Clint Smith’s recent New Republic article lauds Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s role in the monuments controversy. A New Orleans poet and scholar, Smith sees Take ’Em Down’s challenge to public celebration of white supremacist mythology as the cutting-edge social justice struggle of the moment.
But Smith fails to relate the group’s agitation to remove the monuments to a pragmatic critique of gross inequities in the prevailing politics and economics of New Orleans as well as in American life generally — what I call the neo-liberal regime’s general program of regressive redistribution. Nor could he. For all the bluster and exaggerated assertions, Take ‘Em Down NOLA is a loose alignment of activists, not a political movement.
The group’s objective, as Smith reports, is to pressure Mayor Mitch Landrieu and the City Council “to remove all the public symbols — monuments, school names, and street signs dedicated to White Supremacists.” It’s a politics focused on symbolism and emotion, not substantive economic and political amelioration. Their demand is that “we not be forced to pay taxes for the maintenance of public symbols that demean us and psychologically terrorize us.”
But that does nothing to challenge the regressive neo-liberal agenda: chartering public schools and privatizing other public services; settling for widespread contingent and precarious employment in the city, especially in the subsidized hospitality sector; a penchant for policies that support regressive redistribution, such as rent-intensifying redevelopment. And it yields just as completely to a political and economic structure through which a fundamental inequality is reproduced and perpetuated.
Take ‘Em Down NOLA denounces white supremacy, as all thinking persons must, but by clinging to the belief that it remains the historical force that shapes our times, still seems trapped in its thrall. They mistake militancy (a posture) for radicalism (a program). That may sustain an impression that there is something politically insurgent about Take ‘Em Down NOLA. There isn’t.
One of the group’s eminences, Malcolm Suber, is a longtime advocate for social justice (and an old friend and comrade from my graduate school days). The most prominent among the younger activists are Angela Kinlaw, a charter school principal who came to New Orleans in 2013 by way of California and St. Louis, and Michael “Quess?” Moore, an “educator, poet, and playwright,” by Smith’s account, and also a charter school employee, who, like many other operatives in the city’s culture industry, is a Brooklyn transplant. Both are deeply embedded in the post-Katrina political economy that has furthered the deprivation and disenfranchisement of low-income New Orleanians that is at the heart of neo-liberalism.
Kinlaw and Moore describe their group as a “black-led, multiracial, intergenerational coalition” with, in Smith’s words, “a strong emphasis on intersectional awareness.” He defends their agenda of eliminating all public recognition of Confederates and slaveholders — “Kinlaw emphasizes that when the group says all, it means all” — by likening them to African-American reformers Frederick Douglass and Ida B. Wells. But Douglass challenged the actual institution of slavery and Wells, a journalist and activist, the then current practice of lynching, not their symbolic representation more than a century after the fact.
Douglass’s and Wells’s crusades may have seemed unrealistic in the sense that their goals, though clear and righteous, were dauntingly large. In contrast, Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s goal is symbolic ratification of victories long since won. Because its politics is moralistic more than strategic, and focused at the level of symbolic representation rather than substantive redistribution, it risks being impossibly impractical in pure cost/benefit terms.
Already the group has over-reached in its tone-deaf demand that the statue of Andrew Jackson be removed from Jackson Square because Jackson was a slaveholder and architect of genocidal suppression of Native Americans. The Jackson statue against the backdrop of St. Louis Cathedral is one of the city’s most iconic, internationally known images, and Jackson, never really my cup of tea, fought to save the young republic and extend its reach, not secede from it in an act of treason. Indeed, when the city was under Union occupation, Gen. Benjamin F. Butler emblazoned the Jackson statue with the legend, “The Union Must and Shall Be Preserved,” thus rendering it an emblem of Confederate defeat.
Continuing in the vein of its strategic impracticality, the Take ‘Em Down NOLA program would quickly produce diminishing returns, and it would shed allies with each, ever more arcane target. How much additional psychological benefit could be derived from struggles over changing obscure names of city streets? How quickly would that effort appear more broadly to be a pointless diversion?
The contention that symbols of the ancien regime “psychologically terrorize” black New Orleanians is very much overblown, especially at the level of petty street names. With the exception of notorious ones like Jeff Davis Parkway or Lee Circle, most people, black and white, have always treated them as nothing more than reference points.
I grew up a half block from an intersection with Gen. Ogden Street and was well into my forties during the Liberty Monument fight in the early 1990s before I learned that he was commander of the White League insurrection.
As obnoxious as the monuments are and as important as it is to be rid of them, their removal is ultimately a rearguard action. It in no way challenges dominant neo-liberal ideals, among them that social and racial justice can stop with celebration of our “rich multicultural heritage” and that a “strengthening” economy is one that enriches society’s middle and upper tiers by dispossessing the poor. For reasons that have less to do with an abstraction like white supremacy than with the dynamics of the contemporary political and economic regime, black New Orleanians are disproportionately — but by no means entirely or exclusively — in the ranks of the dispossessed.
Having Suber and other leftists in leadership roles is grounds for hope that Take ‘Em Down NOLA’s struggle over symbolic residues of an obnoxious past can challenge present inequities. But that’s going to require moving beyond the easy assumption — a flawed premise — that “white supremacy” is the source of all our woes, past and present.
The social order those monuments celebrated was basically defeated a half-century or more ago. Class power and exploitation operated through different structures of inequality and dispossession. Insisting that they still do, that white supremacist thinking is still the source of our present ills, may feed a sense of righteous fervor and condense an easy outrage but does nothing to combat an unjust status quo.
Denunciation of Jim Crow-era white supremacy cannot be a stand-in for a critique of the sources of inequality in the present. That kind of displacement — the redirection of political energies into combat with an already defeated social order — makes Take ‘Em Down NOLA unwittingly complicit in the injustices it presumes to oppose.
Take ‘Em Down NOLA is a poor candidate for galvanizing a broader, present-centered egalitarian movement for one stark reason: Its understanding of history and its relation to contemporary life is just as flawed as the one embraced by the monuments’ defenders.
They, too, are prisoners of nostalgia. The monuments were about legitimizing a social order by masking its political and economic foundations within a narrative mythology in celebration of white “heritage.” Antiracist critics all too readily accept that narrative as the old order’s purpose and content, rather than its ideological halo.
This is what is so remarkable about Gary Ross’s film “Free State of Jones,” an antidote to Lost Cause mythology that I think should be shown regularly in schools throughout the region. It shows brilliantly that there was no organic (white) Southern culture grounded in support for slavery or Jim Crow. The treasonous insurrection was entirely a slaveholders’ rebellion. Even within a context of hegemonic white supremacism, many white Southerners were prepared to work in concert with blacks throughout Reconstruction and Populism and beyond, in pursuit of a more just and egalitarian society.
Mistaking the halo of white supremacist celebration for the substance of the regime it legitimized obscures that important point and the possibilities it suggests for alliances against neo-liberalization in the present. By contrast, mistaking halo for substance leads only to demands that the focus of celebration be shifted to the old order’s non-white victims. That’s fine, so far as it goes, but it threatens to limit the struggle for social justice to righting past wrongs at the level of symbolic representation.
Insistence that we take that past and the mythology it produced as the lens through which to understand contemporary, class-based inequality denies the realities of the current ruling regime, which is nothing if not interracial.
Unquestionably, the city is better now that the monuments are gone. We should celebrate their long overdue removal and acknowledge it as a struggle that has culminated in a real victory. Going forward, the right will have a harder time invoking the supremacist “Lost Cause” mythology to distract us from the oppressive character of its program to enrich the already well-to-do.
But the struggle for justice in the here and now will be of far greater benefit to the citizens of New Orleans, none more than African Americans and Latinos. Its proper focus would be on addressing discrimination in housing and criminal justice and on supporting expanded unionization of the hospitality sector, to mention just very obvious arenas that cry out not for self-righteous indignation but careful strategizing.
Success on those fronts will do exponentially more to improve the quality of life in New Orleans than taking down less prominently objectionable statuary and renaming obscure streets.
Adolph Reed Jr., a professor of political science at the University of Pennsylvania, is currently finishing an examination of black politics in New Orleans, pre- and post-Katrina, and a book on the decline and transformation of the left in the U.S. since World War II.
Views expressed in the Opinion section are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Lens founder Karen Gadbois.