“Somebody said to me the other day, ‘You’re fearless.’ And I said, ‘That’s just a lie. I’m not fearless. I’m afraid all the time.’”
Whether it is removing the stain of the Confederacy by removing four monuments from public land or walking headlong into crime plaguing African American neighborhoods in his city, New Orleans Mayor Mitch Landrieu certainly doesn’t sound afraid. “One of the biggest criticisms that I got for the monuments, from people who, by the way, never, ever thought about young African American kids in the city, [was], ‘Mayor, you ought to be concentrating on murder, not monuments,’ ” Landrieu said in the latest episode of “Cape Up,” “And I asked them if they ever thought about the possibility that the monuments were murder. That they represent an institutional indifference that has existed for a long time that actually strangles people’s lives.”
Even over the phone, Landrieu demonstrates why he is one of my favorite public officials. Removing those Confederate monuments, which came after hearings, votes of the City Council and legal challenges to prevent it from happening, put him and anyone else involved in danger. But that didn’t stop him from doing it or speaking out, as he did in a speech on Friday.
“I think it’s hard for people to see the truth. … I want to gently peel people’s hands off of a false narrative of history,” Landrieu told me. Saying those monuments “were put up for a very specific reason,” the mayor explained that “they were designed not to honor the men, not to honor Robert E. Lee, P.G.T. Beauregard, Jefferson Davis. They were put up to send a message [of] who were still in control, notwithstanding the fact the Confederacy lost the war. Now that’s intimidating, and the consequence of that was that people who didn’t feel comfortable here left.”
Before Landrieu made a mark taking on the Confederacy, he was making waves taking on crime in the majority African American city he was twice elected to run. “I didn’t grab this. This problem grabbed me,” Landrieu told Jeffrey Goldberg in a powerful 2015 profile for the Atlantic. “We have basically given up on our African American boys. I’d be a cold son of a [b––––] if I ignored it, if I just focused on the other side of town, or focused just on tourism.” When he, Goldberg and author Ta-Nehisi Coates talked about this issue during a panel at the 2015 Aspen Ideas Festival, Landrieu impressed me because he talked about the issue of violence and the impact on blacks with a passion I hadn’t seen in a Southern white politician — ever.
“I’m not sure you’re seeing it in any politician in the country, not just in the South,” Landrieu told me during the podcast. “I’m proud to be from the South. … But I think we have a very hard time confronting painful issues.” He added: “The problem is everybody wants an easy answer that’s not painful. Well, all of the right answers are not easy and all of them hurt. That’s essentially what I’ve learned as the mayor.”
Listen to the podcast to hear Landrieu talk about how the meaning of “Where there is no justice, there is no peace” changed for him; what poor whites and poor African Americans have in common; what advice Landrieu has for both political parties, and how to deal with race.
“Look, you can’t go over it. You can’t go under it. You can’t go around it. You actually have to walk through it,” Landrieu said. “And walking through it is hard, and it’s painful and it’s uncomfortable. But when you come out the other side, we’re all going to be better off for it.”