—including 72 chapters of the Ku Klux Klan, 142 neo-Nazi groups, 115 white nationalist groups, 119 racist skinhead groups and 37 neo-Confederate groups, according to the latest data compiled by the Southern Poverty Law Center.
It is to say that taking down symbols of the Confederacy is the beginning of a rough draft, not the finished blueprint. It is the redlining of glaring errors on the path to shaping something of substance and clarity that is worthy of consideration. Most important in this process is the critical need to center justice and restitution for generations of the Confederacy’s victims and proceed accordingly.
And in the case of New Orleans, and the nation at large, “accordingly” looks like dismantling a racist power structure that continues to dehumanize, criminalize, victimize, disenfranchise and marginalize the descendants of enslaved Africans who must navigate this country with the weight of slavery and Jim Crow on their necks.
As I previously reported in a comprehensive look at New Orleans’ controversial charter school experiment, 97 percent of children arrested (pdf) in New Orleans in 2014 were black, despite the fact that African Americans make up only 59 percent of the city’s population post-Katrina. Black families returning to the city since the storm have stared the ugliness of gentrification in the face as inner-city housing developments crumble and affordable housing dwindles into nothingness.
And more racial disparities persist.
The median income gap between black and white households in New Orleans has widened by 18 percent over the past decade, according to Katrina Truth. In addition, 50.5 percent of black children in New Orleans live in poverty, black women make 49 cents for every dollar that white men make and 52 percent of black men in New Orleans are considered to be unemployed.
As Councilwoman Nadine Ramsey so powerfully stated, “Taking down these monuments will not change the past, but is an important and symbolic step for African Americans and for all lovers of equality. Removal will not detract from the important work that still needs to be done. We are continually addressing the pernicious and systematic discrimination that still bars some groups from enjoying the full benefits of citizenship in this great nation.”
I could not agree more.
As someone born in Jefferson Davis Hospital in Natchez, Miss., a town that also reveres—and profits—from the Confederacy, I am pleased to see the so-called vestiges of terrorism removed, even while never forgetting that the racism and violence that they were built to honor are not relics, remnants or fragments of a long-ago collective imagining of racists for a white supremacist America, but embedded into the very fabric of this country.
And in a nation that flies a red, white and blue flag drenched in the pain and subjugation of people of color, including Latinos, African Americans and indigenous peoples, it is critical that we continue to address our schools, our prisons, our courts and our government—those vast monuments to racism that continue to stand.