Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addresses CityLab Detroit
Former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu addresses CityLab Detroit. Kristoffer Tripplaar/CityLab

The former New Orleans mayor wants everyone to know that there is a way to talk about race in America, and Donald Trump—that ain’t it.

Speaking with The Atlantic’s editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg at the Citylab Detroit conference this week, former New Orleans mayor Mitch Landrieu broke down his perspective on why the Civil War was fought.

“Well, the first thing it was fought for was to destroy the country,” said Landrieu. “I think we can agree that had the Confederacy won, the United States as we knew it, would have been fractured. So it was against the United States. The second reason is it was done to preserve slavery.”

The discussion was about how to develop a national dialogue on race and diversity, particularly during an era when the president is fanning the flames of racial tension and promoting white nationalism. Earlier this year, Landrieu released his book In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History. The title is an allusion to his work while mayor to take down four monuments in New Orleans that represented paeans to Confederate and white supremacist causes. On the day they came down, Landrieu, as mayor, gave a passionate speech on race, in which he said:   

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. Otherwise, we will continue to pay a price with discord, with division and yes, with violence.

One could say that this is exactly what has happened since he made the speech. Just days before Landrieu’s talk in Detroit, a white terrorist Robert Bowers opened fire in a Jewish synagogue in Pittsburgh, killing 11 people and injuring several others. Bowers’ attack was motivated by his hostility towards this Jewish community’s participation in a refugee settlement program, which brings people from impoverished and war-torn countries such as Afghanistan, Haiti, and Somalia to the U.S.  

CityLab spoke with Landrieu at the conference about his thoughts on the Pittsburgh synagogue killings, how to lead a sanctuary city in times of racial violence, the long history of black people fighting to bring down Confederate monuments, and, of course, whether he is running for president.

First, do you have any thoughts you’d like to share with the city of Pittsburgh about the tragic killings that just took place there?

Personally, to the Pittsburgh community and all of the families, I know that they know that the nation grieves with them because the individuals that were lost were friends and family members. On top of that, it was the most aggressive attack against Jewish citizens that the country has ever seen.  It's laid on top of the shootings in Kentucky [Editor’s Note: A white man killed two African Americans in a grocery store in Jeffersontown, Kentucky, over the weekend.] People forget about Tamir Rice. People forget about what happened in Charleston when nine African-American lives were taken at Emanuel A.M.E. church. It's all the same iteration of the poison of hate.

It fuels the immigration debate. It fueled the Confederate monuments debate. It's all the same thing, and unfortunately it's not just in the United States of America. You see a worldwide trend that is giving air to this notion of white supremacy and hating people based on race, creed, color, sexual orientation, and it's something that needs to be identified, called out, and confronted. It is sad, but it can be beaten back if you call it out for what it is.

How should cities that are aspiring to have “sanctuary” or “welcoming” status respond in the wake of this violence? Should they dial such efforts back or keep pushing forward?

Well, first of all, it's really hard because when you have people that want to use weapons to hurt other people, it's very hard to stop them in that act. What you can do though as a community is have an ethos that diversity is a strength. It's not a weakness. That everybody is welcome irrespective of race, creed or color, sexual orientation, nation of origin, etc. The other side really tries to get a leg up by creating the impression that somehow that means that you are for violence and crime. No, every mayor in America and every citizen wants to live in a safe place and wants to make sure that people who commit crimes and hurt other people on a day-to-day basis are [punished]. I would just say to them, you should treat them based on their behavior but not of their race, creed or their color.

The president continues to make the wrong point, that people who are Muslims are prone to be terrorists; that people who are Mexican are prone to be rapists; that people who African Americans are prone to be criminals. That's just not the world that we live in. We're not supposed to aspirationally think that way in America, so you have to create those conditions on the ground. And you do that by being inclusive, not exclusive. The president is the exact opposite of what you should be. And his language is the exact opposite of the language we should use. Now I want everybody to be careful about this. He's not necessarily the cause, although he's exacerbating it. He's a much larger symptom. The country needs to start looking at itself and ask why are we susceptible to these kinds of provocations from him? The way to win is to go vote, to elect other people that think differently.

Some people say that talking about racism when discussing politics is too divisive. How have you tried to keep the issue of racism central in this environment?

There are many people who are admonishing those of us who want to talk about race and say, ‘Oh, don't talk about it,’ as if not talking about it is going to cure the problem. I completely disagree with that. I think you cannot go around race. You can't go over it, you actually have to go through it, and you have to talk about it. You have to acknowledge that it is a complicated issue for the country. You have to find a way to address it. You have to be willing to work through it on both sides of the issue. Discriminating against somebody based on race is one of the iterations of hate, like discriminating against somebody because of their religion. It is poison from the same tree. You see it roaring its head. You can't ignore it as though it's not happening. You've got to call it out and say, look, this is a problem. That's not who we are. That's not what we do.

To the extent that for some reason we now have a president, the only one that's ever talked like this—the way to confront that is to vote for people who don't think like that and, to check him. He came out and made a recommendation that we end birthright citizenship as though somehow as the president, he could alter the Constitution. We don't have a kingdom. We live in a representative democracy and the president can't alter the Constitution. The Constitution reflects the will of the people. And so the will of the people has to make itself known, and we do that normally through elections and that's why I want to encourage people who disagreed with his view of the world to go vote and make sure that they check him for the next couple of years.

Perhaps one of the unintended consequences of actions such as taking down Confederate statues, is that people who support what the Confederacy stood for get rallied up and they vote their values and people into office.

I mean as a general rule, as a general rule, whatever action is taken in  politics—any one of them benign or malintended—creates a backlash. Wherever there's a consequence there's a repercussion. But some of them that have to be made. For example, President Obama's election created a backlash. That doesn't mean you shouldn't have done it. You've got to question why are we having a backlash to that? We're not actually trying to hurt you. We're trying to help you. The fact that some people see it that way—look, we're in a democracy, you know. And the battle place of ideas is on the street. Let's have the argument. You know, at the end of the day, the way it's supposed to work is that the people who go to the polls and vote for their elected representatives, are supposed to elect people to represent their values. And if for some reason we made a wrong turn a couple of years ago with electing Donald Trump, which I would strongly argue that we did, and he has taken us backwards, as he promised he would do, then you have to say, oh shoot, he really meant "[Make America Great] Again," like way back when and we don't want to go back. We want to go forward. You got to course correct and the way you course correct is by the next election, and that's going to be in a couple of days.

In your book you talk about your decisions around bringing the Confederate monuments down in New Orleans, and there is a decades-long movement of black people working to do that.

It was more than decades. It was hundreds and hundreds of people that have been trying to do that for a long, long period of time. I mean, I can remember back in the 60s, Lolis Eric Elie, and Nils Douglas, and Judy Reese Morse's father, who was a Freedom Rider, Oretha Castle Haley—all of those people advocated for it. And then of course [former New Orleans mayors] Dutch Morial talked about it. Marc Morial talked about it. Sidney Barthelemy. They all tried. Our team was really just standing on the shoulders of huge numbers of people that helped make that happen. We found ourselves in an interesting political moment where it became possible. But I think about Avery Alexander, who was one of my great friends and one of my heroes, who got pulled down the steps of city hall. He tried to take those monuments down, too. So there was a decades-long struggle almost from the time they went up.

Grassroots organizations such as TakeEmDownNOLA who’ve been fighting for this say that you haven’t given them credit for their efforts.

I've credited them every time I talk about it. I thank them and everybody else who had anything to do with it. They were an important part of a much larger whole, and I've done that. I say it in the book, actually in the end of the book. I credit everybody and I think I named them as well. So you know, sometimes people can't take yes for an answer, but I feel they did their part along with a whole bunch of other people.

Are you running for president?

Not at this time.  

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