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Culture War Roundup for the week of May 1, 2023

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While perusing the Quality Contributions Report, I came across this comment by @FiveHourMarathon. My brief reply turned into a lengthy reply, so I thought I'd put it here rather than in a month-old thread. I hope this isn't too obnoxious.

Here's what sparked my interest:

Engaging in Dissident Rightist's favorite game of Noticing, while decades of immigration and migration have slowly eroded the prominence of the old Francophone Creole elite and Cajun underclass, when you find corruption in Louisiana {and Mississippi} you'll find French names. There's a history of an insular local elite minority, that intermarries and excludes, dating back to Jefferson. Roman Catholicism, the French language, and devotion to preserving their culture. Combined with the legacy of slavery, which produced an unassimilated Black underclass, you had a legacy of a local insular Arcadian/Cajun white underclass which tried to preserve its local traditions, and a local insular Creole elite that tries to preserve its privileges.

Tourist pamphlets play up Louisiana’s French-ness. In reality, the Creole elite has not been in the driver’s seat since Reconstruction, and arguably since before the Civil War. Rather than surviving through clique-ish endogamy, they did it by intermarriage with whomever was profitable at the time. That allowed some of their names and cultural influences to survive to this day, but it also diluted their power. They were ultimately successfully colonized, absorbed, and assimilated by the Americans.

Additionally, Louisiana has multiple black underclasses. The one most people find salient is urban, and it did not arise from the legacy of slavery. Rather, the peculiar institution as it existed under the French and Spanish allowed for the establishment of a functional, educated class of free blacks. This class was eroded by the Americans after the Purchase, but some of its institutions survive to this day. The urban black underclass as we know it arose from the failure of integration in the 1960s. The political coalition that kneecapped integration was not a Creole elite and Cajun underclass, but a distinctly American elite and a working-to-middle class of white ethnics.

In French Louisiana, “Creole” was not one ethnic group or social class. There were multiple intertwined status hierarchies - white, black, owner, laborer, etc. The ones whose descendants identify as Cajun were typically rural, white working poor. Many were French-Canadians exiled from newly English territory after the Seven Years’ War. Not all were an underclass of exploitable labor. Some established independent communities, not beholden to the planter elite. They settled undesirable wetlands outside of New Orleans, where they were proudly self-sufficient as trappers, hunters, and fishermen. Others fell into share-cropping, which trapped generations in indebted poverty. But they never represented a plebeian class jostling in the city streets for their share.

These groups would have quickly died out, had they jealously guarded their French purity. For example, early Louisiana had surprisingly strong German influences. Côte des Allemands was so called for the German farmers who settled there in the 1720s and preserved New Orleans from starvation in its early years. Accordions - God help us - remain integral to Cajun music. Some classically Cajun names are not French, but Gallicized German. The singer Wayne Toups comes from a sprawling Gulf Coast clan, all of them descended from a Germanophone Swiss named Kaspar Dubs.

Creole New Orleans did resist the Spanish when their first governor arrived to take authority. They attempted a coup, which was put down by a rather remarkable Irishman. Alejandro O’Reilly then served as governor long enough to implement reforms, including easier manumission and the abolition of Indian slavery. When the Spanish brought in a couple thousand Canary Islanders to help settle the area, some of these Isleños were absorbed into local communities. Their descendants would eventually show up in the state’s formal power structure. The Creoles absorbed and adapted to the Spanish newcomers. The architecture admired in the French Quarter is almost entirely Spanish, rebuilt after a devastating fire. The stucco double galleries with wrought iron balconies and concealed courtyards look nothing like the original French construction. O’Reilly’s successor as governor, Bernardo de Gálvez, won the favor of the Creoles by immediately marrying into their ranks.

Under the French and then the Spanish, an intermediate social caste of Creole free people of color emerged in New Orleans and environs. The Code Noir and Código Negro were not kind, fluffy, or humane, and their prohibitions against mistreating slaves had no teeth. Haiti is a terrifying monument to Creole cruelty. Nevertheless, these codes were less restrictive than were the Black Codes of the English colonies, and somewhat more favorable to manumission. As late as 1830, 13% of blacks in Louisiana were free, compared to .8% in Anglo-settled Mississippi. Louisiana’s free blacks eventually included a substantial number of educated artisans and some property owners. Most were mixed-race, and some were sent by white fathers to be educated in the metropole. This class established its own Catholic churches and schools, such as St. Augustine or St. Peter Claver in the Treme neighborhood. Entire units of gens de couleur libres served in the French and Spanish colonial militias. I repeat: Creole Louisiana armed the free blacks at scale. The foundation was laid for a healthy, functioning black society with educated, experienced leaders. This foundation was strong enough that its influence persists into the 21st century. The descendants of these people were overrepresented among Civil Rights activists. Homer Plessy was a parishioner of St. Augustine, and A.P. Tureaud of St. Peter Claver. St. Aug High School and Xavier University still stand as examples of black excellence.

Then the Americans came.

When Governor Claiborne took office after the Purchase in 1803, he found a very awkward situation on his hands. By God, these people have a colored militia! His orders from the top were to quietly wind them down. Some blacks still served as late as 1812 and helped Jackson trounce the bloody British downriver at Chalmette. Some were enslaved men fighting for a promise of freedom which was never honored. All in all, American rule would prove a significant downgrade for blacks, both free and enslaved. The somewhat nuanced Creole race classification, obsessed as it had been with gradations like quadroon and octoroon, began to collapse into the Anglo "one drop rule" binary. Also, after the 1807 ban on the African slave trade, the domestic market significantly shifted, and it was in this era that being sold downriver to the Deep South became synonymous with hellish misery. A significant population of Anglophone slaves were brought into Louisiana. Restrictions on manumission, literacy, etc. tightened, often due to fears stoked by slave revolts elsewhere. These fears were not unfounded. The largest slave uprising in U.S. history took place on the German Coast in 1811.

Meanwhile, Americans were moving into Louisiana. They settled the north of the state, in places like Shreveport (shudder). To this day, that whole area is full of Protestants who suspect that Hurricane Katrina was God’s vengeance for New Orleans’ wickedness. It was these people who produced Louisiana’s most talented demagogue, Huey P. Long, and his impressively corrupt political machine. He was beloved by Cajuns for championing the rural parishes against the city folk, but he was not one of them. He was a Southern Baptist from up north in Winnfield. You want to see corruption? Try some little town north of I-10.

The Americans flooded into New Orleans as well. They first settled a neighborhood upriver of the French Quarter. It is now known as the Central Business District; this is not a coincidence. These energetic, mercantile, urbane Americans were culturally quite distinct from the existing Creole elite. The latter were typically country gentry who kept a house in town, like P. G. T. Beauregard. While many Americans became planters themselves, they were overrepresented in business and trade.

They also legally suppressed the French language across the state. Cajun and Creole children were paddled for speaking it in their public schools well into the twentieth century.

The Creoles had… mixed feelings about all this. In New Orleans, Canal Street became an uneasy border between the Anglo- and Francophones. As folk etymology would have it, the median of Canal Street was considered the neutral territory between them, and this is the reason all medians in New Orleans are still called "neutral grounds" to this day.



But ultimately, there was too much money to be made by consorting with the Americans. Creole real estate investor Laurent Millaudon worked alongside New Yorker John Slidell to develop the Carrollton area. Slidell married a Creole named Mathilde Deslondes. The Creoles simply could not afford insularity. Slowly, they began to be absorbed and eclipsed by the Americans. Look at a list of mayors of New Orleans. The Anglo names begin in 1844.

In this antebellum period, European immigrants poured in. The 1840s saw such a massive influx of desperately poor Irish that the city treated them as utterly disposable in building exciting new drainage canals. It was during this time that the Yat accent first emerged in the rows upon rows of “shotgun” houses built for dockworkers and other urban working class. People often remark on how similar the Yat accent sounds to a Brooklyn accent. This is because it was brewed from the same blend of Irish, Italians, Germans, the odd Croat sailmaker, etc.

Antebellum New Orleans began to sprawl up and downriver, swallowing and subdividing and developing one plantation after another. The neighborhoods upriver of the CBD, all the way to where the river bends in Carrollton, are now called Uptown New Orleans. They encompass the Garden District, the mansions of St. Charles Ave, the rolling golf greens of Audubon Park, and the graceful campuses of Tulane and Loyola Universities. This is where the old money still lives. This is where Saints’ players’ children can attend the city’s most expensive K-12, founded by a Jewish philanthropist. To serve this new American New Orleans, Anglican and Presbyterian churches sprang up. So did fraternal organizations and social clubs, including Rex and Comus, the two most prestigious Mardi Gras krewes. These were the faux royal courts attended by a Romanov in 1872 and some Windsors in 1950. All the while, there was considerable intermarriage with the Creoles. If you are favored with an invitation to Rex or Comus’ bal masque on Mardi Gras night 2024, you can read the debutantes’ names in the program yourself. They will be Anglo, French, Anglo, Spanish, Anglo, French - huh, look, an Irish one - Anglo…

On the eve of the Civil War, this was Louisiana’s elite. Not an insular clique of French Creole aristocrats, but a mix of bustling, striving Anglos intermarrying with the French and Spanish stock.

The Yankees captured New Orleans only a year into the war. From that time until the late 1870s, the city (and then most of the state) was ruled by an occupying force or by the Reconstruction government. It was an Anglicized, Americanized elite that “redeemed” the state from the carpetbaggers and scalawags. White Creoles supported and perpetuated white supremacy, of course. But much of the leadership were the sons of New York real estate developers or Maryland lawyers. This was the composition of the White League, the Knights of the White Camellia, and the Klan. The architects of Jim Crow in Louisiana were men with names like John McEnery and Robert Mills Lusher. The movers and shakers, for whom streets are named, included Virginians-by-way-of-Texas like Robert Henry Downman. While the Creoles’ influence lingers still, they never again exercised political or cultural dominance.

Louisiana has long had desperately poor and marginalized black working classes, both urban and rural, which often bled into unsavory and criminal elements. But the black underclass as we know it? That grew out of urban poverty after the 1960s failure of integration. The white leadership who tanked the project of integration were the grandsons of the White League, and the housewives who screamed at Ruby Bridges were mostly Yats or Yat-adjacent. The Creoles were long-conquered, and the Cajuns were damn far away in a swamp or cane field or refinery. When the Yats lost their segregated schools, they fled the city in droves. Their accent is now associated with the suburbs, especially “da Parish” of St. Bernard. New Orleans fell into the downward spiral experienced by so many American cities around the same time.

As for corruption, graft, and slime? Don’t bank on a French name attached. You’ll see all kinds, from Irishmen from Kentucky to Austrian Jews to black farmers’ sons with English names. The word “mafia” first entered the American lexicon through New Orleans newspapers.

Louisiana and its elite are thoroughly colonized by the Americans, and have been for a century. Almost everything that’s fucked up about the place has American fingerprints all over it. It’s so much more complicated than a Creole old boys’ club.