It’s too bad that it took a legislative committee stacked with New Orleanians to stand up for the city’s right to take care of its own business. But that’s what happened Wednesday, when the state Senate and Governmental Affairs Committee rejected a bill by new Franklinton state Sen. Beth Mizell that would have required New Orleans to get approval from a state committee in order to take down the four Jim Crow-era monuments now slated for removal.
And it’s definitely too bad that vote divided committee members by both party and race, with five African-American Democrats uniting to kill the bill over the objections of four white Republicans. The whole discussion over the fate of the statues of Confederate figures Robert E. Lee, Jefferson Davis, P.G.T. Beauregard and the White League, which rose up against Louisiana’s biracial Reconstruction-era government, has exposed deep rifts that clearly go beyond attitudes toward these historic figures and events.
But the outcome of the vote was a good one and reflects not just the proper role of local government but also the supposedly conservative value of local self-rule.
It also happens to uphold the will of the city’s residents, at least according to a new University of New Orleans survey released the same day. Fifty percent of the 403 New Orleanians surveyed last month want the monuments to come down, while 31 percent oppose their removal. The remaining 19 percent offered no opinion.
There was racial division here too, which pollster and UNO political scientist Ed Chervenak figures accounts for a drop in Mayor Mitch Landrieu’s approval rating of white voters from 78 percent in 2013, before he ever advocated taking down the monuments, to 49 percent now. Still, that’s hardly a blanket rejection, and Landrieu’s support among black residents increased over the same period. Overall, the mayor’s approval rating remains at a perfectly respectable 60 percent.
Several of the New Orleans senators on the committee, which is chaired by state Sen. Karen Carter Peterson and includes Vice Chairman Wesley Bishop, J.P. Morrell and Troy Carter, promised the speakers who favored the bill a fair hearing, even if the final vote was easy to predict.
Frankly, what they heard wasn’t any more persuasive than the arguments offered up when the City Council debated and passed the measure to take the monuments down.
Lt. Gov. Billy Nungesser, who oversees tourism, argued that moving the monuments might discourage visitors from traveling to the city. But does anyone think people come to New Orleans just to see Robert E. Lee preside over a busy traffic circle? Besides, if visitors to the area feel they’re missing out, they can always stop by the Civil War-themed museum just down the block.
Mizell, a newly elected Republican, argued that “history is bigger than a single community or the mood of the moment.” But under the same principle that her bill would have undermined, her own constituents are welcome to memorialize anyone they want. The bill also would have taken the decision over what to do about another controversial statue, this one depicting Confederate Gen. Alfred Mouton, out of Lafayette’s hand.
As for the mood of the moment, is there really any expectation that white supremacy or taking up arms against the United States are going to come back into style? Isn’t the understanding that both are wrong a settled matter, not a passing fad or symptom of rampant political correctness?
Some opponents likened the move to the Islamic State destroying historic relics. Big difference here: There was a public debate and vote by a democratically elected council. Sure, there were some legitimate complaints over how Landrieu shaped the process, but that doesn’t make it akin to terrorism.
Nor is it necessarily a slippery slope that will force a whitewashing of all memorials to anyone who doesn’t live up to modern-day standards, as opponents also contended. The four monuments in question were constructed during the Jim Crow period with an eye toward sending a very particular message. Removing them doesn’t amount to refusing to acknowledge history. It just means that the city is no longer willing to celebrate the values they represent.
And after all these months of heated debated, I’m still waiting to hear a good argument as to why the city shouldn’t be allowed to decide that for itself.