Do black people have the right to make decisions that displease white people? We can distill the Confederate monuments down to that single question. Must the people and the elected representatives in a majority black city consider the feelings and opinions of white people who either a) never lived in that city or b) white flighted themselves out if it?
Monday’s vote in the Louisiana House suggests that that’s what the House believes. The New Orleans City Coucil, which represents a city that is 60 percent black and 33 percent white, voted 6-1 in December 2015 to remove from city property four monuments that glorified the Confederacy and a group of Reconstruction-era white supremacists who attacked an integrated New Orleans police force. The House, whose members represent a state that’s 63 percent white and 33 percent black, voted 65-31 to make it tougher for cities and parishes in the state to remove such monuments. The bill by Rep. Thomas Carmody, R-Shreveport, would require a vote of the people — and not their elected representatives — to take down a monument to anybody who fought in one of our country’s wars.
Look at that symmetry. Louisiana is almost two thirds white, and two thirds of House members who voted Monday supported monuments that were put up to intimidate black people who entertained uppity thoughts.
The Louisiana House’s Black Caucus walked out of the chamber in disgust Monday after most of their white colleagues cast a pro-monument vote. House Speaker Taylor Barras, R-New Iberia, pleaded for those black lawmakers to come back. But to no avail.
Even if the legislation becomes law — meaning that it gets through a hostile Senate committee, the whole Senate passes it and then Gov. John Bel Edwards signs it — it’s not likely to become law until after New Orleans has done what it has set out to do.
The city has already removed monuments to the White League and to Jefferson Davis. The city began dismantling the P.G.T. Beauregard monument Tuesday night, and plans to remove the Robert E. Lee monument faster than the Legislature could conceivably tie the city’s hands.
But that doesn’t make the House vote any less obnoxious. It aims to do what those damned monuments aimed to do: Remind black people in other cities that they’re surrounded by people who are hostile to their interests. It’s a naked exertion of power made by people who don’t live in the jurisdictions they’re attempting to control.
If the power were being exerted by Washington and being felt by Baton Rouge, the same people who voted for Carmody’s bill would be hollering about states’ rights. Rep. Joseph Bouie, D-New Orleans, made that point during debate Monday: “How would we feel if the federal government intervened in Louisiana? I know how we’d feel.” To be clear, not everybody in the Legislature is philosophically opposed to the exertion of federal power. But it’s a safe bet that the people who voted for Carmody’s bill are. Historically, the South has resisted federal intervention because the feds have often intervened to protect black people from state and local officials trying to harm them. These days, Southern legislative bodies crack down on local governments to prevent black people — or other minorities — from helping themselves.
Want a living wage for your city? A hire-local mandate for city projects? A sanctuary city designation? You can pass it, but chances are great that the state’s going to try to put your city in its place. And for many major Southern cities that means white elected officials canceling black elected officials’ initiatives.
“The government closest to the people really should have the most authority for making rules and laws for those people,” Brooks Rainwater, the director of the National League of Cities’ Center for City Solutions and Applied Research, said in a March 2016 interview. And, yet, Rainwater said, states overruling their cities’ laws is something “we are observing more and more.”
In “City Rights in an Era of Preemption,” a February report from the National League of Cities, there’s this finding: “Recent preemption has pitted rural- and suburban-dominated state legislatures against cities with large populations of … ethnic minorities.” Preemption, then, is a way to neuter black political strength.
Preemption is a legal way to quash minimum-wage or anti-discrimination ordinances. But do House members really believe they can tell a city or parish what it can do with its own land?
In a 2016 email about her colleagues’ attempt to prevent monument removal, Sen. Karen Carter Peterson, D-New Orleans, wrote. “I believe that if local government owns property they should control what is placed on it! Pretty simple concept! Not complicated at all.”
At a Tuesday morning press conference about the Monday vote in the House, Peterson was characteristically succinct: “This bill is racist,” she said.
Let’s not pretend otherwise. Let’s not pretend that the House’s reaction to a black city asserting itself is any less obnoxious than the monuments it aims to preserve.