This past Saturday, the local anti-racism group Take “Em Down Nola held their response to the administration’s approval of armed thugs roaming Charlottesville for 2 days while inciting a man to kill peaceful protestor Heather Heyer. (As of now, no charges against the organizers of this armed encampment for their role in her death.)
The TeDNOla spent days carefully organizing a march in support of the peace activists in Charlottesville from Congo Square (the historic gathering place for people of color) to Jackson Square, once the main public square of the old city, and now the site of wealthy people’s second or third rarely-used abodes, a few tourist shops and one very good and a few not so good restaurants, as well as the workplace for struggling artists, readers and musicians and a whole bunch of 24/7 lively, illegal and informal activity.
it is also the home of the statue of Andrew Jackson, known for his defense of New Orleans in the War of 1812 and his presidency, but also known for his long brutality to Native Americans made into federal policy with the Indian Removal Act resulting in the destruction of many tribes and the Trail of Tears.
On the morning of the peaceful protest in New Orleans, Facebook erupted with disparaging comments about the foolishness of this protest, with many posts indicating that police had told French Quarter shopkeepers and workers that busloads of supremacists and Nazis were on their way, and warning of people climbing the gates of the park to pull down the statue (even though the size and weight of this particular statue clearly precluded a rope being tossed over and a firm yank resulting in its destruction, and the fact that the same group had gathered there previously and not damaged the statue.)
Back and forth about how “we have more important things to worry about” (as if one cannot hold separate issues and plans of action in one’s head on a Saturday), how this peaceful organized protest will result in property destruction and loss of income for FQ (an area where thousands of tourists crowd daily, guzzling sugary drinks until they are drunk enough to feel it proper to use front stoops as their bathrooms and destroy property willy-nilly), and comments of how we have “already dealt with this issue here” (we assume by “allowing” the mayor and council to remove 4 of the 7 statues to Confederates in the city) were posted without embarrassment.
Those well-meaning posters were, of course, white and often native to the area. That second point is important only because there is a firm belief among many that natives are the only ones who can decide on historical context. Those opinions pop up on every post or article about the symbols of the Confederacy and the Jim Crow era that are part of every neighborhood in this city. That native-only line in the sand has grown since the post-Katrina addition of thousands of new arrivals, who it must be said that many of them were clearly drawn here because of the potential to cash in on a rebuilding city with some amenities and a lot of poor people.
The tension between the natives, the long-ago arrived (seen as native by most if they have lived through a hurricane, follow the traditions of Carnival season and have either sent their kids to public schools or rebuilt a crumbling historic home with love and frequent trips to the Green Project) and the newly arrived are seemingly at an all-time high. Maybe the tension following the arrival of the Americans after the Lousiana Purchase was higher, but since that was a boom time for the city, it’s likely this one is worse.
That tension plays into any organizing against the symbols of white supremacy, and is mocked by many natives while any discussion of it as well past time for these to come down is usually met with questions about one’s hold on any Southern or New Orleans genealogy. Even the long-ago arrivals will often admit to being shocked back then at seeing so many ties to the short history of the Confederacy, even as they miss the irony of their later and longer tacit acceptance of it.
The disdain for public assembly over the continuing effect of state-sanctioned racism is certainly another indicator for the privilege that most whites refuse to acknowledge. Business returning to usual is the usual plea by those holed up at home, gnashing their teeth at “how exhausting this year has been already” missing the point as to how every year has been for the disenfranchised. That “business as usual” attitude is shown by belittling public activists through painting them as foolish and selfish and makes the divide even more permanent.
Yet most locals know that organizing against white supremacy through “channels” is not possible when the system itself is perpetuating the racism. It does that through known practices such as redlining whole areas against bank loans, creating pockets of poverty by allowing developers to build substandard housing “back of town” and only incentivizing job creation in tourist-rich areas. And by locking up more people of color than anywhere else in the world and using those prisons as profit-making opportunities. And by allowing unemployment to be close to 80% for adult men in certain areas of the city and across the South. No one who travels through the 7th, 8th or 9th ward of New Orleans or through small towns across Louisiana and Mississippi can miss the hopeless faces of men and women sitting on stoops, knowing from experience they are not welcome to anything of value.
So knowing that truth, how can they deride their neighbors taking to the public streets to counter the approval of a president who called armed supremacists “fine people” and who has not shown any sympathy for the murders of innocent people who were unfortunate enough to be in the path of racist murderers, whether police or any other?
The answer is a word I have used here already and is used often elsewhere: privilege.
That word is also a red flag for many whites who have not bothered to unpack what it means or to understand how prejudice and racism are two separate things. Who often use the inoperable term of “reverse racism” or blithely say they have never heard any black people say they didn’t like the statues, as if the thousands of marchers and years of protest have not happened right in front of them; as if their daily world includes a diverse cross-section of residents who feel comfortable in sharing their feelings of oppression with their white neighbors who wave gaily to them as they get in their air-conditioned personal tank or on their well-functioning 2-wheeler and go to their job or to their appointments to get their eyes checked or meet their friends for coffee at a place where the check may equal what that neighboring family of four spends for food for a week.
I know all of this because I operate in this world of privilege. I know it, and I work to rid myself of the thinking that allows me to think that I fairly came to the opportunities given to me. When I say that, it doesn’t mean that I think I don’t deserve opportunity; it only means I don’t deserve an unequal amount of opportunity. In most workplaces I have had in New Orleans (and in Northern cities too) the management is almost entirely white and the entry-level work held by people of color. Yet, often the go-to employees are the people of color; the employees who stay at that entry-level for decades after people like me have moved on to another opportunity. Privilege.
I live in the French Quarter, partly because my family also lives there and also because, over a 24 hour period, it is the most diverse public space in the region, even though I acknowledge that a large percentage of the resident population is among the whitest and richest, maybe only outdone by St. Charles Avenue. Privilege.
This is why I march and organize with my neighbors of color, no matter how inopportune the time or place. Yet, I can also go back to my regularly scheduled life and ignore this or that action, assuming that no retribution from my alliance with activists will befall me. That in that regularly scheduled life, that a police officer will not stop me and violate my rights because of their antipathy to the color of my skin driving on their city streets. Privilege.
The issue of the Jackson statue is seen as moot by many locals, even those who agree that Confederate statues must come down. (I believe it deserves censure and likely a takedown, but believe that the 3 remaining symbols of the Confederacy in statue form should be targeted first, as well as the names of white supremacists that litter our street names.) The lack of awareness of the connection of racism against Native Americans is even more embedded into white life, with disparaging images on sports teams logos remaining and the destruction of sacred land at Standing Rock and across the US including in Louisiana acceptable to most “business as usual” Americans. Privilege.
I ended Saturday proud of my activist friends and colleagues and ashamed of those I know who mocked the action. It gave me another example of the blanket of comfort that whiteness offers and of how we can choose to not take a stand. As I drifted off to sleep, smug in my social media postings about this day, I suddenly remembered my exchange that morning with an African-American woman I have known casually for about 15 years, known through some shared workplaces and colleagues. I have had detailed conversations with her about racism and privilege and had thoughtful and warm talks about the culture of this place we share, a place that neither of us were born and raised in. When I saw her that morning, she asked me how I was. I answered before considering: “tired. tired of this shit.”
She raised her eyebrows, looked at me with some amusement, a little anger and a tiny bit of pity. She answered,”Yeah well…” with a weak smile and walked away.