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What Mitch Landrieu Learned About Racism in the American South

The former New Orleans mayor’s report back from his 11-month tour of the South reveals that racism in the region might be deeper than he imagined.
Mitch Landrieu, then mayor of New Orleans, speaks during a news conference in the city in 2017.
Mitch Landrieu, then mayor of New Orleans, speaks during a news conference in the city in 2017.Jonathan Bachman/Reuters

Last year, former New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu published a book, In the Shadows of Statues: A White Southerner Confronts History, a personal narrative built around his decision to bring down four city monuments dedicated to Confederate and white supremacist causes. He wrote that he grew up with black people in New Orleans, but it wasn’t until a few years ago that he realized that those monuments were offensive to black New Orleanians. ( His buddy, jazz trumpeter Wynton Marsalis, had to explain it to him.) Former Nola.com columnist Jarvis DeBerry pointed out the difficulty of reconciling this, writing that the book’s “saddest and most significant reminder” was that while “white people can choose not to see or think about race ... black people can’t.”

Since his book’s release, Landrieu, currently a fellow at the Harvard Kennedy School Institute of Politics, has embarked on a tour of the South to learn the extent to which white people in this region have been blind to racism. He recently announced the launch of an initiative called E Pluribus Unum that will confront the legacies of slavery and Jim Crow and develop strategies that he hopes will break down the barriers that lead to racial inequities. Last week, the initiative released “Divided by Design,” a near-100 page report summarizing what Landrieu learned about how racism continues to function and dominate throughout the South.