“In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History” by Mitch Landrieu— Confronting Racism

Landrieu, Mitch. “In the Shadow of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History”, Viking, 2018.

Confronting Racism

Amos Lassen

I am a proud New Orleanian. I was born and educated in New Orleans and it will always be my hometown even though I no longer live there. New Orleans is more than just a place, it is a state of mind and I find it interesting that Boston, where I now live, is much more racist than I ever experienced in the Deep South. Without doubt, there are New Orleans people who are racists and I have known some but by and large for a southern city, I found New Orleans to be okay. True, I taught in schools there where there were no white students and only a few white faculty members and I lived in neighborhoods that were predominantly white but I always assumed that was because of geography. Within two blocks of every white neighborhood in uptown New Orleans there is a black neighborhood and the all-black schools are located in all black neighborhoods. Of course, it is true that white flight from the inner cities has hurt the educational system of the city.

Mitch Landrieu is the New Orleans mayor who removed the Confederate statues and in this book, he confronts the racism that shapes us and argues for white America to reckon with its past. This is a “passionate, personal, urgent book from the man who sparked a national debate.” Landrieu tells us that, “There is a difference between remembrance of history and reverence for it.” He said the same thing to the people of New Orleans in May 2017 when speaking about his decision to take down four Confederate monuments, including the statue of Robert E. Lee. He struck a nerve nationally, and his speech has now been heard or seen by millions across the country. Here, Mayor Landrieu discusses his personal journey on race as well as the path he took to making the decision to remove the monuments. He also looks at the broader history of slavery, race and institutional inequities that still exist in this country and he shares his personal relationship to this history. His father, as state legislator and mayor, was a huge force in the integration of New Orleans in the 1960s and 19070s. Landrieu grew up with a progressive education in a New Orleans that was then heavily racially divided and he had to relearn Southern history as it really happened.

This book is more than just a look at racism, it is a memoir, a history, and a prescription to confront slavery. This little book has a great deal to say about race in the conservative age of Donald Trump, at a time when racism seems to be resurging with approval from the highest levels of government and when too many Americans have a misplaced nostalgia for a time and place that never was.

Landrieu tries to deal with America’s sins while giving an optimistic and patriotic defense of cosmopolitanism as the source of American greatness. It is truly uncomfortable to think about slavery but we must do so if we want to live truthfully. Landrieu gives us a reconsideration of what it means to be a Southerner in contemporary America in this memoir/manifesto for a new and better South and a better America. Through a balance of humility and conviction, he shares his path to a more profound understanding of racial justice and explains how this journey led him to remove the Confederate monuments in New Orleans. We see clearly “how intellectual honesty can lead to moral clarity.”

“The Confederacy was on the wrong side of history and humanity. It sought to tear apart our nation and subjugate our fellow Americans to slavery. This is the history we should never forget and one that we should never again put on a pedestal to be revered.”

This is a thoughtful personal examination of race, culture, and politics in the city of New Orleans. We read of the biographical reflections and moral examinations that preceded the decision to remove the Confederate statues. Landrieu’s writing is earnest and it honestly feels like he’s trying to share his case for why the statues needed to be removed. This is also a fascinating look at public administration that shows the reality of how local politics work especially with the unique challenges facing New Orleans since Hurricane Katrina. Landrieu sends a message not only to Americans, but to many cities and countries where history is not yet being used for an inclusive future for all citizens. We can all hope that Mitch Landrieu will find his place among the national leaders of the American people. His local achievements are an inspiration for creating a better future for all and certainly much better than those that are running this country now.

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