It’s not always easy to see how racism functions in our culture. Many white citizens, for example, are struggling with the removal of public monuments to the Confederacy, astonished that others see symbols of slavery when they see only ancestral pride. Of course, the Confederacy could not have existed without slavery and, unfortunately, those ancestors were defending not just a lost cause but a brutal institution.
But even worse than trying to whitewash (did I say that?) the meanings of the past, we continue — often quite unwittingly — to support actions that perpetuate the racist legacies of that history, with even more pernicious consequences than a few offensive monuments.
Out on “The Fly,” as the riverfront end of Audubon Park is known informally, the powers that be (and the relative anonymity of many of these individuals is part of their power) are working to enclose some six acres of public green space for the pleasure and convenience of relatively few citizens. In a deal with the Audubon Commission (and the Audubon Nature Institute), the Carrollton Boosters, a venerable organization that sponsors sports leagues for kids, seeks to build a large soccer complex next to its recently-constructed baseball fields, effectively privatizing an even larger section of this public park.
How nice for these children and their families! How not so nice for those of us — children and adults alike — who regularly use the area for picnics, ballgames and just lazily watching the Mississippi roll along. Anyone care to guess the predominant racial make-up of “these” and “those”? Just coincidental that this end of the park is where blacks have tended to gather?
It’s hardly the first time public spaces in this majority-black city have been removed from public use. Does anyone remember the swimming pools that once dotted the city? After integration in the 1960s, when parks and pools were opened to all children, many of these pools — among them the wading pool in Audubon Park — were simply closed.
After activists forced the reopening of pools in 1969, funding for maintenance and operations gradually diminished, the facilities fell into disrepair, and within a few decades, if you wanted your children to go swimming in the summertime, in many parts of town you pretty much had to belong to a private club or have charitable friends. Problem solved.
A similar pattern befell our public schools. After integration, white enrollment declined, public support diminished, and the system fell to the bottom in state rankings.
The real beauty of racism is its invisibility. Those of us who are white don’t even have to think about what anybody else wants: What we want is what “everybody” wants. Able to win special concessions from the city, people with power and privilege can still see themselves as agents of a public good (a sports complex), without having to take any responsibility for the larger patterns of public dispossession that they sustain.
Ultimately, the harm to the common good — fewer green spaces, poor schools, no wading pools for kids — affects everyone. But until we at least acknowledge the advantages that come from simply being white, equal opportunity — and justice — will continue to elude us all.
Barbara C. Ewell is Dorothy Brown Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org