Brentin Mock is a staff writer at CityLab. He was previously the justice editor at Grist.
The former New Orleans mayor’s report back from his 11-month tour of the South reveals that racism in the region might be deeper than he imagined.
Last year, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu published a book, In the Shadows of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, a personal narrative built around his decision to bring down four city monuments dedicated to Confederate and white supremacist causes. He wrote that he grew up with black people in New Orleans, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he realized that those monuments were offensive to black New Orleanians. ( His buddy, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, had to explain it to him.) Former Nola.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out the difficulty of reconciling this, writing that the book’s “saddest and most significant reminder” was that while “white people can choose not to see or think about race ... black people can’t.”
Since his book’s release, Landrieu, currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, has embarked on a tour of the South to learn the extent to which white people in this region have been blind to racism. He recently announced the launch of an initiative called E Pluribus Unum that will confront the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and develop strategies that he hopes will break down the barriers that lead to racial inequities. Last week, the initiative released “Divided by Design,” a near-100 page report summarizing what Landrieu learned about how racism continues to function and dominate throughout the South.
What he learned: There is a wide gap between how white Southerners understand the effects of historical racism on black lives today and how African Americans understand it. Most whites surveyed believed that black Southerners are mostly responsible for their own economic and educational shortcomings, and that the vestiges of slavery and segregation have little to do with it. As for reparations or repayment of wealth and capital stolen from African Americans: While black Southerners support it in one form another, for white Southerners, forget it.
Latinos were also included in some of the focus groups, and where they stood on race was often middle of the road, with small pluralities of them believing that historical racism does hold African Americans back. But in some of the cities with larger Latino populations, the Latino population seemed more in alignment with white Southerners—many believed that African Americans are too lazy and irresponsible to get ahead.
Landrieu’s tour was spread across 12 cities, 28 communities, and three regions: Northwest Arkansas, the Mississippi Delta, and Central Appalachia. Working with PolicyLink and GBAO Strategies, they conducted one-on-one interviews and focus groups, speaking with more than 800 people over an 11-month stretch, starting in 2018. The team conducted an additional survey with roughly 1,800 people by phone—600 from each racial group. They spoke with both college-educated people from each race and those without degrees, with the discussions focused mostly on whether African Americans were getting a fair shake in educational and employment opportunities in the United States.
“Most white people don’t have a full understanding of our past or how it shapes our lives today,” said Landrieu on a press call. “The legacies of slavery and Jim Crow are visible everywhere you look, if you really care to look.”
“People will still hate you even if there’s no monument there”
Of all of the places Landrieu visited along his tour, there wasn’t really any place where black and white people were on the same page about America’s racist past, its future, or even its present. Overall, 70 percent of African Americans surveyed said that the heritage of slavery, Jim Crow, and segregation made living in America harder for them. But 70 percent of white respondents weren’t trying to hear that. And while nearly 72 percent of black Southerners surveyed said they supported reparations for African Americans, nearly 80 percent of whites said absolutely not.
To understand why white Southerners are so vehemently against even looking at, let alone compensating for the South’s racist heritage, you have to delve into the responses from each of the locales.
In Montgomery, Alabama, white participants said “they saw no value in discussing or dwelling on the legacy of racism”—this in a city saturated with Confederate monuments and memorabilia. One participant said the National Memorial for Peace and Justice— otherwise known as the “lynching memorial”—built last year near downtown Montgomery, is an “affront to white people.”
In Charleston, South Carolina, white respondents said racism was fabricated by the media and politicians, while defending the Confederate markers and monuments around their city. African Americans there overwhelmingly embraced reparations, though not as a direct payment. White Charlestonians were “unwilling to discuss it.”
In New Orleans, reactions were mixed. White participants were highly supportive of the removal of several white supremacist city monuments—a crowning achievement for Landrieu during his term as mayor. This support came mainly from college-educated whites who were also “very receptive” to reparations. In 2016, a University of New Orleans survey found that white New Orleanians generally opposed the monuments’ removal. Any white support for their removal, by and large, came from those who were already in Mayor Landrieu’s camp. ”In other words, among whites, approval of the mayor is largely a function of their opinions on the monument removal,” reads the UNO study.
Meanwhile, some black New Orleanians said that taking down the monuments was useless. One responded that “people will still hate you even if there is no monument there,” a sentiment that perhaps sheds some light on how Landrieu grew up among black people without knowing that the Confederate monuments were offensive: It’s possible the black folk he lived around weren’t paying them any mind.
“Everyone’s suffered; don’t dwell on it”
It actually wasn’t uncommon to hear some black respondents in a handful of cities say they also opposed things like reparations and examining the impact of slavery’s legacy today. This was equally and often more true among Latino participants, who were part of the focus groups in Miami, Houston, and Charleston. Latinos opposed rummaging among such ideas, though, for different reasons than their black counterparts. Black men in Jackson said they “had seen no evidence in their own lives that discussion of the clear evidence of racism produces any promise of change,” according to the report.
But most of the Latinos surveyed didn’t want to deal with historical anti-black racism because they thought the discussion itself was problematic:
- In Miami, Latino respondents said “there are higher levels of poverty and violence in poor black neighborhoods than in poor Latino neighborhoods, because black people lack a sense of responsibility and ‘pride of ownership’ in their communities.”
- Latino groups in Charleston, complained that black people “always complain about everything,” play the “race card,” and mostly “bring on themselves” whatever problems black communities are facing. As for examining the history of slavery and Jim Crow, one Latino participant said, “Everyone’s suffered; don’t dwell on it.”
- In Houston, while black groups felt the city needed to “face our collective history of racial division and abuse head on,” the Latino group’s position was summarized in the report as feeling that “there is a lot of negative emotions tied up in the battles of the past, and that we are better off just focusing on the future.”
In each of the cities, Latinos’ feelings about the economic doldrums of black communities hewed closely to how white people felt about it: That African Americans can’t get ahead because of poor parenting and bad life choices, not racism. Meanwhile, none of the cities where Latinos were surveyed showed Latinos sharing any kind of economic parity with whites, not even in the cities where Latinos were majorities. In Miami, where Latinos make up 70 percent of the population, only 48 percent of Latino residents have the college credentials necessary for Miami’s highest-skilled jobs, compared with 71 percent of the white population.
Two paths through the South
The same week of the E Pluribus Unum report, The New York Times also published a dispatch on race from a tour of the South. As part of its series “The American Road Trip,” four writers and photographers were sent out to cover regions of the U.S. to build narratives around four themes: patriotism, community, tradition, and youth. The poet and essayist Hanif Abdurraqib was assigned the “community” theme and traveled to eight cities mainly along the eastern coast of the South, from Baltimore through Virginia and North Carolina, to several cities in South Carolina. Except for Charleston, there was no overlap with Landrieu’s tour, which mainly covered the Deep South’s innards.
While both narratives focused on race, the difference in approach was readily apparent: The E Pluribus report frames each location by its deficits—each city and region is introduced based on how low black (and in some cases Latino) wages and education levels are compared to those of whites. Abdurraqib introduces and frames each city he visited by how the black people among them are living, in terms of both beauty and struggle. The problems and disparities are present in Abdurraqib’s narrative—gentrification, economic deprivation, disaster, poor protection of queer and trans black folks. But they are carefully couched in tales that speak more to how black people are engaging with and enjoying each other, despite those problems.
When visiting Charlotte, Abdurraqib spent time with Malcolm Graham, an African American running for city council to represent the district that encompasses the black neighborhoods of the city’s historic west side. Graham speaks of how Amazon has been expanding its footprint into these black communities, bringing an unhealthy dose of rising living costs along with it. He confesses to Abdurraqib that he can’t stop gentrification, which is probably the most un-politician thing to do, but hopes he can “soften its impact” by persuading the city to offer low-interest home improvement loans to black families. Gentrification is far from the only threat, though. Writes Abdurraqib:
Mr. Graham is focused on gun control, too. His sister is Cynthia Graham Hurd, who was killed in the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church shooting in Charleston, S.C., in 2015. “We don’t talk about how she died. We talk only about how she lived,” he says. He thinks for a moment, and then summons an old saying: “Sweat and tears are both salty, but they render different results. Tears get you sympathy, but sweat gets you progress.”
It’s a more vivid and fleshed out account of black life than the E Pluribus Unum offers, but both kinda arrive at the same point: that African Americans have been living in the South’s margins, and getting by the best they can regardless. Landrieu’s report offers plenty of tears; Abdurraqib helps you feel their sweat.
The next steps for Landrieu’s E Pluribus Unum organization is to launch a slate of strategies next year across the South based on the data they got from this research. One of those strategies will involve changing the narrative of the region—”empowering storytelling that highlights the impacts of racial injustice in our institutions to provide fuller context.”
Part of that must involve understanding how to approach the subject such that black people aren’t characterized solely by how much they don’t measure up to white people. It’s not just about finally seeing Confederate monuments as racist, but also about seeing black people as fully human.