display | more...
Inspired by olmanrvr's recollection of a child's view of bigotry.

New Orleans and the South

New Orleans, as has often been noted, is not a strongly Southern city. Estranged from the majority of the region by its European heritage and language, as well as by its historically urban economy, New Orleans constitutes an odd dilemma: constructed and governed by the French and Spanish during its formative decades, and since left in relative obscurity to celebrate its inexplicable social and cultural rituals (jazz, Mardi Gras, creole and cajun music, food, and demographics), it has always been in the South without being a part of the South.

During the Civil War, New Orleans surrendered embarassingly quickly, prompting General Robert. E. Lee to speculate that the men of the city were better suited to drinking than to fighting. After the war, the rate of integration in New Orleans was substatially higher than any other Southern city, with the result that the most recent estimate claimed that 71% of the metropolitan area was African-American, and almost all neighborhoods are multi-racial.

In New Orleans, the culture of the city is not derived from the Civil War, or from a Northern-Southern dialectic; the old European culture and the contemporary jazz-blues-party culture suffice to define the city to the satisfaction of its residents. The anxieties of the modern era don't provoke revisionist racism in New Orleans; they provoke alcoholism.

There is a statue of General Lee in the downtown area, but no one ever protests, and the only confederate flags one sees are those manufactured by the Nu-South clothing company, which feature African colors. New Orleans' mayor is black; his father was mayor before him, and so on back for a few decades. There were no riots during integration or the Civil Rights movement. David Duke visited New Orleans infrequently, and never won its support in any elections.

Some say the city is too poor, too old to be racist; my father believes that a strong bi-racial culture is to thank, as is the confidence of the city's black population. Knowing about Louis Armstrong perhaps helps New Orleans' minorities feel a bit more comfortable with the city's whites, and vice versa.

In both of my High Schools, one of which is now moving, there were many students of many colors. They intermingled, interacted, and some eventually intermarried. The pathological, hormonal turbulence of adolescence manifested itself in benders and parties, the occasional fights, and some rare episodes of psychotic violence. Race rarely played a part in anything. Nonetheless...

Racism in New Orleans

There were white students who insisted on attaching their identities to the myth of the South, the genteel, plantation-owning aristocracy which never existed (see W. J. Cash and The Mind of the South), but they were fortunately few and generally tolerated with amusement. Their delusion was an historical one, and they never had any idea whatever that the exclusivity of their lily-white fantasy might anger some. Most of them eventually grew up, anyway.

The real genesis of racism in my generation was neither ethnocentric nor historical, but instead comic. To many of the boys growing up in New Orleans, where racism was never taken too seriously, the comedy of racist rhetoric and ideology was entertaining; they pretended to be racist, finding it funny that this seemingly innocuous idiocy could ever offend anyone. "Hey, dude, watch out when you go out with your girlfriend tonight. Some big n***** might just try to get on her, and your dick won't hold up to comparison." Ha.

Of course, most of them grew out of this particularly moronic phase, but the impressionable ones, and the angry ones, and the ones reeling from an absence of sociopolitical identity didn't. Soon their jokes became less self-ironic, more substantively racist, and eventually, they just didn't like black people.

Every time I visit home, now, an old acquaintance will surprise me with racism, failing, evidently, to recall the inane, typically stupid, adolescent-male origin of his now-serious political persuasion. My sister says that her generation has absorbed the reverberations of these jokes and failed to distinguish them from real racism, too. I only recently realized: this is because the jokes were real racism, masked behind humor, hidden so well that even their tellers thought they were harmless. The profound psychological denial of racism was of such potency that black and white students told each other racist jokes and laughed until they cried.

But that's how it happens, I am told.

New Orleans is still stumbling along, nicely and without notable racial tension; the structures of its old, old society are flexible enough to allow progress without giving in, and every year their are more African Americans in Mardi Gras krewes. But that small kernel of intolerance has persisted, impotent but present, and is now perpetuating itself through, of all things, comedy.

At least, that's how I remember it.

Log in or register to write something here or to contact authors.